How to Keep Your Work Private


Q. Many of the CPAs in our firm divide their work time between our office, clients’ facilities and their homes. As a result, we share desks—and computers—in the office. When you launch Word, Excel and Access, the applications reveal the last few files that were used. While that’s a good idea when you’re the sole computer user, I’m uncomfortable with the arrangement when I have to share the machine. It’s not that I have secrets, but there are times I’d rather not broadcast which files I recently opened. Is there a way to override that function?

A. Here’s a case where a software convenience can not only intrude on privacy but can also create an inconvenience. Actually, the Windows operating system and each of the Microsoft applications contain separate functions that track which files were last opened—all designed so users can easily access frequently used files. There are ways to disable some of the functions, but not permanently; another user can easily re-enable them. First I’ll tell you how to disable them and then I’ll tell you a really neat, undocumented way to selectively erase from Windows’ memory the fact that one or more files were ever opened. Ssshh, it’s very cloak-and-dagger.

System history. If you click on Start, Documents, you’ll see a list of the most recently opened files in all your applications. It’s an easy way to open any of those files with a click. You can clear that list in one step by clicking on Start, Settings, Task Bar & Start Menu, Start Menu Programs, then selecting the Start Menu Programs tab and clicking on the Clear radio button.

Caution: That step will clear only the list of the most recently opened files; it will not turn off the function that will continue to collect that information in the future. If you open a file after you clear the history, the function will record that file. If you want to be sure no one knows what files you opened, you must clear the history, as described above, as the last thing you do before leaving the computer.

Click on Clear to remove the record of recently accessed files. The names of the most recently opened files appear under the File menu.

Application history. Each of the Microsoft Office applications contains a function that stores its most recently opened files. Those functions can be disabled or told to remember up to nine files. To view the recently opened files in Word and Excel, click on File. At the bottom of the menu that appears is a list of the most recently opened files.

You can turn off that function, in part or entirely, by going to the toolbar and clicking Tools, Options, and then opening the General tab. In the middle of the screen will be a Recently used files list: option. Uncheck it, and the next time the computer is booted up, the list won’t appear.

Uncheck Recently used file list: to stop the recording of recently opened files.

Now for the stealth way to remove one or more recently opened files that show up when you click on the File menu in Word. Mind you, it works only in Word.

Start Word and press Ctrl+Atl+– (that’s Control and Alt and the minus key, the key to the left of the equal [=] key.) You’ll notice that the cursor changes into a very thick dash. Click on File. Then, when the recently opened files appear at the bottom of the menu, click on the document you want to remove from the list and its name will vanish—not the file, just the listing. You can remove as many as you wish that way. To clear the dash, press the Esc key.

When the next Word user clicks on File, all the recently used files except those you removed from the history list will appear. But be aware that any file you remove will still show up when you click on Start, Document; to prevent that, you must clear the Document list as shown above.

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