The best trick for remembering things

Author: James Moore

It’s estimated that our brains can store between 2 and 3 petabytes of information.

“Ok, how much information could you store with 2 to 3 petabytes?”

If our brains could record digital tv, 2.5 petabytes is enough storage for around 300 years of continuous tv shows.  So, we effectively have unlimited storage capacity.

“If my brain is so capable, why is it I lose track of my car keys and I can’t remember what I had for breakfast?”

Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t work like we want it to.  The things the brain deems unimportant are quickly forgotten.  For example, imagine I just shared some amazing information with you. If you’re like most people, you’ll forget 70% of what I told you in a mater of minutes or hours.  The other 30% will fade from your memory over the next few days.

Even though you thought the information I shared with you was amazing, the brain considered it unimportant and forgot it.

“So how do I trick my brain into thinking something is important, so the brain will remember it?”

The brain considers a memory important, when it uses that memory more than once. And the more you use it, the more important the brain considers that memory.

“It sounds like you’re telling me the trick to remembering, is to remember… That’s lame!”

Well, it sounds lame when it’s said that way, but it’s true… There’s more to it than just “remembering”, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Remember when you were in High School or College and you crammed for tests?  I remember doing that, and it usually worked ok in the short term… I could remember the material enough to get a good grade on a test, but I’d totally forget what I studied days or weeks later.  The sad thing is, with the same amount of effort, I could have remembered what I had “crammed” into my brain for much longer, and potentially forever.

“Ok, so what’s the better alternative to cramming?”

Each of us suffer from what’s called the Forgetting Curve. When we’re exposed to new information, our brains will forget the new information over predictable periods of time.

The most efficient way of “tricking” the brain into remembering something for longer periods of time is to review the new information just before it falls out of memory.  By reviewing it just before it’s forgotten, you’re strengthening the memory, but the memory isn’t permanent.   The strengthened memory still has a forgetting curve, but this time it’ll take longer to forget.

Let’s walk through an example.


Imagine I just showed you how to tie a knot called a clove hitch.

Then, after I showed you, I handed you the rope and asked you to tie a clove hitch knot.

There’s a good chance, you might not remember enough to tie the knot, even though you just saw it.

So imagine you forgot, then I showed you again, then I asked you to tie the clove hitch again, and this time you were able to tie the knot.

Around 24 hours from now, you’re going to forget how to tie the knot, that’s just how most minds work… so around 23 hours later I hand you a rope and ask you to tie the knot again. Odd’s are, it would be a struggle for you to remember how to tie the knot, but you’ve got a good chance of remembering because it hasn’t been very long since you last tied the knot.

So let’s say you remembered, and were able to tie the knot. By remembering it again, you’ve told your brain that this information is important, and you’ve reset the forgetting curve, except this time you won’t forget how to tie the knot in 24 hours, this time you’ll forget in 48 to 72 hours.

So at the 47 hour point, I hand you a rope and ask you to tie the knot again. Odd’s are, it’s going to be a struggle, but you’ve got a pretty good chance of remembering.

Every time you force yourself to remember how to tie the clove hitch knot, you’re strengthening your memory, and the amount of time it takes to forget is extended.

Eventually you’ll get to the point where you can just tie a clove hitch knot once every few years, and the memory is essentially fixed in your mind.

“I don’t need to memorize things, I can just Google it!”

True, it’s easier than ever to find the answer to a question. But you can only find the answer, if you’ve remembered to ask the right question.

All of us lean on Google far too much.

The problem with not memorizing things, is that you don’t give your unconscious mind the knowledge it needs to be creative. You’ll mis opportunities, you’ll blow past important details… Your mind is amazing, don’t sell yourself short!

“Ok, so how can I test my memories, just before I forget them?  I bet I’ll forget to test my memories, then I’ll forget the memory…”

I use a free software named Anki, which is basically a flashcard app that automatically asks you questions just before they would normally fall out of memory.

Every time I read a book and find a nugget of wisdom, that I’d like to keep top of mind for later use, I create a flashcard in Anki.  Then every morning I spend ~ 10 minutes, reviewing my flashcards.  Sometimes it takes me more than 10 minutes, usually after I’ve read an amazing book that had tons of insight, but it’s worth the time and effort.

Tricks to creating the flashcards

When you’re creating flashcards, try and consider the following things:

Is what I’m learning similar to or related to something else I already know?  If so, incorporate what you already know into the flashcard question.  One of the keys to learning, is associating the new thing with things we already know.

When you make the flashcard, don’t just copy someone else’s words… Write the flashcard in your own words, it’ll be easier for you to remember.

This process of “tricking” your brain into remembering things is called spaced repetition.  It’s the best way to learning things, and you should start doing it today… I guarantee it’ll be worth your while and you’ll thank me later.

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