Technology usually makes our lives easier. It also makes it so we don’t have to practise a few basic skills. After years of smartphone use, many of us can’t even remember a phone number. Here’s how to get the skills that matter back.
It’s easy to cry wolf and lament for a time that used to be. People argue that before technology ruled our lives, we were happier, smarter and better at general living. That utopian vision of the past is a bit too rose tinted, but the point remains that we’ve lost some basic human skills over the years. Re-learning them makes us a little less dependent on technology, flexes our brain muscles, and gives us an opportunity to interact with the world. You don’t have to be a luddite to appreciate most of these skills and getting them back is easy enough for even the most technologically reliant amongst us.
It’s easy to get addicted to turn-by-turn navigation. Not only does it guide you through a city, it also helps you avoid traffic jams and find faster routes. It’s helpful in a lot of ways, especially if you live in a city where traffic is an ongoing problem.
But over-reliance on turn-by-turn navigation has its downfalls. The most obvious is when your battery dies and leaves you stranded. You might also lose your data connection in the middle of nowhere or your maps app might just send you off into the completely wrong direction. In a worst-case scenario, you’ll end up lost with no idea how to get back. This isn’t just a driving problem, it’s a problem with navigating a city in general. In fact, your battery is way more likely to die when you’re out on foot or on a bike.
Case in point: I moved to Seattle a little over a year ago. There's a lot of construction going on and the traffic tends to bottleneck around a few key roads so I've used GPS pretty much every time I've gone anywhere. One day, I decided to take a long bike ride around Lake Washington. About half of the way through the ride, I found myself in a part of the city I'd never been in without any idea of how to get home. My phone was dead. I ended up making my way to a service station and trying to ask directions for how to get back to the city by bike. It didn't go so well. Eventually, I just trusted my instincts and continued along the lakeside to get home, but it could have gone horribly wrong.
What would have solved this problem? A paper map would have helped and memorizing the directions beforehand would have saved me a lot of trouble. Even just paying more attention to the digital map to get familiar with the route would have helped me enough. I'd been so reliant on GPS that I hadn't learned the city at all. I didn't know which highways connected where or which main roads could get me home. Worse, my sense of direction was totally off. I'd moved from Denver, Colorado, where west was always obvious because of a massive mountain range, but I hadn't bothered to find those types of landmarks here.
Since then, I've weaned myself off GPS. Now, I'll look at the traffic, but otherwise leave the turn-by-turn navigation off. I've found landmarks to give me a sense of direction (or I'll look to satellite dishes if I'm confused). I own a paper map of the city. When I'm looking for a restaurant on Yelp, I'll use the list function instead of the map so I can learn where things are in relation to me without relying on a map all the time. Now, I get to look up when I'm moving through the city and pay attention to it more instead of blindly following directions. These tips work just as well when you're on vacation in a new city. Find your hotel's landmark, then hit the streets exploring without relying on GPS. You might be surprised at how much cool hidden stuff you find.
Memorising Phone Numbers
Speaking of getting lost with a dead phone, not knowing a single person's phone number can put you in a serious bind. In my case, I was lost and couldn't call anyone for help because I haven't memorized a single person's phone number since I got a mobile phone.
Of course, the solution here is to memorise phone numbers again. It's not like you need to remember every single number you call, just a handful of important ones in case you need to get a hold of someone.
A lot of different tricks are out there to help you memorise numbers. My favourite is to just delete those numbers from your address book so you're forced to memorise them. Mnemonics also work, as do songs. You can even use an app like Eidetic to help you remember numbers through forced repetition. You can also just use the voice dialler to dial by number instead of name. You should have at least a couple of emergency numbers beyond 000 memorised. You never know when you'll need them.
Communicating with Strangers
We used to talk to strangers out of necessity, but nowadays it's easy to ignore just about anyone out in the world. We even neglect talking to a cashier by going through automated checkstands.
Smartphones have made it so we always have entertainment in our pockets. Instead of looking up and casually talking to the person next to you, you can just play a game on your phone, check Twitter or clean up your email. It's always been this way. people have read newspapers or books at the bus stop and generally avoid talking to each in any way possible. It feels more productive, but doing so neglects the basic human need to communicate with people. The New York Times sums up the problem like so:
In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people -- carefully kept at bay. We can't get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control: not too close, not too far, just right. I think of it as a Goldilocks effect...
Human relationships are rich; they're messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it's a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.
We are tempted to think that our little "sips" of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don't. Email, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places -- in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.
We're not good at basic communication these days. Unlike communicating over social media, face-to-face conversations play out slowly and we use those conversations not just to learn about other people, but to learn about ourselves as well. When we're not doing that, we're not taking the time to learn from these interactions.
To get these basic human skills back, you'll need to set up rules for yourself. Instead of messing around on your phone when you're on your commute, see if someone wants to chat with you or at least look up sometimes. Stop pulling out your phone during every single piece of downtime you have throughout the day and actually talk to the people around you.
When was the last time you calculated something without a calculator? You can download a calculator for your phone that specialises in just about anything -- from calculating a tip to splitting a bill. Basically, you never have to use your brain to calculate anything if you don't want to.
Mental maths is by no means required to survive in the world, but being able to do a few basic calculations in your head makes life a lot easier. For example, calculating a tip is all about basic percentages and is simple to do in your head:
- To find 5%, find 10% and divide it in two.
- To find 15%, find 10%, then add 5%.
- To find 20%, find 10% and double it.
- To find 25%, find 50% and then halve it.
- To find 60%, find 50% and add 10%.
- To find 75%, find 50% and add 25%.
It's not just about calculating a tip or dividing up a check on the fly. You can do a lot of basic calculations in your head. It might seem like a parlour trick, but it's advantageous for many reasons. First off, you don't have to waste time pulling out a calculator at a restaurant. Second off, you'll have a better understanding of what you're talking about. If you're calculating your annual expenses, doing the maths in your head helps you understand it. Being able to calculate ratios while cooking makes cooking go by way faster. Even being able to quickly multiply single-digit numbers can save you all kinds of time.
Like a lot of the items in this post, the best thing you can do is handcuff yourself a little. The next time you're trying to figure out a tip, leave the calculator in your pocket. Personally, I also spend a little time practising mental maths in weird ways. While I'm driving, I'll mentally calculate when I'll arrive somewhere by calculating my speed and the distance to my destination. When I fill up the tank I'll calculate my kilometres per litre. When I'm cooking, I'll skip Google and figure out ratios on my own. The more you do it, the quicker you'll become.
Technology has made life easier because we don't have to use our brains for all the small stuff, but it turns out that some of that small stuff is worth doing. Breaking away from technology makes things surprisingly easier sometimes.