Last week I wrote about memory, how it’s something that we see improperly as a proxy for intelligence, but how it’s also valuable as a way of expanding our relationship to the world. In this post, I want to talk about how to build a memory habit to build up your memory.
What’s a memory habit? A memory habit is time you spend each day reviewing memories you want to remember.
Since this is likely new to most people, let me start by talking about memory.
We are constantly learning and forgetting every day until we die. Almost everyone has forgotten more things than they remember. While forgetting is just a fact of life, one of my biggest frustrations is the feeling of knowing I remembered something in the past and then having that slip away - especially when I spent considerable time and effort learning that thing. For example, I could once read and write Chinese pretty well - this took hundreds of hours and today it’s mostly gone. I could also read and speak Arabic - that’s mostly gone too. I also went to Law School and got a number of A’s in subjects I only have a passing recollection of today (don’t ask me almost anything on Civil Procedure!). The list goes on…
The thing is, this is just the way memory works: we forget things if we don’t use them. Forgetting is great and necessary – we don’t really need to remember what car we drove on that one trip to wherever, or who we sat next to at a random restaurant on a random day. However, forgetting is frustrating when we spend a lot of our lives trying to purposely learn new things. It’s also a problem if we can’t remember basic things we need for our social world – not remembering the name of your friend’s husband who you’ve met five times can be seen as quite rude.
So what do we do about this forgetting? How can we avoid it?
There is one thing about memory which holds the key - forgetting is not random. Forgetting follows a pattern.
The fundamental misunderstanding we have about memory is that learning is “one and done.” The typical way we typically think of learning is you go to a class, you listen and you learn; you pick up a book, read and learn. Maybe you have a few tests about it, maybe you don’t. Either way the expectation is that once you’ve learned something you’re good to go! Obviously this is wrong, but it’s the way our educational system and society operate - you took the class so now “you know subject X.” You don’t remember the details? That’s on you for not paying enough attention or having a bad memory. Similarly if someone tells you their name, we have this assumption that you should remember it for a long time (weeks, months, year, forever?). And yet, almost nobody can actually do this. Most people have very poor natural memories.
However, not all hope is lost. Forgetting follows a common pattern called a forgetting curve. The longer it’s been since you learned something and thought about said thing, the higher the chances you’ll forget it. But if you then “recall” said thing (spending time thinking about it), your forgetting curve changes - while you might have forgotten it before in a couple days, you’ll now forget it in a week. If you then recall it a few days later, you’ll now forget it in a few weeks, and so on. What this means is that by purposely forcing yourself to remember certain things you can extend your recall. (See chart below for what this looks like.)
This is super important so let me repeat it: if you build a memory habit you can greatly extend how long you remember facts you don’t want to forget. The key is to periodically repeat what you want to remember to extend your memory.
The ideal repetition timing is done through “spaced repetition” - it’s a system whereby you extend the time between reviews so that you don’t have to remember everything everyday but instead can review things only at the optimum time (in an exponentially decreasing manner). So instead of remembering all the facts you’ve ever learned every day, you only study the ones that need to be “strengthened.”
Since finding the ideal timing for spaced repetition is a lot of work, there are apps that can help. The best spaced repetition app/website out there is called Anki (which means memory in Japanese). I’ll explain more details about how to use Anki in my next post, for now let me try to make this more real by describing what my memory habit looks like:
To improve my memory, every day I open Anki and review hundreds of flashcards cards to remember things I don’t want to forget. I’ve been doing this now for hundreds of consecutive days (so it’s relatively new in my life). It takes 15-30 minutes a day to complete. Almost every day I then also add new cards to my list for things I want to remember long-term: new words I learned, new piano pieces I want to remember, people’s names I don’t want to forget, frameworks that I find valuable. All kinds of odds and ends go in there. I review all of this every day (with the spaced repetition I described above). This habit has helped me go from an average/poor long-term memory to far above average for all the topics I want to focus on.
While this might sound daunting, it only takes a little bit of work to set up the memory habit and once you have it, you can use it for anything you want to learn. This suddenly changes remembering something from pure chance (“maybe I’ll remember this”) to a certainty (“I will remember this forever if I keep the flashcard.”)
This post has already gotten a bit longer than expected so I’ll end with that. In the next post, I will describe in more detail how to create memory cards and more details on how to make your own memory habit.
If you have any questions you want to make sure I answer, please send them my way! You can reply directly to this email or find me on Twitter.