A Surprising Way To Remember What You Learn

Do you remember that awesome personal development book you read last year? You know, the one about success and improvement?

Perhaps not.

Myself, I used to always have trouble remembering what those key lessons where that I learned from all those books I read. It was usually something along the lines of… “Do A in situation B and you will get C” But I can’t walk around with hundreds, or even thousands, of scripts in my mind just waiting to execute them. So unfortunately I forgot them quite quickly. Meaning that I had wasted a lot of time reading great material that I never got the chance to use in real life.

So why is it so?

Well, there are a number of reasons why we forget what we learn. One important reason is that without repetition or reinforcement we forget most parts of what we once knew. Hermann Ebbinghaus showed exactly this through a series of experiments, at the end of the 19th century when he came to the conclusion that “24 hours after learning something we actually forget two thirds of it”.

But this fact you might already know and it’s often mentioned, e.g. by self-help guru Tony Robbins when he states: “Repetition is the mother of all skill”.

So here comes the extension of this fact that I am going to discuss today. I believe that the major reason why I used to forget so many valuable lessons so fast was that I frequently acted in a way of CLOSURE. Once a book was read, I ticked it off my reading list, summarized it and put it behind me. It was a good feeling. Something completed. Something tangible achieved. And then I just moved on to the next thing I wanted to learn.

You might recognize this way of learning as it’s usually the way we learn in school. We have a few weeks to learn about the flags of countries, and then we CLOSE that part and moves on to the next.

This act of CLOSING something actually affects the way we remember, or in other words: “Interruption when learning something greatly improves its chances of being remembered.”

This is called the Zeigarnik effect and was discovered on a small scale by noticing that waiters actually remembers orders-in-progress much more clearly compared to orders that have been completed. Once a task was done, it quickly vanished from their memory.

This means that keeping a task active instead of closing it can be a great way to improve your ability to remember what you learn. Here is a a small exercise, when you read your next book, do this: Instead of stopping to read at the completion of a chapter, just stop in the middle of a chapter and see if you’ll be able to get back into it more easily the next time you pick up the book. You might just be surprised.

So now let’s take this onto a larger scale and not just for waiters remembering orders.

When you’ve learned something new or had a fresh insight from a personal development book, then I suggest doing three specific things in order to really learn and internalize it. So instead of CLOSING that part of the book, do this:

1. Connect
In order to learn something that you can use in daily life, it’s vital that you learn how to connect this lesson to things that you already know. By putting it into context, your brain will get a much firmer grip on the knowledge. It won’t just be a separate piece of information floating around in your mind. And if you don’t find anything clear to connect it to, then I suggest creating those pathways yourself. Find out more about the topic so you really understand what this new knowledge means.

2. Repeat
As I mentioned above, repetition is critical if you want to remember those lessons you gain. Look back at a section or book and go through it in your mind. Re-read some parts and get the knowledge fresh again in your head. A rule of thumb to use for repetition is this timeline below.

Look back at what you’ve learned after:
-1 hour
-10 hours
-1 day
-1 week
-1 month
-3 months
-Etc. etc.

This might seem a bit too much for you, but feel free to adapt it depending on how important the knowledge/skill is and how hard it is to remember.

3. Teach
This is a fantastic way to reinforce what you know, but also to uncover any gaps of what you’ve missed or don’t fully understand. So if you for example learned some new great tips for how to wake up early and have a great morning, then describe those tips for a friend. Teach them about your insights and you will soon see how sticky your knowledge becomes.

So if you are ready to try a new method for how to remember more and learn faster – interrupt yourself. As you’re trying to build a skill set, stop and put that information into context. Never close it and let it rest. Instead keep it alive in your mind by repetition and teaching it to friends and colleagues/classmates.

This will make you much more able to really master an area and learn things for a lifetime. So just get out there and start learning!
Written by Matthew M. McEwan from Early-Riser.com. His blog is loaded with tips and strategies for how to wake up early and have a great morning.

-Share your thoughts on the ideas above in the comments below.

Don’t fall for the myth of perfect timing. If you’re ready to get on with living life on your own terms — my audio program, “Why Perfect Timing is a Myth” will be a welcome addition to your success library — learn more here.

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  • Thanks Josh for the opportunity to write for getmotivation! Everyone remember now, keep learning and keep remembering 🙂

  • Thank you Matthew. We’re lucky to have you share your wisdom here with everyone.

  • Matthew M. McEwan