Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Here's a Better Way to Remember Things

A group of Brazilian entrepreneurs who have come north for a week's worth of ideas on growing their ventures, are leaving a class, when one of them breaks from pack toward the coffee maker, where I'm heading too. He works the machine first, reciting something again and again in Portuguese as he watches his cup fill.

"Excuse me?," I say, unsure he's talking to me.

"Sorry, I am repeating what the lecturer said," he explains, "so I remember later."

Remembering new information is an underappreciated skill. The fact that most of us have never evolved our technique beyond the rudimentary and ad hoc approaches we used as middle schoolers suggests this. It is required for any sort of professional growth, since the need to learn is high, and can separate the exceptional performances from the mediocre ones. After all, would you prefer to hire the consultant who presented using cue cards or the one who pitched from memory?

Fortunately for us, insights from cognitive psychology have vastly improved our understanding of how we remember. Many of these are accepted wisdom in the neurological and psychological realms. But it hasn't been easy to transfer that knowledge to actual tools for individuals. Until recently, anyway. Easy-to-use auto-analytic tools that exploit our understanding of memory can now help you treat remembering as the skill it is, and improve it the same way you improve any professional skill, like public speaking. Here's how to get started.

First, focus on the right unit of measure. Yes, your objective is to remember better, but you'll get the best results by focusing on forgetting as your base unit of analysis.

Experimental psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus's pioneering discovery of the forgetting curve shows that we forget the majority of newly learned information within hours or days, unless we review it again and again. This alone won't be a shock to many of us. But Ebbinghaus demonstrated how systematic forgetting. It occurs exponentially on a predictable curve — researchers call this "exponential decay."


Different things you're trying to remember will have different curves. For instance, that piece of operations data that you remember clearly, since you prepped and presented it to your team, has a flatter downward curve (you'll remember longer) than that the now hazy sales figure a colleague mentioned during the same team meeting. Evenso, each curve is predictable.

Practice remembering at the right time. Think about how you really use your memory for things that matter to you and your career, like in preparing for a speech. Maybe you're a crammer who tries to prime your memory by doing as many dry-runs as possible the night before. Or perhaps you've committed to ploddingly rehearsing your lines each afternoon for a month from 3 pm to 4 pm. Or maybe you're an improviser who finds time here and there, rehearsing what you'll say at random moments between meetings.
The forgetting curve suggests you should follow a very different memorization process than any of these entail. It shows that there's a precise moment that's best for practicing your lines. That moment is just before you are about to forget them.

So sessions aimed at learning new content should happen at "about-to-forget" moments, with spaces between practice sessions increasing as you approach mastery. This learning process is called spaced repetition, and can help us avoid the inefficiencies and risks of ad hoc memorization methods like cramming.

Incorporate auto-analytics tools. OK, so you get the idea that you should try to commit things to memory only when you are just about to forget them. But how do you know when that critical moment is about to happen? How do you know what your forgetting curve looks like?

Almost like your fingerprint, your forgetting curve is very different from anyone else's. But a type of auto-analytics tool called "Spaced Repetition Software" or "SRS" can learn the idiosyncrasies of your memory, and then ping you to practice at the optimal time.

These mobile and desktop tools are like automated flashcards, though you work through your "pile" according to your personal algorithm and the rules of spaced repetition.
They fine-tune your algorithm using a straightforward rating system. Let's say you're a newly appointed manager learning some finance for the first time, and you're trying to improve your recall of many new terms. When the term "Leverage" appears you recall its meaning effortlessly and assign it an A. But when "Arbitrage" appears you assign it a D since you must labor to recall its basic meaning, and even then it remains fuzzy.

The tool continually hones its prompts based on your input. No doubt you'll see "Arbitrage" sooner than "Leverage," as practice sessions for the second concept would be scheduled later and less frequently to maximize efficient memorization.

Map your practice to your priorities. Finally, be very selective when choosing what you want to get better at remembering. In theory, you could work on mastering numerous new domains at once, but experimental research and case studies suggest this isn't practical for full time workers.

Focus instead on a single development opportunity integral to your career. (See the accompany chart for examples of cases where you could use SRS.) Does this opportunity require learning new terms, concepts, or narratives? If yes, then it makes sense to focus on hacking your memory with these computing tools to pursue it.

In short, when you're on a steep learning curve, remember the forgetting curve, and then beat it.

very useful, especially the tips to improve one's memory

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