The 21 worst tech habits -- and how to break them

Your keyboard is just one spill away from dark roast Armageddon. Sound familiar? Then you have a very bad tech habit, friend

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 It was a critical piece of apparatus in American business for years, but now it is an outdated relic on a par with the dial-up modem.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If you've been a computer user for any length of time, you've probably accumulated dozens of old peripherals, outdated or broken laptops, ancient cell phones, and gobs of cables.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

eally? 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.

This story, "The 21 worst tech habits -- and how to break them" was originally published by PCWorld.

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