Chris Schoonover is the author of a few novel called Don’t Read. His new project is a nonfiction piece about Los Angeles with his co-writer, Melissa Sweat. This article originally appeared on Lifehack.
Memory is fallible. If you forget everything in this article, remember this fact: Researchers estimate that we lose 90% of everything we learn immediately after learning it. Ninety percent. Have I got your attention now?
Trying to recall information can be like digging a hole without a proper shovel: Sure, you can implement what you have to make the hole, but the tool you employ is makeshift. Or perhaps you only have your hands.
When our minds begin to absorb new information, there is a limited amount of time before that information becomes useless to us. For several reasons, our brains are in a constant process of forgetting. Most of the details that you learn are lost to you within a short time, because your brain only has limited space. And your brain doesn’t actually know how to determine if a detail will be useful to you at a later time… so it just forgets it.
Throughout your learning process make time to ensure that you will remember the information you want to remember by following these 13 simple tricks.
1. Acknowledge How You Learn
Articles are published every day about how the educational systems of the world are flawed, for various reasons. Perhaps the most fundamental component that is missing from these systems is the process of learning itself: students are not learning how to learn. Facts and figures are thrown at pupils, and they are asked to memorize them by rote. Students are not told about the process of learning and what goes on in that process, how the brain commits information to memory and how to recall it. Each example in this series relates to either the learning process or the ability to recall – incorporate these activities into your own processes to enhance your ability to remember.
2. Motivate to Remember
When you are interested in a subject, you are more likely to remember what you have learned. Motivate yourself with authenticity. Is this a subject that you are passionate for? If the answer is yes, then you are on the right track. If you have a zest for knowledge already, then you know this is the case when it comes to learning. Learning one task begets an insatiable urge to learn more, and your hunger grows as you realize how much there is to learn in the world. On the other hand, if you find that you are unmotivated to learn something or if you have a shallow relationship with the subject, then your brain in turn will be less interested (and therefore, less likely to be able to recall it). When you select a subject that you know you will find engaging, then you will have a greater opportunity to remember all about it.
3. Concentrate to Remember
Concentration utilizes a great deal of brain power, and signals your mind to fix a process or subject into your long-term memory. Your attention must be undivided, and your focus must come naturally. If you are fatigued or distracted, then it is very difficult for your mind to commit information into memory. Set up a peaceful space without distraction when you are going through your learning process, and you will be more likely to recall the details you’ve learned.
4. Listening and Reading Aren’t the Best Ways to Learn
When you are trying to learn and recall something, listening and reading pale in comparison to other forms of learning, like group discussions or teaching. In order to learn something well, you must be concentrating, and often we are struggling with the information we learn from simple hearing and seeing. Activities must be hands-on and, as humans, all of our best learning comes from making mistakes. So get as involved as possible in the process so that you can learn at your best.
5. Calculate Recall Times
You’ve got to challenge your mind to recall what you’ve learned. This allows your memory to not only show you that it’s working but the process itself improves your ability to summon the information you’ve learned. According to the experts, there are a myriad of times that are best for when to try to recall. (One UCLA study argues that the best time to recall something is right before you are about to forget it!) The simplest solution: study again after one hour, and a third time after 24 hours. The argument is that you will lose what you’ve learned quickly, so study it again within an hour. Also, after a full day passes you are likely to forget the information if you do not review it. While this is a broad-yet-effective solution for the recall problem, there is a better way.
SuperMemo.com houses a calculator that determines the best time to test your memory recall. Basically, a computer program figures out the moment that you’re about to forget something, and challenges you to recall it – precisely in that moment. Warning! The user interface is stuck in the nineties and the material may seem a little kooky. But I assure you, if you want to become a memory machine, this site has exactly what you need. (For more information, read this Wired article about the site’s creator, Piotr Wozniak.)
6. Take Breaks
Break up your learning, and give your body & mind time to relax. You should pepper twenty minute breaks throughout your study time, with a long break in the middle for a meal. Ideally, learning should be done on a cycle. Unfortunately everyone is different, so there is no magic number of minutes or hours that you should study. On average, an individual can remain focused on a task for about 45 minutes, so this is a good number to start with. For some, the length of your study time may be even longer. As you go through your process, pay attention to mental and physical cues to fine tune the length of your learning time (i.e. mind wandering, fidgeting, etc.). Adjust your study time accordingly.
7. Study Before Bed & After Waking
The best time to learn – or review information that you’ve learned – is just before you go to sleep and right when you wake up. Before you go to bed and right after you wake up, your brain secretes chemicals that are designed to make your memory more concrete. At other times of the day, the mind is continually refreshing the contents of your short-term memory (causing you to forget things). Also during the day, your mind is overloaded with constant information, so there is not much room for anything new.
8. Scrutinize, Connect, and Elaborate
Learning is not a static activity. Your brain is trying to make connections between the information you are learning and what you already know. So look deeper at the processes and make connections. For example, if you are learning about airflow and Bernoulli’s principle, compare your existing knowledge of laminar flow in water to further cement the new info you are learning. Similarly, by examining the processes of a task, or the details of the information, you allow your brain to have a better grasp of what you learn. Again, don’t just look at the facts and figures. Develop a working knowledge of the details and the process, thereby providing your brain with a framework for your learning. Moreover, when you connect the information with that which you already know, then your mind will remember the particular similarities within the processes.
9. Teach What You’ve Learned
Teachers make mistakes. When they fail or make a mistake, they’ve got to learn how to correct the mistake. And mistakes are good. Research shows that when you make a mistake whilst teaching, you must go back and check your work, which familiarizes you further with the processes of the task. Furthermore, when learning is hard, you are performing at your peak, and you are more likely to recall the information at a later time. Because teaching takes a great deal of concentration, your brain kicks your memory absorption into high gear. So teach what you’ve learned.
10. Force Recall
Everyone will tell you that flash cards are the best way to remember something. And they’re just about right. By forcing your brain to bring back what you learned through recall, your brain has to concentrate to get that information into your consciousness. Any kind of trivia game can help with this, provided that you don’t look at the answers – or Google it! – before you give your ability to recall a good college try.
11. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Repeating an activity, process, or detail can help you to recall it. If you incorporate what you want to remember into an everyday activity, you are exponentially more likely to remember it. Consider this example: put your doctor’s phone number into your password to access your computer (e.g., DoctorMark5236798). Should an emergency arise where you need to recall the number, you won’t have to go searching through the phone book. Essentially, by performing a task daily you’ll have no problem conjuring the information right when you need it.
12. Stay Healthy
Eat right and stay in shape – your mental health depends on it. Whenever you are famished or dehydrated, your mind can meander into Never Never Land, or else it can propel itself into panic-mode out of hunger. Therefore, maintain a steady diet. Avoid foods that are high in sugar as they will cause you to crash. Consuming too many calories can make you feel sluggish, so stay away from processed foods. Instead, eat plenty of produce and lean meats to keep your brain healthy. Exercise regularly as well. A good cardiovascular workout improves your blood flow and your immune system, which helps to restore your mental energy for more learning.
13. Reflect Upon What You’ve Learned
Spend just 15 minutes reflecting on what you learned at the end of the day. This will boost your confidence in your learning process as you are recalling the information. Your process will be further edified: you will be eager to get back into learning the next day, putting more effort into your activities and what you learn.
Memory is fallible, as I stated earlier. Do you recall what I asked you to remember at the start? Perhaps you do but maybe you forgot. Scrolling to the top to reread it is easy enough right now but you might not always have that luxury. If you incorporate these tricks into your learning habits, you will see a marked improvement in your ability to recall what you’ve learned.