Smart strategies for remembering passwords and PINs

Why is it that your teenager can log onto dozens of websites without any hesitation but you struggle to remember the password you created just the other day? Was it your standby password or some variation of it? Did this particular website require a combination of letters and numbers?

“As we get older, the process of retrieval becomes more difficult,” explains Dr. Kelly Murphy, Baycrest psychologist. “Our memory is like a library full of books, but we can’t always find the one we are looking for. One thing that can help our search is to put a bit more effort into encoding the information into memory in the first place. You have to think of something at the input phase that will help find it in the output phase.”

Younger people tend to use more strategies for encoding, although they may not be aware of it. As we age, we tend to use strategies less often. Memory is a process. Find a way to more effectively encode something you need to remember and make it stick, and it will be easier to retrieve.

You want to set yourself up for success so that when you need the information you’re not left frustrated or embarrassed. You don’t want to be standing in a store trying to purchase something and finding that you can’t recall the password or PIN for your credit or debit card.

Two types of passwords

There are two kinds of passwords — those that you create yourself and those that are generated for you. The latter are generally harder to remember.

Strategies for creating passwords:

Make the password meaningful in the context for which you are using it. For example, if you are buying books on Amazon then the password can be “books” followed by your birthday and similarly if you are downloading music.

Be consistent. Use a pattern as in the example above. This will help you remember.

Include an element of uniqueness. It is important to keep in mind that you wouldn’t want the password to be so obvious that someone else could figure it out. Make sure that there is something unique about it.

Strategies for remembering passwords that are given to you:

Practice spaced retrieval. Staring at it and reading it passively doesn’t work well. Try to repeat it without looking, take a break, and then repeat it again. It’s the act of repeatedly retrieving the information (with some “space” in-between) that strengthens the memory.

Find a combination within the password that makes it meaningful. Perhaps there is a pattern or some letters or numbers that you can find an association for. For example, if VISA assigned your PIN number as 0275, you might make it meaningful by linking it to the fact that you had 0 dogs and 2 cats back in 1975.

Finally, regardless of whether you generated the password or it was given to you, you should record it somewhere, especially if it’s a password you do not often use. Put the password in your smart phone or write it down some place where it is easy to find. Make sure the information is in a safe place that is accessible to you but not to others.

Photo © David Clark

INSIDE THE LAB: Having difficulty finding the right word?
INSIDE THE LAB: Debunking brain myths: Does size matter?
INSIDE THE LAB: Hydration key to good brain health
INSIDE THE LAB: Walk your way to better brain health
INSIDE THE LAB: How to get a whole brain workout

INSIDE THE LAB, is brought to you by ZoomerMedia Ltd. and Baycrest, the global leader in innovations for aging. INSIDE THE LAB is the place to go to get the latest in research and breakthroughs and all that you need to know for the journey of aging. From brain health and nutrition to caring for your loved ones, INSIDE THE LAB is your source for reliable, informative and up–to-date information.