Technology can be an absolute lifesaver for students in higher education. It can help you communicate and collaborate, keep you organized, help to improve your writing, and even help expand your future employability. Unfortunately, too many students already have poor tech habits that can undermine their education and future success, such as engaging in portable procrastination and failing to live in the present. These bad habits are not insurmountable, and an excellent place to start overcoming them is by establishing good tech habits to counteract the bad ones. These four positive tech habits will help you be successful not only in higher education, but for the rest of your life.
The Importance of Establishing Good Tech Habits
Most people simply do not have good habits when it comes to technology. Either because they don't know what to do, how to do it, or why doing it is important. Much of this inaction is attributable to the fear of the technology learning curve and the perceived difficulty of using new features and tools. Establishing good tech habits does involve some of that and a small initial time investment, but generally speaking, the four things that I am about to propose can largely be automated (or already are), and require only a short initial learning and set-up period to establish.
The effect of this fairly minimal effort can, however, be dramatic. These good technology habits can help to make sure you never lose a document or file again, are safe from cyber threats, lead a more efficient life, and are intellectually engaged for life. Considering the relatively minimal effort required and the surprising benefits, these might just be four of the most important things you ever do with technology.
4 Tech Habits to Start Cultivating Immediately
As an avid reader of PC Magazine, I have realized that the advice in the monthly publication is most beneficial if I read it in front of my computer with my portable devices at hand. Tips and tricks are only good if you implement them, so I urge you, right now, to sit down, gather all of your hi-tech devices around you and then continue reading.
Backup, Backup, Backup – As with all of these tips, the easier they are to implement and use, the better. But in the world of backing up your data there are easy small scale solutions and more extensive and complicated large-scale ones. Let's start with the day-to-day options that will allow you to simultaneously save your documents locally and online.
- Dropbox – This is the service that I use for my active documents. Dropbox is simple to install and set up. Just download the program. Install it. Create an online account. Move the folders you want to backup into the Dropbox folder, and you are done. From this point forward, any document you save to folders within the Dropbox folder are automatically saved to a remote server – with two gigabytes of free space – and automatically synch to other computers or devices that are connected to the same account. I work on multiple machines, so having my files available in real time wherever I go is a real bonus. Your files are also available through the web interface if you are not on a machine with the Dropbox software installed.
- Google Drive – I initially didn't use this service, despite being a big Google Docs fan, because the files were only stored remotely. Google has changed that with a new desktop app. The creation of this feature now gives Google Drive the exact same functionality as Dropbox, with the additional benefits of five GB of storage and full integration with all other Google tools and services, such as the Google Docs word processing, spreadsheet, and other document creation apps.
- Windows SkyDrive – For the Windows purists, there is a service similar to the previous two called SkyDrive that offers seven GB of free storage and slick integration with the MS Office Suite and Windows 8.
While these are all excellent free options for a majority of your documents, they are not sufficient if you are dealing with large numbers of graphics files or videos. While there are online services for storing those such as Flickr and YouTube, there is a danger that ANY online option could vanish without notification – this goes for the three listed above as well. The only sure-fire way to back up all of your files, as well as the settings you have customized on your machine, is with an external backup drive. This article from TechRadar lists 11 free backup programs and explains how to use them. With any of these, I would recommend an external backup drive with at least 1 Terabyte of storage, which will keep all of your documents, photos, and video clips for several years. Many of these drives will come with their own built-in backup software streamlining the process of protecting all of your files. Back up files weekly or monthly (set an electronic reminder or allow the backup software to self-schedule).
Stay Up-To-Date – This one is far easier to do than backing up your data as most software and your operating systems are set to update automatically. A quick check and an awareness of when your devices ask for permission is all that is required to start making your machines efficient and secure. Sad as it is to say, hackers and online terrorists are continually trying to steal your information and ruin your computers. A good anti-virus suite is a great first line of defense, but making sure that everything on your machine – from the antivirus software, to the OS, and web Browsers – is up-to-date provides an easy to do extra level of protection. Read about my experience with a particularly nasty computer virus to see how real the threat is.
- Setting auto updates – Almost every piece of software on your devices will ask you to enable automatic updates when you install it or first start using the machine. Say "yes!" This is the best way to ensure that the people who have made the software can continually close any security vulnerabilities that are exposed, and proactively head off new ones. If you have already declined the auto update option on some of your programs, you can still turn this feature on. As an example, this video from Miami University demonstrates how to turn on the automatic updates feature for the Windows 7 OS:
- Pay attention – If you are like me, even when you haven't allowed your software to automatically update, you have told it to ask you when it wants to. In that case, you simply need to click "Yes," or "Allow" when your device tells you it has important new features or security patches to install.
- Check Your Software – If you are not sure if your software is up-to-date, installing and running a simple program like Update Checker will do it for you and is easy to set up and use.
Securing your digital life by keeping your devices up-to-date is a skill that will yield benefits now and throughout your life as more important and valuable information finds its way onto your computer and portables.
While being safe and secure in your tech life is important, you are likely to gain the most obvious and immediate benefits from cultivating tech habits that will immediately help to keep your life organized. This is particularly true for students who need to juggle academics, social responsibilities, family obligations, and work. Getting and staying organized early in life is a skill that will continue to bestow benefits throughout your adult life as well.
For anyone with a smart phone or other connected portable device, half the work is already done. For me, one of the most straight forward methods for connecting and organizing my life digitally is to use Google Calendar synched to my iOS device. Regardless of what system you choose to use, there are a few things to be aware of that will help make sure your calendar is consistent and up-to-date across all of your devices.
- Cloud compatibility – Make sure that whatever the primary service you use – Google, iCloud, etc. – the calendar data is stored online and is accessible via the Internet from any device.
- Automatic synching – On whatever your device – iOS, Android, or Windows – make sure that you have told your calendar program to store data both locally and online and to periodically check the web service to refresh it. This video from MacWorld will show you how to set up and synch Google's calendar with an iOS device.
Personally, I like Google because it is easy to use, integrates easily with all platforms, and offers a comprehensive suite of services and applications for free.
- Constant vigilance – The final phase of keeping your calendar digitally organized is to get in the habit of entering the information into the system. No matter how well connected you are, your calendar cannot keep your life scheduled without your help. Whenever an appointment request arrives in your email or you schedule an appointment in person, add the information to your calendar.
You can also use the calendar feature of your devices to schedule intermediate due dates for longer school assignments. For example, if you have a paper due at the end of the semester, schedule reminders for the smaller deliverables in the process such as research, outlines, and drafts. If having a separate to-do or reminder app is appealing, consider an app like Wunderlist which is an elegant to-do app for all the major platforms that also includes web integration.
In addition to keeping your life organized, you should also begin making sure that your digital files are stored in a way that you will be able to keep them and access them going forward. This information from HowStuffWorks explains some of the basic steps for keeping your computer files organized and available for as long as you need.
While there are paid services that do the things mentioned above, the tips outlined can all be achieved for free. That is the great part about technology. In my March, 2013 post, "How to Get by in College without Microsoft Office!" I outline several ways in which you can use free office suites to complete a higher education degree. There is little or no reason to be beholden to Microsoft for their expensive office suite when options like Apache Open Office, LibreOffice, or Google Drive provide nearly identical functionality and compatibility with the wider computational world.
In addition to free office software and the free security and organizational options mentioned above there is a world of additional free software available that can enhance your life both academically and in terms of entertainment. In "5 Ways that Technology Can Undermine Your Higher Education" I describe not only ways in which technology can hinder your academic progress, but also alternative options for using technology to enhance your intellectual advancement. Among the free options presented in that piece are eReaders packed with free classic texts, downloaded educational videos from Khan Academy, TED, iTunesU, or PBS, or free intellectually stimulating apps from the iTunes App store, Google Play, or Amazon, to fill your devices. Browse free resources and make a commitment to yourself to be intellectually engaged, and you will be sure to start one tech habit that will be a benefit to you, and the rest of society going forward.
Getting Started and Sticking With It
There is a lot of information above and that can be overwhelming. As with all things technological, there is a learning curve that will need to be overcome in order to implement these tech habits that will make your life better. The secret to success is to commit. Find one or two of the tips above that seem most important to you right now and that don't seem overwhelming, such as digitizing your calendar, and make them a high priority. Once you have begun, you will need to stick with it. The really good news is that the human brain is so adaptable that it can easily adjust to new technology and incorporate it into new patterns of behavior. So the sooner you start with these four strategies for developing positive, lifelong tech habits, the easier it will be, and the better off you will be for the rest of your life.