How to Remember Your Computer Passwords
Why are passwords so hard to remember? Why does there have to be such a fine balance between security and ease of use?
While I may not be able to answer these questions, I can certainly help you remedy the problem. As a software developer, I'm well-acquainted with it myself. I have oodles of passwords for everything you can imagine, both at work and at home. While my system of keeping track of them all may not work for you, I don't intend to share it directly. Instead, I will provide some pointers on how you can make my system (or at least, the underlying concepts) work for you, the way you want it to.
The idea here is for you to take these tips and mix and match them to suit your own needs and preferences. There isn't a single password system that would work for anyone, any time. Each person has his or her own unique likes and dislikes, and style of working and organizing things. Of course, this includes how we track passwords. Therefore, I intend to share pointers that work with any style, and quite a few of them. You can take the ones you like and use them together, or even just pick one and stick with that one. They may even spark ideas of your own. Either way, hopefully you'll have a lot less trouble remembering your passwords!
The first set of ideas are simply memory tricks - things that help you keep your password in your mind, or help it to be more readily available.
Tip 1: Mental Health
The human brain is an amazing thing, but like a machine, it needs to be well-oiled to work properly. The first tip is to start memorizing things! Now, the good news is, I'm not telling you to memorize your passwords. That's not the point of this at all! The point is to get your brain used to remembering and storing things. If you are constantly forgetting things, and you don't make any effort to change that, how can you expect to remember passwords? Good passwords are probably the most difficult thing you'll ever have to remember! Just think about it - everything else is either numbers or letters. The only thing that's a combination of both is your address - and even that is broken up into a number, and a word or two. It's easier with structure.
Tip 2: Structure
That's the second key. Besides keeping your mind sharp by doing logic puzzles and memory exercises, you need to create some sort of structure for your passwords. I'm not referring to a specific password - I'm referring to a general class of passwords. This class should be something that no one else uses, something you came up with on your own. It can be anything, any category of words or ideas.
For instance, you could decide that your password class is going to be the different breeds of dogs. Now, that's not ALL your passwords would consist of, obviously. There are more tricks later on to describe that. For now, just remember that this category should strictly apply to every single one of your passwords. Doggy would be a terrible example, because it's exactly what a computer thief is after. It's a common, cute expression used to describe a dog - very easy to guess. No, you want specifics - terrier, yorkshire, spaniel, labrador. Preferably single words, these form the 'base' of your password, which we'll modify and work with later to form a real password. Mutt is another one to avoid in this instance, because it's a commonly used word, rather than being specific.
By themselves, these words would still be incredibly easy to guess. However, when combined with the other ideas here, this makes a powerful tool and a great start to begin giving your passwords some structure. Here are a couple final ideas for this class/category tip:
-When you want to change your password, use a different type in the same class. Go from greyhound to dachsund (while still applying the other techniques below).
-Have a different class/category system for every single website or login or system that you will need a password for. Also, it will really help if you choose a category related to that particular website, especially if that's something unique to yourself that no one else would understand - sort of like an inside joke. For example, don't choose dogs as your category/class on a pet products website - that would be far too obvious. Instead, choose something that reminds you of your favorite dog, or something that owning a dog led you into. Let's say your dog ran you into a bookstore one day and you unintentionally became a bookworm. Thus, as your category for that particular website, you could choose your favorite book titles or genres. The fact that you're shopping for dog toys for that dog that helped you become a bookworm will remind you of your password, in a way that it wouldn't do for anyone else. This is just one example though - think about each website or system long enough, and you'll come up with ample ideas of your own.
Mixing It Up
Now, obviously just a word is not enough by itself to form any kind of secure password. It requires a lot more; most passwords have strict requirements around them. Some must contain at least one capital letter and one lowercase letter, and others may even require special characters. These requirements can make passwords exceedingly hard to remember.
I have some very helpful tips for you in this area.
Tip 3: Special Characters
Special characters can be taken care of in one shot: pick a favorite one, and stick with it! Use it in ALL of your passwords that require special characters. Why is this a good thing? Doesn't it make your password easier to guess, since you use the same special character for everything?
Absolutely not! It's only a single, itty bitty character. Keeping something this small the same every time, for the sake of helping to remember it, is a really helpful tool. If you feel comfortable with it, you can change them from time to time. Here's one easy way to do this: when you change one password, change them all. Use a different special character than you were using before, but you can still use the same special character for all your passwords. To sum up this tip, take the hardest part of the password to remember, and make it the easiest by always using the same one.
Now, on the other hand, I would always recommend using a special character, even if it's not required. Some password systems don't allow them; in this case, you have no choice. When you are allowed to use one, however, it does add substantially to the strength of your password, and I highly recommend it - especially since it should now be the easiest part to remember!
Tip 4: Numbers
Now we get to the most interesting part: numbers. Most, if not all, password systems require the use of numbers, and basically all of them allow it. If numbers aren't allowed, chances are it's not a very strong password system to begin with.
How in the world are you supposed to come up with a set of random numbers, and then remember it, when there is no way you could possibly attach any meaning to them?
The answer is, you can't. It's completely beyond the scope of how the human mind works. Memory typically is most strongly indexed one of four ways: by smell, by location, by interest, or by repetition. However, all four of these occur by a singular mechanism: association. Your brain naturally wants to associate something it remembers with something else. Think of it like a label on a folder. When you put items in a folder, you don't forget to put a label on the folder. Otherwise, you'll see the folder later and actually have to open it up to see what's inside. Even a single word or idea is often enough to spark the memory of most, if not all, of the contents.
The same can apply to numbers in your password. Here are several tricks for coming up with a way that makes it easier for you to remember the numbers in your password.
If you didn't understand the numbers above, you've never heard of "Leet Speak" - a system of using numbers to represent letters. Here is a basic guide, though many letters have no obvious choice for a number and can simply be used as they are:
0 = 0, 1 = I, 2 = Z, 3 = E, 4 = A or T, 5 = S, 7 = L, 8 = B
The numbers 6 and 9 aren't all that useful as letters, either. Limited as it may be, this system still gives you a great way to replace some letters in your password with numbers, and only have to remember where the 6's and 9's go! For example, "Labrador" from above could be changed to:
Now, this isn't exactly right, either! Now it's more confusing and doesn't immediately make you think "labrador." It looks like techno-gibberish (because that's what it is!)
Instead, make strategic replacements so that the word is still somewhat recognizable. Don't have a huge clump of numbers, but don't use mostly letters, either.
As you can see, judicial use of leet speak can really strengthen those passwords, and still make the numbers easy (or at least easier) to remember. As an added bonus, words written entirely in leet speak can be spelled out on a calculator!
If leet speak doesn't appeal to you, don't worry; there are plenty more ideas to come. One of them is to write down only the numbers in your passwords, not the password itself. This will help you remember the difficult part, and also give you an index - a number you can attach to the password. For instance, when you see the numbers "931" written down, it may help you remember "oh yes! that's my password for <such and such website> which I now recall is
This idea may seem to violate one of the unspoken laws of password protection: never write down your password! In this case, we're only writing part of it, and only the most unintelligible part. Besides that, someone looking at the number may not even realize it's part of a password. Even if they did, they'd be hard-pressed to figure out which website or computer system it belongs to, especially without any context. As the password creator, you have valuable association knowledge that a cyber criminal wouldn't have, and would have no way to steal. You could even create a code-word for each website, and write these code words next to the numbers. For instance, "Google" could be "Flugelhorn" (rhymes can really help as well) and then you write the number part of your Google password next to the word "Flugelhorn" which to someone reading your piece of paper, would make no sense at all. However, when you see it, you read "Flugelhorn" knowing this is your password index, and it rhymes with "Google" and then you would think "ah yes, this is the number part of my Google password."
The real trick here is that once you begin using such a system, and become familiar with it and use it for all your websites (using different passwords for each, mind you!) then it will become a habit. You may even find that you don't need to write your code words down any more. Soon you may even train your brain to remember the number part along with the word part, with no trouble.
This idea is the most difficult, and recommended for more advanced users. However, you're certainly welcome to try it - I'm just giving you a fair warning. It's more involved than the other approaches, and the idea itself is somewhat complex. Yet used properly, it can be one of the most effective.
The main purpose here is to be able to reconstruct the same number that you originally chose when you created the password, without having to memorize it or write it down. This could be considered an assisted memory technique - using association to your advantage.
Unlike the others, I can't give as concrete examples for this tip. That's because the scheme should be something unique to you, that only you understand and are able to use.
Here is a simple idea which is not recommended, but conveys the general theme:
In the password LabrAdoR, three letters are capital letters: L, A, and R. These are letters 1, 5, and 8. Therefore, you not only have a password, but a set of numbers related to that password. Therefore, it makes logical sense to use those numbers as part of the password. Hence, your password in this case could be LabrAdoR158. If you prefer, you could even pick a standard "scheme" and use that instead, so it isn't always letters and then numbers, in their own distinct blocks. For instance, you could have the first block of letters, Labr, then two of the numbers, 15, then the rest. So your password would be Labr15AdoR8. As with the other ideas, if you simply pick one that works for you and stick to it, it can be incredibly helpful.
Tip 5: Word Ciphers
Now, don't freak out by reading the word "cipher." That makes this sound more difficult, but it really isn't. This is simply a way of being able to remember something besides your password - something which you can use, if necessary, to reconstruct the same password later.
Here I will provide an example that, though I would discourage you from actually using, should give you the gist of what a word cipher is. I'm sure you can think up ideas of your own that will be far more secure (and, since you thought of them, easier to remember).
First, think of four random words. They can be a phrase, or just nonsense - though the more random they are, the better. If using a phrase helps you remember it better, do that if you must.
Now, don't write the words down just yet. These should preferably be long words - not all of them need be, but at least one or two. If you can come up with ones that are all different sized, that is the best. Just keep them firmly in your mind.
Next, in your mind, pick one or two of the words to be "special" and remember which ones those are. Recall firmly which words are "special" and which aren't.
Now, you can write down the words. Write down the special words in ALL CAPS, and the normal words in all lowercase. For instance, let's say you came up with:
regular HALT utopia FORGOTTEN
Get the idea? Random and unintelligible. If I told you this was my password, would you have any idea of what it means, or how to use it as a password? (before reading the following paragraph, that is?)
The cool part is, it actually IS a complete password. Take the first letter of each word, using the letters as shown (whether capitals or not). Next put four numbers after it which are the lengths of each word, in order. Your password is now as follows:
Now, to remember the password, all you have to do is remember the four words, and which words are "special" - you need not write any of it down. If it comes down to it, you can write it down temporarily in order to help you reconstruct the password if you need to. However, knowing the phrase and remembering which words are "special" is all you need. No memorizing random numbers or letters. If you do have to write it down, be sure to scribble it out afterwards and cut or tear up the paper before throwing it away - or better yet, have it shredded. Especially if your system is as simple as this.
Again, this scheme is very simplistic and not highly recommended - using the first letters of each word is probably a bad idea, for instance. I don't think you'll have much trouble coming up with a better scheme of your own. However, if you really want, there's nothing wrong with using this particular method. It's probably more secure than what most people currently use!
The last tip is simply some ideas for a more thorough or constructive system, rather than using one or two simple pointers from above. If you really want to "get serious" about your password system, try some of the tips mentioned above first. Once you have trained your brain to remember instead of forget (using one or more of the above approaches), you may want to delve deeper into one of the following systems:
System 1: Password Storage
There are many available software programs that can store, index, and even paste your passwords into login forms for you. While these are good tools, there are pros and cons to doing it this way. The first problem is that you need a password for the storage system itself, which leads us back in a big circle: what if you forget that password? Now you're locked out of ALL your passwords. On the other hand, you now have a single place to store and access them all, without having to remember them. This can be a good thing, but if you go easy on yourself like this, you'll likely never develop an ability to remember your passwords. The one primary advantage here is your ability to store a near indefinite amount of passwords. Computer storage space these days is cheap and plentiful. A second problem is that these systems are often expensive, and may contain bugs. Nothing could be worse than having a password storage file get corrupted and losing all your passwords permanently! Trusting a program with such sensitive data is a pretty serious investment. If you find one you like, use a demo for a while and get comfortable with it first. Don't put that kind of trust into something you're not completely familiar with.
System 2: Complete And Total Memorization
Usage is one of the key points in remembering your passwords. If you go even a week without using a password (and thus having to remember it) you will slowly begin to forget. The longer you go, the more in danger you will be of forgetting. Passwords you use every day (one of the reasons your social security number, phone number, and street address are so easy to remember) are the easiest to go this route with, while passwords that you might use a lot and then go into disuse for a while (such as some random shopping website that you use from time to time) are very bad candidates for this system. The one major plus to complete memorization is the security. There is no better security than storing something in your mind.
System 3: Password Regeneration (Storage of Non-Password Data)
This is my personal favourite, and what I believe to be one of the most promising, and untouched, fields of password management. With this system, your actual password is never stored anywhere. In fact, you don't even need to know your own password! You rely on a computer program that creates it for you.
All you have to remember is something that is easy for you to remember already, like a phrase, or even just the name of the website, and a secret number, or something along those lines. You enter these into the program (every time, or you might have it store them for you) and the program then generates the same password, every time. Each version of the program may be separately compiled for a particular user.
The key here is in the program's cryptographic strength, and the unique "superkey" distributed with each build of the application. With these elements combined, the program uses advanced mathematics and cryptography to generate the same password each time you enter the same data. You then use the program to log you into each website. In order for a cyber criminal to access your accounts, that person would need direct access to YOUR specific computer and build of the program. They would also need to know the unique data you enter for each account or website, which is easy for you to remember, but difficult for anyone besides you. The only other alternative would be extracting the superkey and reverse engineering the program itself to determine how it constructs your password - but they would still need one of your actual passwords, or some of the unique data you use to generate them, in order to make any progress.
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