Everyone is in a hurry — overbooked, overworked, and generally overwhelmed. With life churning forward at a pace that makes the “rat race” of the ’50s feel like a Sunday picnic, is it any wonder we’re hungry for new ways to work faster and more efficiently? In this relentless, obsessive pursuit of speed, we treat technology as a toolkit and a magic wand, by turns practical and sublime. David Pogue’s tech tips are a sterling example of the practical aspect of technology, focusing as they do on how the savvy user can speed up mundane tasks to free up time for more pleasant pursuits.
Now, I’m not looking to rain on David’s parade. I’m a busy guy myself, and I’m glad to hear about any approach that can squeeze more utility out of my devices and make my day more productive. I’ve already put some of his suggestions to the test, and they work like a charm.
That said, I’m here to propose a different sort of life hack — unorthodox, but at least as useful. I’m here to tell you that in certain cases, the most efficient move you can make is to slow down.
I have a specific context in mind: the place where technology, identity, and personal finance meet. Having spent my life working in consumer privacy, financial advocacy, identity theft and credit, let me assure you that to chart and navigate the world of credit and finance demands solid knowledge, a cool head, and clear judgment. In these areas, one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal is the ability to check your impulses and take a thoughtful pause instead.
Mind you, there are instances where quick, decisive action is called for — but there are many more where stopping to consider the consequences before you click, sign, or hit Submit can save you months or years of heartache down the road. Here, by way of example, are three ways of saying “No” that, put into practice, could help you to avoid disaster.
1. Question authority. Email or text messages and phone calls warning of problems with our credit cards, bank accounts, or tax returns push our buttons in the worst way, combining fear and authority in a single toxic cocktail. The response is often instantaneous compliance — which generally means providing whatever identity and account information is being demanded in hope of defusing the crisis.
The problem is that all too often, that supposed “authority” is actually an impostor — a fraud artist trolling for the sort of data that enables new accounts to be opened, existing accounts to be emptied, and all manner of wrongdoing to be conducted, all in the victim’s name. Thinking before you act can save you from a world of hurt. Here, too, slowing down long enough to pay attention is the key to keeping your finances and reputation intact.
2. Learn restraint. A similar premise applies to phishing emails, which rely on fear and intimidation to prompt recipients to click on links that lead to bogus bank web sites or deliver viruses and Trojans to the user’s computer. From May 2012 through April 2013, phishing attacks were received by 102,100 Internet users worldwide each day — twice the number of the previous two years. In 20 percent of those attacks, the scammers were impersonating banks; of all fake and deceptive websites, 50 percent of those surveyed sought to impersonate banks, credit card companies and other financial services such as PayPal. The numbers are increasing because phishing emails work. If you get one, don’t let it work on you. Be skeptical and resist the impulse to click on every link you see.
3. Adopt moderation. Americans tend to be impulsive in their use of credit — often pressed by tough circumstances to make rash choices which may feel necessary at the time, but quickly cascade into an unmanageable degree of debt. Older Americans, for instance, have been pushed to the wall financially: In 2012, those age 50+ had an average combined credit card balance of $8,278, versus $6,258 for those under 50. Likewise, millions of older Americans are suffering with unsustainable levels of student debt, and bankruptcies are rising rapidly. The elderly are especially vulnerable to the combination of rising expenses, abuse from debt collectors, questions about their rights, and reluctance to ask for help — but they are not unique in this vulnerability. For them as for others, it’s essential to seek solid advice before taking on further debt, taking out further credit cards, or making arrangements with debt collectors. Taking that pause can be the difference between uncontrolled credit obligations and a manageable plan.
One could offer other examples, but their premise would be the same: where our finances or our identities are at risk, tactical hacks designed to shave seconds off a task must give way to more strategic life hacks oriented toward the longer term. Smart use of technology can speed things up when speed is called for — but we also should remember that sometimes slowing down is the best way to get where you’re going.
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