Modern conveniences like smartphones and the internet provide us with access to more information than we could ever hope to remember. The problem is, we often fail to differentiate between the important information we ought to keep in our memory and the less-important data that’s better stored elsewhere. As a result we become too dependent on our devices and other modern conveniences. Here’s how to break the cycle and develop a healthy amount of self-reliance.We think in all sorts of problematic ways. Even though we often enjoy tackling challenges and the feeling of accomplishment they provide, when presented with the option to not do the work we tend to take it. When we can have the fruits of our labour without the actual labour, we’re basically presented with an offer we can’t refuse. The problem lies in our overuse of what social psychologist Daniel Wegner calls transactive memory, or a memory that’s essentially a reference to information in your phone, on the internet, in another person, or practically anywhere that isn’t in your own head. When you need a phone number that’s stored as a transactive memory, your memory isn’t the actual number but rather something along the lines of “iPhone Contacts app.” You may not remember the information itself, but you’ll know exactly where to find it.
This is extremely useful when you want to recall data that isn’t particularly important in your day-to-day life and isn’t a skill you need to practice. I’m by no means arguing that transactive memory is intrinsically bad — it’s the perfect route to accessing plenty of information. Because transactive memory is such an attractive option, however, we often use it to store data that is very important — even when that information really belongs in our heads rather than our phones. This leaves us checking our phones, phoning a friend, or searching the internet for an answer we should be able to recall in a matter of seconds. Basically, too much convenience can make me, you or anyone else a lazy idiot. Reprogramming your brain to pass up the easy way in favour of the hard — and even enjoy it — however, is actually very easy. All you have to do is be aware of what’s important, store that information in your own head, and you’ll be well on your way to self-reliance. Here’s what you need to do to make that happen.
Actively Learn from Your Friends
When you ask friends for help, ask them to teach you instead of doing the work for you. Perhaps you’re like me and you’re terrible at assembling furniture. Naturally you’d call a friend to help you out. What you’re really doing in this scenario is getting them to do the hard work for you that you don’t do as well. They take control of the situation and you assist where you can. As a result, all the skills they possess that you don’t — and should — remain a part of them and not a part of you. You may have some nicely assembled furniture, but next time you need help and they’re not available you won’t be able to get the job done as well.
If you wanted to learn guitar and a friend knew how, you wouldn’t ask them to come over and handle the frets while you strum. The same goes for practical skills like furniture assembly. Pay attention to when you ask people for help, and ask them how they’re doing something when they’re doing it well. Regardless of whether your friends are generally dumb or extremely brilliant, they all have useful skills you can pick up. Doing the work together is a lot more fun, but learning from them allows you to handle situations better when their help is not an option.
Memorise Your Speed Dial
Why? Because, presumably, you call them frequently. Your smartphone may be attached to you like a fancy, multitouch tumour, but in reality you’re not going to have it with you all of the time. You may need to make a call when your phone is dead, forgotten in the car, or out for repairs. If those numbers are so important, you should take the time to remember them so you don’t have to always rely on technology.
Relinquish your GPS
When you get driving/walking/public transit directions on the computer or your smartphone, memorise them and only refer to them when necessary. If you have a GPS device, turn it off. If you’re paying attention to the GPS rather than paying attention to what each direction actually looks like, you’re not going to learn where you’re going. It takes very little time to read through a set of directions, memorise each turn, and then recall them as needed. This process uses the information — in this case, driving directions — in repetitive but slightly varied ways. This kind of repetition can help you create a “muscle” memory very quickly. Next time you have to take the same route — such as on your return trip — you probably won’t have to consult your directions because you took a few minutes to learn where you were going. This not only makes for safer driving, but teaches you to be self-reliant when you need to figure out how to get somewhere. Additionally, memorising directions doesn’t only result in the knowledge of one route, but — with persistence — amounts to the ability to figure how to get to places you haven’t been before. Sure, you can always rely on Google Maps to figure out how to reach your destination, but life is easier when that’s an option and not a necessity.
Write to Remember
When you come across useful information, write it down on paper. Why? The physical act of writing can actually improve your ability to learn, but doing so is also a means of acknowledging that what you’re writing is something important. Instead of creating a transactive memory, you’re creating a real memory that you can access and rely on when needed. The goal is to identify information that’s worth keeping and taking the necessary action to make it readily available in your brain. If it’s not that important a transactive memory is adequate, but when you come across information that really matters to you it’s worth the effort to make room for it in your permanent memory.
Ultimately it all comes down to paying attention and acknowledging the little — yet important — things that occur outside of your head. It’s very easy to ignore what happens around you and simply defer to your transactive memory as a matter of convenience, but hopefully these few methods will help you avoid that problem. While you can’t permanently keep all the information you want in your brain, you can learn to tell the difference and act accordingly. When you’re particularly good at that, you can consider yourself truly self-reliant.