The 21 worst tech habits—and how to break them

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8.  Failing to back up data

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Everything is zipping along just swimmingly until one day it suddenly isn’t. Maybe it’s a hard-drive crash, maybe it’s a malware infestation, maybe it’s a stolen laptop. One way or another, your data has abruptly vanished, and you’re left crying that you should have been backing up your data.

The excuses for not backing up your data are becoming increasingly thin. Any number of online backup services will sync your files automatically with a cloud-storage system, whether you use a PC, a tablet, or a phone. Don’t be lulled into thinking that you have nothing important on that device. Whether it’s a forgotten baby picture or a game save on the verge of hitting 100 percent completion, you’ll feel differently once it’s gone.

Fix: With most backup systems now, you don’t need to do anything except install an app and set it up. If that’s too much effort, well, perhaps it’s time to go back to pen and paper.

9.  Reusing passwords over and over

We are all guilty when it comes to this bad habit. How are you supposed to remember your 100th different password for the latest social network you’ve joined? You take the easy way out and reuse a password that has worked for you time and time again.

Password “strength” is a bit illusory. All it takes is one website that doesn’t store passwords securely and gets hacked, or one old and unencrypted hard drive that’s sloppily disposed of, to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down, no matter how many numbers, uppercase letters, and special characters you use.

Fix: The solution involves coming up with a system to build a unique password based on each website where you use it. Build from a base phrase and, for each site, add something unique to it. Take, say, Flurpb&rgl3r as a base and add fb8 to the end for Facebook, or tw7 for Twitter. (In this example, the numerical component of the end tag is the number of characters that the site name has.)

Presto: a password that you won’t forget but is virtually impossible to crack.

10.  One account, multiple users

A parent’s typical move, when giving a child his or her first computer, is to hand it over and hope for the best. Mom then wonders where her address book went, and her boss wonders why she sent him 20 email messages full of gibberish.

Fix: Setting up multiple user ac­­counts on Windows isn’t difficult, and it’s an incredibly prudent precaution if more than one person is going to use the machine. Never mind the privacy issues—accidents happen, even among grown-ups sharing a PC. Having two people working on different files called “resume.doc” can only end in heartache.

For children, security and safety are bigger concerns. Setting up kids with Standard User accounts (instead of Administrator) is the wise thing to do to keep unwanted software from being installed, and it’s the key to letting you configure parental controls on the computer, as well. So next time Junior wants to use your PC “real quick, just to look something up,” tell him sure, and give him his own account.

11.  Failing to update

Software published today is updated on a near-constant schedule. If you have a few dozen apps on your smartphone or tablet, you’ve probably become accustomed to downloading updates on a daily basis—unless you’re one of those people who never update anything.

Software updates are released for a variety of reasons. The application’s developers add features, fix bugs, and plug security holes. Installing updates upon release—particularly operating system updates and security software updates—is essential to keeping your device stable and secure.

Fix: Every application has to be updated, so it’s forgivable if you don’t want to deal with the constant nagging to install, reboot, and repeat every day. Automatic updates take some of the hassle out of this operation, but most software updates today still have to be manually installed. There’s no easy solution to this. If immediately installing updates when they appear in the system tray or on your handset doesn’t fit with your computing habits, make it a weekly event to update everything all at once—perhaps after you take out the trash.

12.  Printing anything

Worst Tech HabitsPhotograph by Robert Cardin
Save paper and don’t print anything. Your documents are (or can be) archived online.

You’ve seen the request at the bottom of so many email messages: “Please consider the environment before printing this email.” Is that really necessary in 2013? Who is not considering the environment? And more important, who is still printing out their email?

In an age of $75 terabyte hard drives and endless cloud storage, why does anything that starts out in digital format, such as email, ever need to go back to paper? Even utility and bank statements are archived online (often for years), much safer as backups than the ones sitting in file cabinets in your house.

What legitimately needs to be printed? The only thing I can come up with is mailing labels for products that have to be physically shipped somewhere, and maybe the packing slips or receipts that are included with those packages. Also arguably acceptable is the occasional printed photograph that you’d like to frame and put on the wall.

Fix: Unplug your printer and stick it in a closet for a week. See if you can’t go paperless, cold turkey.

13.  Faxing, ever

As bad a habit as printing is, faxing is infinitely worse. Here, you have the opportunity to break the paper cycle, but instead you’re continuing it, indeed worsening it by duplicating the paper and possibly racking up long-distance telephone charges in the process.

No disrespect to the fax machine. It was a critical piece of apparatus in American business for years, but now it is an outdated relic on a par with the dial-up modem. Yes, technology has improved—you can even send color faxes now—but quality really has not. Most faxed documents are still difficult to read, still come out askew, and are often incomplete, cut off by a paper jam or a problem with the phone line. Many people resort to faxes when they need to send a signed document to another party, but in many cases a fax with a signature may not even be legally acceptable.

Fix: Fortunately, for most people, faxing is a fairly easy habit to break. Just staring at the pile of junk faxes that most businesses continue to receive is impetus enough. While your fax machine may be attached to an otherwise useful all-in-one printer, you can simply unplug it from the phone line, and save a few bucks a month if you’re paying for a second line for it. Plenty of free or cheap services can let you send a digital fax, should you really need to do so.

14.  Throwing computer equipment in the trash

If you’ve been a computer user for any length of time, you’ve probably accumulated dozens of old peripherals, outdated or broken laptops, ancient cell phones, and gobs of cables. What do you do with that mountain of telephone wire that came with every modem you ever bought? What about all those old red-white-and-yellow A/V cables bundled with the VCRs of yesteryear?

Much of this material unfortunately ends up in landfills. Some, like telephone wire, isn’t exactly hazardous, but anything with a battery or a circuit board in it probably is. (Modern electronics typically aren’t as toxic as older stuff, but that isn’t what you’re throwing away, is it?)

Fix: The good news is that you can fairly easily recycle most of this junk, even broken cables and defunct printers. E-waste events are common in many neighborhoods, and both Goodwill and Best Buy will take just about anything off your hands for reuse, resale, or recycling.

Don’t forget to scrub personal data from any hard drive or flash drive you recycle. Use a multipass wiping tool such as BCWipe to make sure that last year’s tax returns don’t end up in someone else’s hands.

15.  Not reading the FAQs

When trouble arises online—as it always does—the knee-jerk reaction is to open a support ticket or call the help desk immediately. Then you’ll spend half an hour on hold waiting for someone who probably can’t do much to help you.

Fix: Make it a habit to remember the FAQs. Companies love to create Frequently Asked Questions pages because they really do answer a lot of common concerns. While some FAQs are more thorough than others, they’re always worth a quick spin to see if you can’t find a quick answer to what you believe is a unique problem. Use the search feature on your browser to scan a large document for your trouble keywords.

16.  Oversharing on social media

It’s good news that you finally resolved your bunion problems. We got a kick out of that picture of the syrup puddle on your breakfast waffles. And the story about the squeaky dog toy you bought was also a gem.

Yes, complaining about banal stories, photos, and comments on Facebook and other social media sites has become a First World Problem of the greatest order, but considering how intertwined social media and the business world have become, the person likely to suffer the most is the one who does the blathering.

Fix: If you’re at all concerned about your appearance in the world, try to keep comments unique and unexpected. Dutifully copying the latest “Follow these instructions or else!” post on Facebook is no better than mailing chain letters to all your friends. Restrict social media chatter to a few posts a day. You can post the rest of your conspiracy theories ad nauseam to your blog.

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