Suppose you want to remember something for a very long time. How do you ensure memorization? There are many methods, which can be roughly divided into three categories: reviewing the notes (revisiting), actively using (speedwriting) and lifestyle choices (sleep, food, …). Here I compare revisiting with speedwriting, and provide some actionable tips. The lifestyle element is treated in another post.
Revisiting and spaced repetition
We forget things according to so called “forgetting curve graph”. To stop forgetting, we simply need to review the materials several times with growing intervals. This is called “spaced repetition” and many of my students use this method. I personally find it inferior.
The whole research of forgetting curve dealt with random information that was not connected into structures like mental palaces. Even the authors of the original research wrote that using the simplest memory method (the story) modified the forgetting curve faster than spaced repetition. When we have a good story or a mental palace we are less likely to forget.
As we need to remember more complex information and more information overall, our mental structures grow. Once they become massive, we cannot hope that we will even recall the right palace, let alone the itinerary. So we can revisit our mental palaces or review our mental structures at spaced periods. It is faster and usually more effective than spaced repetition using say Anki. The only sad exception happens when we did not make the mental structure strong enough. In that case we go to our notes.
Notes and cheat sheets
When we read something it is a good idea to have a reading diary with ~5 keywords for any idea we want to remember per article or per section in denser articles. When we go to lectures and meetings, we can record more than just a few keywords. Then at home we review our own notes and create cheat sheets or action items. Simply processing our knowledge into very clear keywords and cheat sheet entries is an active (critical and creative) process – and we are likely to remember its output very well even without revisiting its result.
Using the notes more actively, in a presentation to the class, solving exercises or building projects is definitely even more effective. It is not always possible, and may require time we do not have.
Slightly less effective is combining notes from several resources and creating original content. This content can later be published. I have a very clear procedure for this activity and I teach it in one of the masterclasses. When you speedwrite you do not just remember something, but also create content . If you publish it, that justifies your control over the subject area.
Revisiting and speedwriting are relatively very effective methods. They share several key principles:
- Do not remember everything or standalone ideas. Create a connected network of knowledge, using multiple ideas that interact.
- The more details you remember, the more stable the memorization becomes.
- Do not remember the original data unchanged. Play with it. Own it. Construct your own structures out of it.
- Back up your memorization with notes. Even 5 keywords of the anchor marker are better than nothing.
Which is more fun?
I hate repeating the same activity, love creativity and love writing. So for me speedwriting is clearly a winner. I cannot say that it is pure fun – mixed baggage is a better description. The method is effort intensive. After all I need to provide a lot of original content as a way to memorize things. I could use the time otherwise, for example having quality time with my kids. So there is an alternative cost. Also, speedwriting requires focus and energy.
Revisiting mental palaces can be done on a pomodoro break, while walking a dog, or communicating to and from the workplace. While by itself it can be a snore-fest, when combined with other grayish activities it is a blessing. And it goes better with music than speedwriting. As the mental structures we use become funny and more creative, revisiting them can actually be a lot of fun. Our writing is usually more serious and restrained.
Which is more effective?
As we can fly through our mental palaces at mach 2, revisiting can be really fast. However, we need many revisiting sessions. Creating associative links with other stuff we learned or developed is an important part of each revisit iteration. As we spend time considering “what if” scenarios our revisiting slows down significantly, but we may need fewer iterations of revisiting.
Speedwriting appears to be really slow, as we need to consider several subjects critically and creatively, formulate ideas and then type them. The process is effort intensive, however the associative links are almost overhead-free. And the added value of content we can publish is significant. Also we do not need many iterations, and can easily reconstruct our thoughts from a published piece even after many years. Notice that when you ask me about something, it is usually a decade after I processed it. And I can still answer relatively well.
Can these methods be combined?
Quite often I combine the methods. Without revisiting and speedwriting, I am likely to forget after several days. As part of speedwriting, I need either to revisit the memory structures diligently or speedread the entire article into the mental structures prepared during previous iteration. Typically I write about stuff I read during the last two years – as I wait for new inputs to aggregate. Honestly, I reread more often than revisit, but both options are viable. It is not just possible, it is recommended to combine revisiting with speedwriting.
Speedwriting vs oral presentation
If you revisit your content diligently, you can replace speedwriting with oral presentation or debate. It can be fun in social situations with people who have similar interests. Wait for them to come up with the subjects, and then contribute. Oral presentation is usually faster and more fun then speedwriting.
If the subject does not surface in conversation, or if you are not entirely comfortable with the material, or if the conversation would be too damn long – you might have no better choice. Write about it.
When speedwriting we automatically revisit several knowledge areas associated by the ideas of the article. You do not have to speedwrite. Play “what if” game: binge revisit several articles and come up with creative questions and ideas. It is very effective. Almost as fast as regular revisiting, and almost as creative as speedwriting – and you can do it anywhere any time you want. Combine spiritual and existential questions with meditation, practical questions with walking and technical questions with Pomodoro break. You invest time and effort. Maximize the return on your investment.