Work Smart: A Single Trick for Remembering Countless Passwords

work smart password protection

One of the most annoying things about computing today is having to keep track of dozens of passwords. You've got passwords to Web sites, computers, networks, and the ATM, and every time you create a new password it's easy to use one you've used before and make it something easy to remember, like your birthday, your kid's name, or your first phone number. The problem is this: Many passwords that are easy for you to remember are also easy for an identity thief to guess. Plus, using the same password for everything is like having the same key for your house, your car, and your office. Once someone steals one key, they can get into everything.

What you want is a different, complex password for each situation. The trick to remembering all those different passwords? Create them all based on a single PATTERN. Here's how it works. Pick a keyword or phrase that never changes, then combine it with something specific to the service you're logging into.

For example, say your keyword is robot. A simple pattern might be the keyword plus the first three letters of a service name. If you're setting a password for Amazon.com, it would be robotama. If you're setting a password for PayPal.com with that pattern, it would be robotpay. That way, every single password you have is different, but all you have to remember is a single pattern.

When you choose your pattern, make sure it creates passwords that are at least eight characters, and includes letters and numbers—even a symbol for good measure. For example, you could substitute the O's in robot with zeroes, or put an asterisk at the beginning of your keyword. You can create some seriously complex passwords that are impossible to crack with simple patterns based on a single key word or phrase.

For example, my friend Matt Haughey likes to use the chorus of classic songs to create his passwords. He used the first letter of each word in the phrase "One is the loneliest number" to create a password: 1itln. When Matt forgot the password, he'd just sing the song to himself.

My friend Eric likes to interleave two words one character at a time to create a memorable password. For example, if you chose the words blue and 123, interleaving them you'd get b1l2u3e. All you have to remember is blue 123 and the pattern of one character from each at a time.

droid unlock patternFinally, you can use a tactile pattern, and choose letters and numbers based on their location and proximity on the keyboard. This saves you time when you type the password: if you choose letters that are next to one another, like asdf, or qwerty, your fingers don't have to move as much reaching across the keyboard every time you enter the password.

There might be times when your password pattern doesn't always work—like on some corporate networks, you have to change your password every few months; or someone else sets a password for you. The safest place to store passwords is in your head, but if you absolutely must write down your passwords so you don't forget them, don't do it on paper. I recommend KeePass Password Safe, a free program for Mac and Windows that stores your passwords in a secure, encrypted database. You can download it from www.keepass.info.

A good password is unique, easy for you to remember and hard for others to guess. Keep track of an unlimited number of unique passwords by using a single pattern.

Gina Trapani is the author of Upgrade Your Life and founding editor of Lifehacker.com. Work Smart appears every week on FastCompany.com.

Last week: Work Smart: 3 Useful Things You Didn't Know Your Cameraphone Could Do

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12 Comments

  • Richard Lee

    Been using this idea for some time, and extended it to add a 3rd component for passwords that need to be changed periodically. What drives me berserk is that, having devised a nice secure scheme which incorporates letters, numbers, and special characters, I find an astonishing number of sites don't allow special characters! And many put a very low upper limit on password length, also screwing up my pattern. Most egregious case: American Express. Max 8 characters, no special characters, and case-insensitive! Utterly appalling.

  • Mr. Lucas Brice

    Jeez, I've been doing the site-specific suffix trick for years and years. If I was really clever, I'd have though of writing a whole article about it.

  • Christine Maingard

    Thank you. I only wish I'd used something like this when I 'invented' password no 2. So much for less thinking...

    Any ideas on how to now quickly change countless passwords to a simpler system? One at a time I guess.

    Author of "Think Less, Be More" http://www.thinklessbemore.com

  • Ashton Gebhard

    Two thoughts: If your pattern is cracked on one password, wouldn't it be easy to crack for all other passwords one uses making it similar to using the same password for everything? Also, as to storing passwords electronically or writing them down on paper... it seems the biggest security threat comes from online hackers rather than a person physically stealing your password. Obviously things like writing down your ATM PIN and keeping it in your wallet is a very bad idea, but keeping a hardcopy list in your home desk seems like a reasonable backup for forgotten passwords. Sort of like a spare car key or house key.

  • david j.

    Hi,
    At goodpassword.com we offer a unique service that specializes in password generators. The idea suggested here of mixing two known words is good though not totally secure ie could be dictionary hacked. At our site we have an acronym password generator which creates passwords from the first letters of what we recommend easy to remember phrases but uncommon. some of the letters are replaceable by their leet character equivalents. (characters sound and look the same.)

    Thanks for the article and I'd be interested in you feedback on our service.

    http://www.goodpassword.com

    David J.

  • Colin Bowern

    You can also try singing your password - pick a line from a song, write it down, pick out the first letters, change a few to upper/lower case, sub in a few @ for a or 1 for i or 0 for o, and presto - an easier to remember complex password.