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13 Tricks to Help You Remember What You’ve Learned

13 Tricks to Help You Remember What You’ve Learned
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Featured photo credit: By Cawpwoa (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons via commons.wikimedia.org

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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