You bite your nails. Your house is a sty. You never signal before changing lanes, and when you finally reach your destination, you’re 30 minutes late.
We all have bad habits in real life. Why can’t technology help cure them? While technology should help us break bad habits, all too often it makes things worse.
Are you guilty of a bad tech habit? Here are 21 of the worst technology-oriented habits, plus potential fixes for all of them. (And we have a bonus at the end, on mending bad email habits.)
1. Leaving equipment in plain sight
The typical gadget isn’t stolen by thieves who’ve done lots of planning. No, most gadget heists are conceived and executed in seconds, and probably because you left the item unattended. That cozy window corner at the café is great until you need to run back to the counter for a refill. A thief can pop in, grab your device, and be gone. Gadgetry is also commonly snapped up from airport security conveyers (sadly, sometimes by TSA agents themselves) while you’re waiting for your body scan. Your locked car isn’t safe, either. An eager crook will happily smash your window and grab the laptop bag from the passenger seat, even in broad daylight.
Fix: Don’t leave laptops and other gadgets unattended. Yes, that means you must either take them to the bathroom or leave them with someone you trust. At a café, it doesn’t hurt to ask the staff if you can leave something behind the counter for a minute. In any case, skip asking, “Can you watch this for me?” and pointing at your PC across the room.
2. Oblivious gadget usage
Here’s how street hoods steal your phone. They lurk at the top of the stairs as you emerge from the subway, or sneak up behind you while you’re lounging at an outdoor café. Either way, you have no idea they’re there, because your nose is buried in your smartphone’s Facebook feed. Next thing you know, you’ve been punched in the face, and the thieves are dashing off to a getaway car. Can you identify the suspects? No, because the last thing you saw before it happened was a picture of a puppy.
Fix: Everyone uses phones everywhere, so it doesn’t feel risky to break one out on the train or while walking home in the dark. But electronics remain some of the most easily fenced items on the black market, and it pays to keep your wits about you when using them in an unknown situation. Make it a policy to limit mobile device usage to areas where you’re completely certain you won’t be the victim of a smash-and-grab attack. That goes double for using your phone while you’re driving. Don’t become another statistic!
3. Using your devices with dirty hands
Anyone who has ever handed a cell phone to a child knows that the device will come back covered in a crust of dirt, crumbs, chocolate, and sneeze spray.
But you aren’t much better. Playing Bejeweled while downing a burrito won’t leave your phone looking fresh, and holding your phone against your face to talk may leave an oily shadow behind.
This isn’t just gross, but brings health risks, too: The old adage that your keyboard is dirtier than your toilet applies to your phone, as well. One report last year claimed that a Ugandan thief contracted Ebola from a stolen phone.
Fix: Keep an electronics-cleaning vial on your desk in plain view. Clean your phone, tablet, and other touchscreen devices daily. Add a quick wipe-down any time you see visible grime.
4. Not cleaning your equipment
We covered the problem of filthy touchscreens (increasingly problematic in the Windows 8 era) in the #3 item, above. But what about everything else?
Literally everything in your high-tech arsenal is vulnerable to damage from dust and dirt. Grime seeps in through any crack and crevice, but machines such as desktops, laptops, and even printers, which have air-intake vents for cooling, are the most affected. Dust generally won’t damage electronics, but it can clog fans, optical-drive mechanisms, and other moving parts, which can lead to component failures and overheating if the fans stop working properly. Dust in scanners and printers can affect the quality of your printouts, too.
Fix: Cleaning your equipment isn’t hard, but it’s important to do so regularly before things build up too much. Once or twice a year should do it. Can’t remember? Try cleaning out your PC at the same time you replace the filter on your furnace or air conditioner, or whenever you get the oil on your car changed. A calendar reminder on your PC can help, too.
5. Sitting with bad posture at the computer
The posture lessons, cautionary tales, and ergonomic gadgets of the past 30 years have apparently taught us nothing, and as a result, carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common form of neurological syndrome called entrapment neuropathy, affecting 5.8 percent of the population. The typical treatment, even for moderate cases, is surgery. And all because you were too lazy to sit up straight.
Fix: Fixing this problem requires a proper work environment. Keep your chair at a height so that your knees bend at a 90-degree angle; also keep your feet flat on the floor, your monitor directly in front with the top of the screen at eye level, and your keyboard placed so your wrists are parallel with the floor.
This is easier said than done if, as it is for many, your office is now a Starbucks. But Imak Computer Gloves can keep your wrist at the correct typing angle and cushion your hand—an easy solution that you can drop into your gadget bag.
6. Not taking breaks
Most parents have no trouble limiting their children’s screen time, but they find it harder to put down their laptops or smartphones when work demands action (or Angry Birds chirps).
Breaks are essential to good health. Your joints, muscular system, circulatory system, and eyes all benefit from a change of scenery once in a while. Remaining in a seated position for extended periods of time can cause blood clots (sometimes even fatal ones). And staring at a screen for hours on end can cause eyestrain that may affect your vision afterward and make it dangerous to drive home.
Fix: Fortunately, programs such as Scirocco Take a Break, mobile apps, and Web browser plug-ins can remind you to step away from your gadgets, stretch your legs, get a drink of water, or call it a day on your computer time.
Another easy way to remedy the problem is to keep, at all times, a very large glass of water at your desk (the solution for another bad habit: failure to hydrate). Sipping a gulp from that glass of water regularly will force you to take an occasional break to the bathroom.
7. Working with your laptop on your lap
Yes, they call it a laptop, but you weren’t supposed to take that literally. Using your laptop on your lap can lead to a whole host of problems, many caused by the heat that most laptops spew from their undersides. The maladies can range from simple skin dryness and discoloration to reduced sperm count to—the jury’s still out on this one—cancer.
Heat isn’t the only problem. Placing a heavy object across your thighs for hours on end can cause neurological damage, particularly when coupled with the typical laptop-on-lap posture: hunched over, legs outstretched, neck craned. Arthritis can also develop over time.
Fix: Fixes aren’t easy unless you want to move your desk into the living room so you can watch Game of Thrones while you work. Instead, start with a lap desk that shields your thighs from heat, and follow the break-taking tips outlined in item #6. Periodically shifting your laptop from one leg to the other can help. Avoid working on your laptop with your legs outstretched on the coffee table, too. Your nervous and muscular systems will be in better alignment if you keep your knees bent and your feet on the floor.
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
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.
17. Texting at the table
Really? It’s that important? We all love our smartphones, but using them in the company of others, particularly at mealtime, is just plain rude. (It’s also gross. See item #3.)
What about the phone-in-the-lap trick? Not kosher. Even Emily Post says so. And that goes for any kind of social situation, whether it’s school, work, or a simple conversation with someone else.
Fix: If you must deal with another conversation, voice- or text-based, take it to another room or outside. And be sure to make the “no phones at the table” rule apply to everyone in your household, including yourself
18. Using your phone or tablet without a case
How will it end? Eventually your phone or tablet will die. The battery may explode. The CPU may melt down. Cosmic rays may fry the RAM. But realistically, you will probably just drop it.
No matter how sure-handed you are, and no matter how carefully you treat your devices, one day they are going to slip out of a pocket, or simply fall to the ground when someone’s elbow bumps against you.
Fix: The only solution is to enshroud your gadgets in cases—thick, sturdy ones. The flippy Smart Cover for your iPad is useless when a preteen fumbles it to the tile. Go for a thick rubber or silicone case that covers every corner of the device, such as the Otterbox Defender. A thinner, plastic case may do the job, but replace it when it becomes damaged.
19. Failing to pick up the phone
The phone rings. You look at the number and don’t recognize it. You let it go to voicemail, and that little red light blinks all day until you finally get around to playing the message.
Technology has given us a half-dozen ways to communicate with one another—virtually all at the expense of the fastest and most expedient, the telephone. It’s easy to understand why we don’t answer the phone anymore: We likely don’t want to talk to a solicitor, a pitchman, or a robotic telemarketer.
Fix: We’re not talking about breaking the rule against texting at the table (item #17), but a blanket policy against answering the phone may not make sense. Consider how much faster it would be to answer a simple question via voice than to read and respond to a long email message. Imagine that your $500-an-hour attorney is the one who is calling. Do you really want to force him to spend 10 minutes writing an email to you when he could have told you something on the phone in 30 seconds?
20. Failing to silence your phone
These days, just about every public performance begins with an entreaty to the audience to mute or turn off their cell phones. Thirty minutes later, the unmistakable jingle “Marimba” makes its presence, and its clueless owner, known.
Cell phones that erupt at the most inappropriate times are a cultural epidemic, and ironically it’s likely because we have heard so many commands to shut our phones off that we simply don’t hear them at all anymore.
Fix: While you likely can’t fix the behavior of the person sitting next to you, at least you can ensure you aren’t part of the problem. Simply make your default setting “ringer off.” Turn the ringer on only when you know you’re going to need to hear it ring—that is, any time it’s not in a pocket and out of arm’s reach.
21. Never rebooting
For all their advances in reliability, our gadgets remain incredibly susceptible to minor bugs of all kinds. Memory leaks are still rampant in Windows applications, flooding your RAM to make it unusable. Numerous applications still require reboots after they’re installed or updated, and the app will be stuck in limbo until that reboot occurs.
Windows 8 has improved reboot times (and reboot frequency), but every operating system—whether desktop or mobile—benefits from an occasional reboot. Think of it as a good night’s sleep for a device: A reboot lets it start fresh, free of digital baggage. A reboot may improve your device’s battery life.
Fix: Build rebooting into the natural downtime of your day, typically when you go to bed. Reboot your device to give it a refresh. Better yet, turn it off completely and save energy.
Bonus: Fix these bad email habits
Keeping a full inbox (clean it out!)
Treat your inbox like your desk, with only essentials you need at that moment. As for everything else, file it, delete it, or transfer it to the calendar. Some task management approaches favor “inbox zero” (making your inbox totally empty), but the “no-scroll” goal (all inbox contents on a single screen) is more reachable for many.
Responding to spam (don’t!)
There’s a difference between a mailing list or a promotional newsletter you signed up for and spam. The first you can unsubscribe from—and you should, liberally—the second you cannot. Use unsubscribe links for the former and invest in a spam filter for the latter. If spam becomes such a problem that you can’t manage it, consider the nuclear option: changing your email address.
Answering instantly (think first!)
It’s tempting to write back to an email as quickly as possible so you can get it off your plate (and out of your inbox), but doing that can create its own problems. Consider setting your email client to delay its send/receive operation by 10 or 15 minutes. This gives you the chance to edit a message, add something to it (so that there is no second message, thereby keeping down the overall number of messages that you’re sending), and avoid the “I accidentally hit the Send button” goof-up. More critically, a delay lets the recipient know you took time to put together a thoughtful reply.
Replying to all (stop!)
One reason our inboxes are so full: We send so much email. Bob sends an email to a dozen people because he doesn’t know who can help him solve a problem—and those dozen people then reply to everyone. Use ‘Reply to All’ sparingly, and be certain every recipient on an email thread needs to read your response.
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Christopher Null is a veteran technology and business journalist. He contributes regularly to TechHive, PCWorld, and Wired, and operates the websites Drinkhacker and Film Racket. Disclosure: He also writes for Hewlett-Packad's marketing website TechBeacon.