Learn the Two Basics of Memorizing in Five Minutes

Want to remember what you learn? Learn the two basics of memorizing--and why typical studying doesn't work--in five minutes.

Do you keep forgetting what you try to learn? Great–I’ve got good news for you. You do not have a “bad memory.” You’re memory’s perfectly fine, even amazing, or else you would’t understand these little squiggles called letters.

So why do you forget the things you want to know? Because you haven’t heard of these two simple methods.

First, Talk to Your Memory in Its Own Language

If this post was in ancient Sanskrit, you wouldn’t understand it. (Probably.) I need to speak your language.

Well, your memory listens to its own language too. Your memory understands things like bright colors, strong rhythms, and unique shapes.

Your memory is probably much less interested in streams of numbers and chunks of indigestible text. In general, these are the exact kinds of information that people today are paid most highly to master. Rats.

But let’s say you really want to read a play written in ancient Sanskrit. You can do it right now–if someone translates it for you. Your memory’s the same way. If you translate that string of numbers into something interesting, you can remember it.

This “memory translation” is called a mnemonic. A mnemonic is something easy to remember that reminds you of something hard to remember.

If you’ve already searched around online for memory techniques, you’ve seen this point before. The vast majority of memory sites and books out there seem to focus on mnemonics. And mnemonics are splendid.

But if you only use mnemonics, you’ll still forget most of what you learn. That’s why you need this second method.

Second, Do Smart Reviews

Most of the time, mnemonics can actually get in the way. Mnemonics are expensive, both making and using them. Sometimes, they’re essential, but often, you’re better off using a fill-in-the-blank, or finding the underlying rhythm, or just imagining the fact more vividly in the first place. Your memory understands these methods too, and they can be much faster than mnemonics.

But whatever you do, you still need to review.

This seems to be a huge secret. I hardly ever see it in memory books, and I don’t know why. If you don’t review, you forget. Period. Mnemonics can help you remember a little longer, and they might even make a few things permanent. But if you don’t review them, mnemonics are basically toys. If you’re serious about your mental work, you need to review.

Review means flashcards. But don’t panic! Let me finish. Review means a system of flashcards that is smarter than you ever dreamed was possible.

That’s a big claim. But it’s true. It’s only in the 19th century that academics began to work out this system, and it is completely different from just working your way through a stack of flashcards.

It’s called spaced repetition, and it works like this.

  • Every time you review something, you can actually wait a little longer until you review it again. Crazy but true.
  • If you wait too long, though, you start to forget it.
  • So at the beginning, you have to review several times over short intervals. This is the part that everyone skips, causing worldwide grief and dismay.
  • But once you get past that first burst of reviews, you can wait weeks, months, and then years between reviews!
  • And every single card is tracked individually. So easy cards scoot ahead to the long skips between reviews. You gain huge efficiency; you’re not reviewing the whole deck every time.

You can do spaced repetition with paper cards, but there are amazing, free flashcard programs that will track everything for you. Every day, you just fire up the program and review the cards that are due that day. In theory, the computer shows them to you just before you’d forget them. In practice, the timing isn’t exactly perfect — but it’s usually pretty close.

Were you using these methods? If not, try them.

So there you go. The two basics of memorization (or at least the two basics that aren’t common knowledge), in five minutes. You weren’t doing these, were you?

If you’ve never used either mnemonics or spaced repetition, this could seriously be a huge day for you. You have an exciting time ahead.

But if you’ve tried mnemonics for awhile and been frustrated, this is almost a bigger day. Spaced repetition is key. Now you know why mnemonics alone don’t seem to work, despite all the hype.

What’s next? You’ve got this whole site to explore! But to help you get started, I’ve set up a “book” of basic articles. You can move forward and backward in the “book” using the links at the bottom of each article, or in the sidebar. These articles cover the basic concepts that will help the rest of the site make sense.