I’ll start this post with a few of my experiences and then give concrete tips at the end.
When I was a kid, my dad used to always ask me what direction was North when we were in the car. I’m pretty sure I never guessed correctly, and I remember thinking those questions were a little annoying because I didn’t see the point of knowing directions at that time (since I never went anywhere without my parents taking me). Bear in mind that this was in the 90s when no one had smartphones or GPS systems (and many people didn’t even use the internet), so these questions were much more relevant then than they are today. Nowadays basically no one needs to find their way around because most people use GPS to guide them everywhere they go.
When I started driving we didn’t have GPS as an option because everyone was still using flip-phones and basic cell phones; if those phones had GPS, I didn’t know about it because no one was using it. Over time, I became very familiar with my city and knew how to get to basically all of my friends’ houses, every store I would ever need to go to, and several neighboring cities from memory. As far as I remember, none of my friends had that much difficulty finding their way around either, so my navigation ability was nothing special.
Fast forward a few years and I was living in Long Beach, CA. This was the first time I lived in a different city and had to drive, and I found it stressful because I was going to university and working at the same time, leaving me little time to get lost or just go out to explore. Because GPS was an option by this time, I started using it every time I needed to drive anywhere. By the time I left Long Beach and moved to Hawaii three years later, I still was not that familiar with the area and only knew how to go to a few places without GPS.
In Hawaii I had around a 45 minute commute to work every day, most of which was just driving on the H2 highway (a relatively simple route). Because I didn’t want to be late for work, I used GPS every day to make sure I wouldn’t get lost. However, three months later I realized I still didn’t really know how to get to my workplace without GPS because I was not paying attention to my surroundings at all when driving with GPS. This was when I started to think that GPS was having a crippling effect on my sense of direction, and my experiences in Long Beach and my hometown seemed to confirm this theory.
In my hometown it would normally only take 1-2 trips at most for me to remember how to get to a new place, since the alternative was that I would have to look at a paper map and/or get lost every time. In Long Beach and Hawaii, if I didn’t know how to get somewhere, GPS was always there to save the day. So basically there was no need for me to really learn how to get around.
I started to realize that also ties into intentionality (which I seem to bring up in every post). Many people like to live their lives on autopilot, embracing convenience because it’s there and it’s easier, never questioning if they really need this convenience or not. I won’t comment on other areas of life in this post, but in terms of sense of direction, I can say this convenience is doing more harm than good. It’s nice to have it ‘just-in-case,’ but I think it’s much better to check the map and try to find the place on your own before relying on GPS.
Nowadays I try to avoid using GPS as much as I can – if I’m going to go somewhere, I check a map first and remember the overall direction to get to the destination, and pay attention to the surrounding street names. The worst-case scenario is that I get lost, and I can just check the map again – no big deal. During one of my digital detoxes, I made plans to meet with a friend at a cafe that was in the middle nowhere (literally in the middle of some fields with a maze of small intersecting paths). At that time I was committed to only carrying my ‘dumb phone,’ so before going I first checked a map and wrote down the street names and general directions on a piece of paper that I brought with me. I had no smartphone with me as backup. I ended up getting lost, but I eventually ran into a street with a familiar name that I saw on the map, and then later I saw a small sign with the name of the cafe and an arrow pointing into the field. I was a few minutes late, but it wasn’t a big deal. That experience of finding such a remote place with no GPS in a foreign country made me feel so empowered, and I also knew exactly how to get back to that cafe after I got home.
When I meet with friends here in Taiwan, sometimes we will check the map to see how to get somewhere and see that the destination is maybe a 10-20 minute walk away with just 2-3 simple turns, but my friend still decides to click GPS navigation and start following it. Every time I see this I exclaim something like, “Why on earth are we using GPS for this? It’s literally just over there *pointing* – if we know the street name we can find it.” They usually tell me it’s because they get lost so easily that they have to use GPS, or because there’s no reason to find it ourselves when GPS is always available. I then usually raise the alternate possibility that maybe the reason they get lost so easily is because they always use GPS. I need to collect more data to confirm, but I strongly suspect that if people force themselves to check a map beforehand and find places the old fashioned way, their sense of direction will greatly improve.
Tips to improve your sense of direction:
Study a map
I actually bought a paper map of the city I live in and took note of all the biggest and longest roads, the shape of the city, and general locations of major areas and landmarks. Visualizing a large area in this way is really helpful in the event that you get lost.
Remember the names of major roads in the area
Major roads are easy to find even if you’re lost, and can help to construct a simple mental map. I live near a really long major road, and I know where it goes on both ends. If I travel somewhere unfamiliar near that major road, as soon as I get back to that road I know exactly how to get home. These major roads can be used as simple points of reference and make it easy to find your way.
After a trip to Taiwan (years before I moved here), I realized I knew my way around Taipei better than Honolulu, even though I had spent less than two weeks in Taipei and a whole year in Honolulu. The difference was that I wandered around aimlessly in Taipei a lot, traveled to many different areas, and rarely used GPS. Let yourself explore and go places you’ve never been just for fun.
Look for landmarks (parks, lakes, mountains, buildings, etc.)
Sometimes it’s easier to remember that you’re going to pass by a lake, park, mall, etc. instead of remembering specific street names. You can also learn how to get to certain landmarks and then use that to your benefit when you see that somewhere you want to go is near that landmark on the map.
Don’t use GPS
If you want to improve at something, you need to practice it. Using GPS takes away your opportunities for practice and improvement. If you know you won’t use GPS, you will naturally become much more aware of your surroundings.
Try different routes
If you know how to get somewhere already, it may be tempting to just follow the same route every time. However, trying different routes just for fun can help you to expand your mental map, and you may even discover some cool new places (or faster routes).
Let yourself get lost
Everyone gets lost sometimes, but sometimes getting lost is how you discover alternate routes or connect different areas of your mental map together. Besides, getting lost will help you remember the correct route later (due to negative reinforcement). I also think it can be fun to get lost and try to find your way with friends (assuming there is no time pressure).
Quiz yourself and your friends on directions
At the beginning of this post I talked about my dad always asking me what direction is North. While it wasn’t so beneficial to me as a child because I had no concept of navigation or directions, I think this could be a fun game for people who actively want to improve their navigation abilities. If you expect to be quizzed on something later, you are more likely to pay attention to it.
Get into street photography
This one is kinda a joke, but also would be very effective. When I go out to take street photos, I basically wander the streets for hours on foot, exploring any area that looks interesting. I can say for sure that this is an effective method for getting familiar with an area, plus it’s fun and good exercise. Any excuse to get out and explore is a good one.
Feel free to share your experiences, anything I have forgotten in this post, or any other useful tips you have!