I had horrible memory. For as long as I can remember I always thought that. I’d even struggle to remember the last names of my best friends, whom I talked with everyday.
I remember reading entire books on very technical topics. And instantly forgetting many of the finer details. I can remember participating in a job interview, where the interviewer asked me something I knew I had read before. I just couldn’t remember. The frustration I felt at that moment was something I never wanted to go through again.
So I decided to do something about it. A friend had told me he had taken a really good online course on the subject of learning, which also covered topics such as how memory worked. It’s called Learning how to learn, it’s the most popular open online course in the world as of writing this.
The course covered topics related to memory and learning, many stuck with me. Some didn’t. But the most important takeaway I had from it is that constantly recalling the knowledge you want to remember significantly improves the chance of it being stored.
I built the layout for how I would improve my memory, and then applied it. This is a couple of years after that. And I think I’ve found a model that works very well for me. It will likely also work for you.
Enter spaced repetition
What is spaced repetition? It’s a recall method where we learn something, we “store” it, usually in the form of a card. And then try to recall the card when the brain is most likely to be about to forget it. At first, it’s a few minutes, then a few days, it builds up to weeks, months, eventually, years. Then you retire the card. If you can still recall after years the knowledge has been moved into your permanent memory.
That all sounds very well and good, but it also sounds like it would take an incredible amount of effort to manage. Let me introduce you to Anki. Anki is software that essentially automates this spaced repetition process.
You add your cards to your Anki deck, and it will spit out the card when it’s relevant. Then you have the option of marking your answer as “Again, Hard, Good, or Easy.” which will affect which interval will pass until the card appears again. This is similar to the Leitner system.
However if you, like me, have horrible memory just doing this isn’t enough. The system by itself is enough to improve your recall, but you need to train yourself to spot when to add something to your deck. I found my memory being so dysfunctional but me still being able to exist as a productive person was, in part, due to me getting really good at googling. I could find anything in the space of a few seconds, why would I ever memorize?
This is another thing the course Learning how to learn covers, it’s called the illusion of competence, quoting directly from the Learning how to Learn course:
The reason students like to keep rereading their notes or a textbook, is that when they have the book or Google open right in front of them, it provides the illusion that the material is also in their brains.
But it’s not, because it can be easier to look at the book instead of recalling, students persist in their illusions studying in a way that just isn’t very effective. This is a reminder that just wanting to learn the material, and spending a lot of time with it, doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually learn it.
So one of the first things you must do, which can be a bit of an ego hit is: Acknowledge that just because you know how to find the answer to a problem, does not mean you know how to solve the problem.
This is very relevant in what I do for a living, Programming. I believe one could live their entire Programming career exclusively by being good enough at Googling. However, to generate true competence we must first acknowledge that knowledge we know we can find is not our knowledge. And decide to do something about it.
We need to learn how to recognize what we don’t know. This can be hard, because you might be so used to searching, and grabbing references that it has become second nature, a thoughtless action. Which means adding a conscious reminder on top of it to “Add this to my Anki deck” can be hard. What I did is add a small habit everyday. After I finished my productive day, I would go into my Google activity log, and look through my entire search history.
If I spotted something there which I googled and then lead to a solution, I would first try to recall what the solution was, then I would go through the search again, find what I used as a solution or the reference I used, and then add it to my Anki deck.
I was frankly surprised at how many things slipped through at first. As I kept adding what I learned to my Anki deck it eventually became a strong habit, and I didn’t have to go through my search history anymore. But it was very useful to get me started.
The other one is when going through new knowledge, you have to apply some criteria as to what are the most important concepts. You cannot just add everything in each page. Well, you could, and you would probably remember it too if you went through spaced repetition. However, that could easily become so much information that it could easily cripple your learning speed.
Instead, it’s better to try and find the most relevant concepts and ideas from any text, video, or audio you are trying to learn. It’s better to err in the side of storing too little, rather in the side of storing too much. Eventually if you are working and need to find knowledge that you can loosely recall existed in the book/video go out of your way to go back to that same resource, find the solution, and then add it to your Anki deck.
This entire habit set will take sacrifice. Doing this takes some serious time investment. It can easily run upwards of an hour in days where you learn a lot of new knowledge. Do not look down on an hour, an hour can be a huge deal.
One way I would recommend onloading these habits would be to skip adding knowledge you might recognize as something you should be adding at first. And only add the most important things, which would be left to your judgement. This is one thing I learned from a book called Superhuman by Habit, when creating new habits what is most important is consistency. If at first your Anki process only takes 5-10 minutes everyday, it’s much easier to keep at it.
Maybe 3 months later your Anki process takes you 15 minutes a day, but that is still quite manageable, a year later it might be taking 40 minutes a day. But since we began our habit with small steps, being consistent every step of the way lead to the load we feel by doing this feel lighter. I would absolutely recommend reading that book to anyone trying to learn more about how habits work, and maybe trying to introduce some positive habits into their life.
To conclude, following the steps above have completely reworked the way my memory works. Not just with spaced repetition. By constantly recalling knowledge my brain has outright become better at remembering. My — mostly unsubstantiated — hypothesis is that by making remembering a bigger part of my daily life, my brain stopped throwing away new knowledge only storing a “reference” of sorts as to where that knowledge existed so I could access it at a latter time, instead, it now makes a bigger effort to store the knowledge outright.
If you have issues with memory like I used to I would heavily recommend trying this, stick with the habit for a few months and evaluate if it’s the right approach for you.