How To Build Durable Habits In 4 Easy Steps Even If Your Motivation Is At An All Time Low

If you ask almost anyone, he will tell you this – “Building durable habits is damn hard”.

I find it really fascinating!
We have literally dozens of automated routines which we carry out throughout the day.

You wake up – you brush your teeth.
You hear your mobile buzzing – you reach for it to check a new text message.
You pass the confectionery, start drooling, run inside and shove your head into the nearest cake.

Yet, just a few of them are truly positive and life-changing.
I mean, it is understandable if you really think about it.

Our default mode is energy conservation.
My brain, your brain, every brain is the same.

It doesn’t give a flying f* about coming up with new ideas or creating new learning systems.
You have to trick it into doing it.

What Habits Really Are

 

Once again – your brain couldn’t be bothered less to learn Swahili or other language which you don’t have any contact with. That requires energy. And energy is in short supply.

Basically, any new activity which you take up is very energy-consuming.
There are no established, efficient neural networks which are able to diminish the energy costs.

Because this is exactly how you should start thinking about habits.

Habits are simply neural pathways. The more you strain them, the thicker they becomeIf they become thick enough, carrying out a giving activity goes into an autopilot mode.

It’s true for any kind of activity. Lick your foot every time you have a glass of water and soon enough you will find yourself doing it in the most unusual places.

How To Create Durable Habits

 

One of the frameworks which I teach my students is this (interested in other super-effective way of creating habits? – click here):

  • 0) Be brutally honest with yourself
  • 1) Decrease activation energy of an activity
  • 2) Remove / minimize distractions
  • 3) Set goals at the absolute minimal level
  • 4) Tie a new habit to the preexisting routine / habit

Let’s see how these elements come together.

Be Brutally Honest With Yourself

 

How To Build Durable Habits

 

Although it is not really a part of the framework, it is definitely a prerequisite.

You know that feeling when a person close to you regularly does something stupid?

You try to beg, plead and bargain to prevent him from doing it.
You appeal to his common sense. All in vain.

Usually, you get lackluster, “sure, I think I will try it”, in return.
Which, of course, is just another way of saying, “no way in hell I am doing that”.

But it’s easy to notice such a headstrong attitude in others.

But what about you and me?
Isn’t that just the typical the-pot-calling-the-cattle-black attitude?

It is. It always is.

We are masters of rationalizations. 

Warlocks of bullshit excuses.

I know I am.
I consider myself very good at creating habits.

Still, every now and then I discover that I am feeding myself beautifully packed lies and excuses.

Example?

My writing. In last 3 months, I wrote 3 articles

3 articles. This is a joke.
And the joke is definitely on me.

I have tried to justify it in dozens of ways.
And they all sound so right.

“I would like to write more but I …

  • have to concentrate on my learning
  • on my composing
  • go out more often and meet people
  • concentrate on reading more
  • concentrate on my company
  • don’t have enough time.

The list goes on and on.
I feel sick when I just look at it.

Only recently did I grab the hammer of truth and tear down this wall of mendacity.
In the last few weeks, I have been writing at least 4-5 times per week.
And it feels great!

How did I do it?

I followed my own advice!

It doesn’t matter what problem you have. The following framework should help you solve it. As long as you are honest, that is.

It’s also worth mentioning that some of them require some planning in advance.
But you know – it’s well worth it.

Decrease Activation Energy Of An Activity

 

Would you jump 5 times right now if you wanted to, or if there was some reward involved?
No doubt you would.

And one of the reasons why it would be so easy is the low activation energy of this activity.

The activation energy is the energy you need to start carrying out a given activity.
The lower the energy, the easier it is to start doing it.

But how does it exactly work?

Imagine that you live on the fifth floor and you would like to start running 4 times per week.
There is just one problem – your running shoes are in the basement.

Would you go up and down the stairs 4 times per week just to have a run?
Highly unlikely.

That’s why, your first task is to eliminate superfluous obstacles which prevent you from taking up your desired activity.

Would you like to read a book in your target language 4 times per week?
Great. Then always keep it handy.

Would you like to listen to songs in your target language every day?

Great, then download a truckload of songs on your mobile.
It’s much easier to play them if they are just one click away.

Remove Distractions

 

How To Build Durable Habits

 

Decreasing the activation energy of your future habits is a good start.
But it is not enough.

You also have to make sure that you either eliminate all the distractions or increase their activation energy.

I know. It sounds very basic and you have heard about it 3472 times before.
But this time, don’t just nod and do the things the old way.

This time, be a bit more strategic.
Plan ahead the plan of actions.

Distractions usually fall into one of 3 categories:

1) Technological distractions

 

The main culprits which pull you away from your work are mobile phones and the internet.
Shock, surprise, and astonishment! I know. It was hard to envision.

Turn off your mobile phone.

Block the time-devouring websites or temporarily disconnect your internet.
If it happens that you zone out and suddenly find yourself looking at the writing:

“Check your internet connection”

You will know that you tried to visit facebook or other websites of this kind.

2) People

 

It always sounds wrong and cold but, anyway, here it is: people should also be classified and treated as distractions.

I know you love your wife/girlfriend very much but if she can’t help but interrupt you every couple of minutes, you should have a talk with her.

Negotiate some distraction-free time so you can learn peacefully.

3) Environment

 

How To Build Durable Habits

 

It is definitely good to learn in as many places as it is possible – it is beneficial for your memory, after all.
Just make sure that they aren’t too noisy so you concentrate on the task at hand.

How Effective Is Increasing of The Activation Energy?

 

I get it – you probably still have some doubts.

Is increasing the activation energy of activities really that effective?
Can it really help me eliminate the pesky habits?

Yes and yes!

Just take a look at the results of this research:

Walking one-third of a mile longer from home to the nearest tobacco shop to buy cigarettes was associated with increased odds that smokers would quit the habit in an analysis of data in Finnish studies, according to an article published online by JAMA Internal Medicine.

Another great example of increasing activation energy to get rid of the unwanted behaviors is … donating organs.

Here is the excerpt from Money – Master The Game by Tony Robbins:

If you are in Germany, there’s about a one-in-eight chance you’ll donate your organs—about 12% of the population does. Whereas in Austria, Germany’s next-door neighbor, 99% of people donate their organs. In Sweden, 89% donate, but in Denmark, the rate is only 4%. What gives? Why such a disparity?

If you expect to hear some Jedi mind tricks which are used to manipulate the minds of Swedish and Austrian citizens, think again!
The secret lies in the wording on the form.

In countries with the lowest donor rates, like Denmark, there is a small box that says, “Check here if you want to participate in the organ donor program.” In countries with the highest rates, like Sweden, the form says, “Check here if you don’t want to participate in the organ donor program.”
That’s the secret! Nobody likes to check boxes. It’s not that we don’t want to donate our organs. That little bit of inertia makes all the difference in the world!

I hope you are convinced by now!
Let’s move on!

Set goals at the absolute minimal level

 

Being ambitious is good. No, it’s great!

But here is the uncomfortable truth which we all have to face – we suck at predicting pretty much anything.

We can’t reliably fathom how much time we will spend doing something.
We have no idea how much money we will spend the next month.

And we are terrible at predicting how difficult our goals are.

Example?

At the turn of each year, the flock of uber motivated people hit the gym.

Goal?
Work out at least 2…, no! 4 Times per week!

It doesn’t matter that the last time they worked out was about 4 years ago.
There is simply no time to f*ck around!

Of course, after about 1-3 months, depending on their motivation, they run out of steam.
Going to the gym becomes a thing of the past.

It happens to the best of us.
But why exactly?

Setting goals is, without any doubt, useful.

But goal-oriented productivity has one, gigantic flaw – It rarely acknowledges that you and I are human beings.

You have bad days. Days when just a mere thought of doing anything productive revolts you.

So you come back from work.

Instead of starting your language learning session, you put on your I-am-a-lazy-and-disgusting-slob pants and start watching The Game of Thrones with a bag of chips.

 

How To Build Durable Habits

 

And, needless to say, you feel like “sh*t”.

Repeat the above scenario a couple of times and you will find yourself ditching any budding habit.

Even though I have nothing against SMART goals, I don’t believe that the productivity based on ambitious goals will get you far.

The most effective learners rely on systems.

Systems, on the other hand, are built of habits.

In order to create a durable habit, you should start with being consistent.
And there is no easier way to become consistent than choosing absolutely minimal goals.

How To Choose Your Minimal Goal

 

What I would suggest is:

1) Choose the frequency of your habit
2) Carefully examine your resistance to a potential intensity of your soon-to-be habit

Do you know that overwhelming feeling of resistance when you think about some very ambitious goals?
That’s you brain saying, “Nah, thanks. We need energy – let’s pulverize some chocolate pretzels and snort them!”.

It’s really easy to evoke this feeling. Test it yourself!

Imagine that your goal is to run 4 km 5 times per week.
Or learn 150 new words every day.

Try to analyze incoming feelings and thoughts.

If these activities are beyond your current reach, you will experience the overall feeling of anxiety. The more ambitious the goal, the more resistance you feel.

That’s why, first of all, you should concentrate on being consistent in order to create durable habits
The rest will come.

Here are some practical examples.

1) I want to learn a foreign language regularly

 

How To Build Durable Habits
Depending on your current needs, you may choose one of the following goals:

Read one page of a book of your choice per day.
Learn 3 new words per day.
Listen to 5 minutes of radio.

If you feel the slightest prickle of anxiety, lower the bar even more.

2) If you want to run 3 times per week

 

Put on your shoes and walk at least 300 m away from your home.
Don’t run. Just walk

If you still feel like running after covering this distance – go for it. If not, just call it a day. You did your job for today.

How Minimal Goals Turn Into Durable Habits

 

As you can see, these are not ambitious goals.
You don’t set a bar. You basically put it on the damn ground.

That’s why you brain is really ok with it.

After all, such activities require almost no energy – hence the lack of resistance.

And this is where the gist of this method lies.
You should choose your goals so that they don’t trigger “No way in hell” response.

But am I really suggesting that you only do these tiny things throughout the day?
Of course not.

I love pushing the boundaries.

800 words per day? Hell yeah!
Getting headaches because of overlearning? Yes, please.

The thing is that the secret about doing anything regularly is showing up.

You have to let your neural networks strengthen enough so you don’t have to even think about doing something anymore.

Happen what may – just don’t break the chain.

Because this one day break is not a separate point in time, nor is it an unconnected incident. It actually affects the person you are trying to become.

Here is the amazing thing about being consistent – you build your endurance over time.

Even if you do as little as learning 3 words per day. Even if you run just 60 meters.

After some time, you get used to the intensity of your actions. And with the same amount of effort you can actually learn 6 words. And then 10. And then 50!

I still remember vividly the feeling of terror I felt when I thought about learning 20 words per day! It seemed like an impossible thing to do.

Many years have passed and these days, I consider myself lazy if I do less than 40-50 words per day.

Here is the quote to ponder:

‘We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training” – Archilochus

I will repeat once again. We suck at predicting almost everything.

Most of the time you might be convinced that you will perform some action. However, when push comes to the shove you fall flat like a hockey puck.

But if you do just a tiny bit day by day, you will create the system.

And make no mistake – having a learning system based on habits makes you a truly unstoppable human being.

Why?

Because systems are, most of the time, immune to any internal and external obstacles.

Years ago when I used to spend a lot of time at work.

You know the scenario. 10 hours at work, 2-hour commute.

You come home angry because the public transport sucks and a bunch of semi-retarded teenagers were blasting music through their mobile phones.

What’s fascinating is that even then, I grabbed a quick bite and started poring over books.

I didn’t really think about it. It was an impulse.
As if a little geek inside me was telling me to do it.

It’s admirable but it’s not as difficult as you might think. It’s just a habit.

The one which took some time, of course. The habit nonetheless.

In fact, according to a Duke University study, 45 percent of a person’s behavior stems from habit alone. And it’s difficult to change a habit if you don’t even think about it any more! – The Coaching Habit – Michael Bungay Stanier

The beautiful part of forming durable habits is that you actually learn to love whatever you do. The habit actually becomes a part of your self-concept!

Tie a new habit to preexisting routine/habit

Here is not so complicated logical loop:

Building a habit takes some time. And until a given activity becomes a habit, it’s not automatic. And if it’s not automatic, there is no certainty that you will remember to do it.

The solution?

Tie your new habit to preexisting routines.

Of course, you can try to rely on your willpower but such a strategy is rarely successful.
You don’t want to drive yourself to the point of decision fatigue.

Example?

Let’s say that you drink a cup of tea when you go back from work.
It might be a trigger for your new habit.

Learn a couple of words every time you grab your cup of tea. In no time, you will discover that learning new vocabulary has become an indispensable part of your tea-drinking ritual.

 

How To Build Durable Habits

 

Once you get used to learning new words every day, you can expand this mini-habit and tie it to other routines.

Although most of the time it won’t be necessary. Usually, after a couple of weeks, you will discover that your mini-habit turned into a durable habit!

You might actually start feeling anxious when you can’t indulge yourself in performing a habit of your choice!

Back To You

So what about you?

Are there any habits you are trying to build?

Let me know!

 

The Truth About Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics In Learning

Would you like to be able to memorize a whole book? What about those boring declination tables?

Silly question. Who wouldn’t?

One way or the other, you have heard of amazing memory feats of mnemonists – memorizing decks of cards or thousands of digits. And all this seemingly effortlessly.

Mnemonics definitely have power to stimulate imagination. And they definitely stimulated mine.

This dream, dream of being able to memorize anything I want, triggered the chain of events which made me embark on a bumpy journey/

Destination? To discover the true effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics and master my memory.

My First Experience With Mnemonics

 

I still remember the first time when I had to practically use mnemonics.

I failed one of my exams and I had to retake it. The problem was that I didn’t know when.
I was convinced that the day would be announced very soon.

The days went by and I didn’t even touch the course book. Somehow the notion of the retake blissfully slipped my mind.

One day I was sitting in the corridor, listening to the music and reading a book

Suddenly I heard a muffled voice, “aren’t you preparing for the exam?”.
“What exam?, I looked up just to see the grinning face of my good friend.

“It’s starting in 2 hours”, he replied. Somehow his grin turned into an evil smirk.

“That’s it”, I thought to myself.

“I will fail this exam and I will fail my studies. I will end up homeless and will have to fight sewer spiders for the food.”

After the first surge of panic passed, I started coming up with possible solutions.
I decided that my best chance is to use mnemonics.

I didn’t have much experience in using them. Sure, I had read two books up to that point but had almost no experience to back up the theory.

Desperate times call for drastic measures. I rolled up my sleeves and started learning.

A bit over 3 h later, I left the professor’s office.
I passed. I don’t know how, but I passed.

Thus my obsession with mnemonics was born.

My imagination was running wild. Where are the boundaries?

Is it possible for each one of us to become genius if we just learn to utilize mnemonic strategies?

I needed many years to learn the bitter truth.

No. Mnemonics will not make you a genius and allow you to effortlessly absorb tons of information.

“So are they useful at all?”, you might ask.
And what can they be used for?

I will get back to this in a moment.

What Are Mnemonics

 

Before we move on, it’s good to quickly explain what mnemonics are.

In short, mnemonics are devices to aid our overburdened memory.

They are used to facilitate effective encoding by associating new information with the knowledge which is already stored in your long-term memory (Johnson & Weber, 2006 as cited in Gibson, 2009).

Probably the most common mnemonic device is so-called keyword method coined by Atkinson (1975). It is used to make meaningful auditory and imagery links to remember a word.

For example, if you want to remember that “to buy” in Spanish is “comprar”, you might create a vivid picture of a man who compares prices of products before the purchase.

Not that complicated, right?

Let’s see now what science has to say about mnemonics.

What Science Thinks About Mnemonics

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

 

There is a large body of research about mnemonics.

However, probably the most interesting study up-to-date was led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky and released in April 2013 by the Association for Psychological Science.

In a comprehensive report, the group of authors closely examined 10 learning tactics and rated them from high to low utility based on the evidence they’ve gathered.

If you are expecting mnemonics to be among the most useful strategies, don’t hold your breath.
They didn’t even come close to the top of the list.

According to the authors, some commonly used techniques, such as underlining, rereading material, and using mnemonic devices, were found to be of surprisingly low utility.

Of surprisingly low utility?!

If you look at memory feats performed by mnemonics, you might reach a conclusion that scientists must be taking crazy pills.

For example, here is a video of  Dr Yip Swee Chooi.

 

 

What’s so special about him?

He learnt 1774-page Chinese-English dictionary by heart (in case you wonder – it took him almost 6 months to do it).

Another great example is  Simon Reinhard who memorized a deck of cards in 20.438 seconds.

 

 

Clearly people with untrained memory would not be able to even come close to these results.

Still, the report says clearly – mnemonics might not be the best use of your time.

Of course, I must be perfectly honest with you.
There are a lot of studies who show that using mnemonics might be very beneficial for (among others):

What’s even more important, some studies showed memory improvement with students with disabilities, as described by Fulk (1994) and Bulgren et al. (1994).

And these are just a few of them and they all state clearly – mnemonics are statistically more effective.

Effective than what?! And why didn’t I include these studies here then?

Problems With Studies On Effectiveness Of Mnemonics

 

Having read dozens of studies on mnemonics, I can divide flaws of these studies into following categories:

a) Statistical sample is not representative

 

Do you know how to recognize bad, bullshit science at the first glance? Look at the sample.

To generalize, any number below 100 participants means that researchers just threw your tax money into the gutter.

b) Control groups suck

 

Do you know what is the usual control group against mnemonics-using students?
Rote learning students.

Ugh, it’s like watching some bizarre boxing match.

“Ladies and gentleman, let’s gather around to enjoy this very duel – a retarded shrimp vs. quite an ordinary shrimp”.

c) Laboratory settings

 

99,9% of these studies are conducted in laboratory settings.

And there is quite a yawning gap between research in areas of everyday memory (i.e. field research) and lab-controlled research.

The Hawthorne effect is one of the things which comes to mind.

A type of reactivity in which individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed

It’s very hard to generalize such results to other settings

What’s more, so-called low ecological validity comes into play.

The laboratory is clearly an artificial situation.  People are directed by an ‘experimenter’ in a psychological experiment. They are removed from their usual social settings and asked to memorize different sets of data.

This is a very unusual experience which raises the question – how do this novel experience and settings really affect their behavior and memory?

Still, lab research is better than no research at all.

d) Time horizon

 

Most studies are conducted over relatively short period of time. It’s rarely spread over more than 3-4 weeks. As you will soon read, this is why most studies prove effectiveness of mnemonics.

e) Nature of the tasks

 

How would you feel about memorizing and recalling a list of unconnected words or digits? Seriously, be honest. How would you rate your willingness on the scale from “nope” to “never”?

The detachment of such tasks from everyday life, and their general lack of usefulness, have led some researchers to question whether their findings can be generalized to real life.

 

Am I saying that mnemonics are useless then?
Not at all. They can be insanely useful.

But you must understand what they are and what they aren’t.
I quoted the excerpt from John Dunlosky’s report for two reasons:

  • 1) It tested different learning strategies against one another.
  • 2) More importantly, it tested effects of those strategies in LONG-TERM learning.

And this is what mnemonics are not.

They are not a suitable tool for long-term learning. At least not in the form they are usually presented.

If you are not pressed for time, you can get by without any problems without using mnemonics

They are also not a panacea for all your memory problems.
This is just another tool in your learning arsenal.

If you have ever read anything by any author who promotes / sells anything mnemonics-related you might find it hard too believe.

Don’t worry, I also felt disillusioned. And I had good reasons.

(Results Of) My Experiments With Mnemonics

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

Picture by: Vlad

Since that pivotal moment of my life, my obsession with mnemonics had been growing in strength with each passing day.

There was no stopping me. I was the mnemonics preacher. Everybody HAD to know about how mnemonics are great,

After I won local memory championship, it only got worse.

I experimented with the ardor of meth-addicted junkie.

I created memory palaces holding thousands of words.

I tried to learn entire books by heart just to test effectiveness of mnemonics.

I have memorized tables, law regulations and tested my recall  at various intervals.

Effect was always the same.

Great recall rate at the beginning of my experiments. These early results were always accompanied by the feeling of overwhelming joy.

But it never lasted long.

My recall rate was still good after up to 2-4 weeks after creating mnemonic images and reviewing them. Although, I could notice some deterioration of my memories.

Inevitable drop in recall rate always came after more than 4 weeks.

And this is exactly why most scientific studies seemingly prove effectiveness of mnemonics.
They test them in labs in short periods of time.

Once again, I would like to stress that mnemonics can be immensely useful.

Useful both for recalling random information as well as helping you achieve high levels of expert performance. Just not for long-term learning.

Read on and I will show how they can be utilized best.

But first, to have a full picture of what you’re dealing with, take a look at limitations of mnemonics.

Limitations And Disadvantages Of Mnemonics

 

  • Gruneberg (1998) argues that the keyword method in general is inferior to rote learning in the longer-term retention of vocabulary.
  • “Campos and Gonzalez (2003) attribute ineffectiveness of keyword method to participants’ ‘lack of training. They investigated in four experiments the effectiveness of the mnemonic key word method using two groups of adults and adolescents. In all the experiments, the rote method was more effective than the keyword method for both adolescents and adults.”
  • Some people (especially adults) are reluctant to create vivid images and crazy stories.
  • Some people (especially adults) are unable and / or unwilling to resign from using previously learned strategies.
  • Using mnemonic devices in memorizing words is time-consuming (especially at the beginning).
  • Using mnemonics requires more effort (especially at the beginning) than rote-learning.
  • Mnemonics don’t guarantee understanding.
  • Learning with mnemonics lacks context.

 

So if mnemonics are not a great way for long-term learning, what are they good for?

How Mnemonics Affect Your Short-Term Memory

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

 

Short term memory has three key aspects:

  • 1. limited capacity (only about 7+-2 items can be stored at a time, or 3-4 chunks)
  • 2. limited duration (storage is very fragile and information can be lost with distraction or passage of time)
  • 3. encoding (primarily acoustic, even translating visual information into sounds).

 

And here is where the true power of mnemonics lies.

Mnemonic devices allow you to significantly boost all these three aspects of your short-term memory.

It might not seem like a big deal but it has tremendous implications for your (language) learning.

Why?

Because short-term memory is a necessary step toward the next stage of retention – long-term memory.

You can treat short-term memory as a bottleneck of your learning.

After all, if you can’t commit some information, even just for a few seconds, to your memory, how are you supposed to learn?

Some researchers claim that working-memory capacity reflects the efficiency of executive functions.

In other words, the ability to maintain and manipulate information in the face of distractions and other irrelevant information. ( Engle, R. W., September 1999).

 

That’s why the best way to think about mnemonics is to treat them as a relatively long-lived external memory with huge capacity.

 

I will get to the most effective use of mnemonics in a second.

First, I want to demonstrate you something. Let’s take a look at prodigies.

The Short-Term Memory Of Prodigies

 

Studies on the prodigies who reached professional-level performance in their domain (e.g., art, math, music) by the age of 10 show something very interesting.

When Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach administered an IQ test to nine prominent child prodigies (…) there were a wide range of IQ scores among the eight prodigies (from 108 to 147), and their cognitive profiles were uneven.

It turned out that the key to understanding their rapid learning in their domain was not their global intellectual functioning.

Most strikingly, every single prodigy in their sample scored off the charts (better than 99 percent of the general population) in working memory — the ability to simultaneously store incoming information while processing other information.

So how can you approach these levels of intellectual functioning?

Key Information Needed to Understand How To use Mnemonics Effectively

 

  • 2) Calling information to mind strengthens it and helps in future retrieval
  • 3) Understanding the difference between procedural and declarative knowledge.

 

According to Cohen and Squire (1980):

Procedural knowledge involves “knowing how” to do things. It includes skills, such as “knowing how” to play the piano, ride a bike; tie your shoes and other motor skills. It does not involve conscious thought (i.e. it’s unconscious – automatic). For example, we brush our teeth with little or no awareness of the skills involved.

Declarative knowledge involves “knowing that”. Knowing names of plants , dates, formulas – it’s all part of your declarative knowledge. Recalling information from declarative memory involves, so called, effortfull recall – i.e. information has to be consciously brought to mind and “declared”.

 

Knowing these things can help us stew perfect learning mix:

  • 1) Gather information 

It doesn’t matter whether you want to learn a language or how to master persuasion strategies. Gather the knowledge needed to achieve your goal.

  • 2) Memorize it with mnemonics

As I have written before, mnemonics can be treated as an extension of your short-term memory. Place as much information as you can on this external “hard-drive”.

  • 3) Start practising right away

Now that you know the theory of how to play piano or how to program, start putting your knowledge into practice.

Try to use as many pieces of information from your memory as you can.

Because every time you bring one of them to your mind, the magic happens. You start creating and strengthening neural networks responsible for the given action.

Repeat this action sufficient number of times and you will automate it. From that moment on, you will be able to perform it subconsciously and with minimal effort.

Let’s see how you can use it in language learning.

Mnemonics In Language Learning

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

Picture by: Shannon Kokoska

 

When I launched my Czech mission, I already had a rough plan of how to achieve my desired level in record time.

This is more less what I did:

  • 1) I got familiar with grammar
  • 2) I memorized basic declinations and conjugations with mnemonics
  • 3) I memorized about 50 basic words with mnemonics
  • 4) I started producing a lot of sentence  by talking to myself and by using the aforementioned words and grammar
  • 5) I “rinsed and repeated” points 2-4. Each time I increased the number of words and grammar constructions

Of course, there was also listening and reading practice. If someone asks me what is the quickest way to learn a language, I show them this plan.

Ok, I also tell them to use ANKI.

Since we have established that mnemonics can be treated as your external memory, take a look at other practical applications of mnemonics!

(Other) Practical Applications Of Mnemonics

 

Mnemonics are useful whenever you need to memorize a lot of information on the fly and remember them for at least a couple of hours.

That’s why, you can use them (among others):

  • during parties and meetings to memorize names and information about other participants
  • during last-minute panic before the exam or company presentation to make sure that the information stays  in your memory!
  • during speeches.
  • to impress your wife and show her that “you don’t need no damn shopping lists” to remember what you should buy
  • to memorize random information which emerges during conversations

And so on. I think you got it!

Conclusion

Mnemonics have to be one of the most misunderstood learning tools of all times.

They are usually sold as the ultimate solution for all kinds of learning problems which is far from the truth.

As you can see, they can be extremely useful but only provided that you exactly understand what they do.

And what they do is “inflate” your short-term memory for some time.

Manage to review the knowledge you acquired with mnemonics by performing some actions specific to that knowledge.and you can rest assured that your progress will know no boundaries.

You will become that “robo-weirdo”.

And this is what I sincerely wish you.

Have you ever used mnemonics? Let me know!

 

A Simple 4-Step Learning Plan To Get The Most Out Of Your Study Time

You know that feeling, don’t you?

You have finally mustered motivation to sit down and learn. It’s better than that – you actually know what you want to learn! But somehow, you can’t get in the “right mood”.

There are so many things to do. Where should you start? Clock keeps ticking but you still gaze emptily at your book (or screen).

Another tick of the clock. You start getting anxious. Your initial excitement starts dwindling away.

Another tick. “Uhmm, maybe today is not the best day to learn.”

A few ticks later you find yourself spiraling down into the blame and shame of watching dozens of silly cat videos on YT.

The thing is – it’s not your fault.

You didn’t even notice that Chaos and his buddy Disorganization had snuck right behind you and silently strangled your will to learn.

The truth is that in order to learn effectively you need a learning plan.

And no – it doesn’t need to be overly sophisticated.

Here is the simple learning plan I like to use to explain how effective learning looks like.

1. Elimination of distractions

 

Let’s be honest for a second – you’re not a 17th century hermit.

Learning a language for 3 hours might not be as tempting as watching another “7 reasons why you should learn a foreign language” video on YT.

It’s perfectly understandable. It’s within our defective nature to be distracted.

If you’re delusional, you will try to rely only on your strong will.

For all the others – I would suggest that you turn off your mobile phone and block distracting websites with software.

Done? Great.

There is one more thing to take care of. Eliminate the human factor.

The true work is always done in solitude.

Take it from Franz Kafka. As much as he loved his lovely fiancée, he couldn’t stand her presence while he was working.

You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I write. Listen, in that case I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind.… That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.

 

2. Allocation of attention

 

Blocking or at least limiting the number of distractions allows you to focus more deeply on your learning task. On just one task. Not four or two – one is the number.

“But why, what about multitasking. I am really good at it!”

First of all – no, you are not.
Secondly, let me ask you a question.

Do you remember when you were little and you believed in Santa and elves?

Only when you grew up it turned out that your toys weren’t produced in a magic factory.
It was a filthy sweathouse somewhere in Asia.

Being able to multitask is just another myth we like to believe in.

The Math Of Attention

 

Let’s say that your attention equals 1.

What if you divide it between two tasks?
It seems reasonable to believe that each one of them would have an assigned value of 0,5, right?

RINGDINGINGING. Wrong.

It would be more like 0,3, at the very best.

We weren’t born to multitask. Especially when it comes to cognitively demanding tasks.
The sooner you come to terms with it, the better.

 

3. Encoding strategies

Simple Learning Plan

 

The next step is to actually define your preferred encoding strategies.

If the only encoding strategy you have used so far is mindless cramming – please stop. A small panda dies somewhere in the world every time you do that.

The choice might be difficult. There are myriads of strategies to choose from.

You should start experimenting with as many of them as you can to find the ones you prefer.

It might seem like a daunting task.

However, taking into consideration that you have 3-4 decades of professional learning ahead of you, I would strongly suggest that you at least get familiar with them.

You can use:

  • mnemonics
  • associations
  • metaphors
  • Mind Maps
  • distributed practice
  • stories
  • practice testing
  • visualization
  • acronyms
  • deep processing
  • visceralization
  • self-talk
  • chunking

And dozens of others.

They are not equally useful and their choice may depend on the subject you learn. But one thing is clear – the more methods you master, the more effective (and fun) your learning gets.

4. Evaluation

 

Good learners always evaluate their learning effectiveness. The common mistake many people do is saying, “This method works for me”.

But how can you tell?

Do you track your effectiveness?

Pay attention to how much you remember after a certain period of time after your studying session. Examine how this result is correlated to your encoding strategy.

The Good News

 

Learning is not just about finding motivation and simply sitting down. You and I live in the world which is hell-bent on distracting us. And it does that amazingly well.

What’s more, without reflecting on the effectiveness of the methods you use, you might find yourself spinning your wheels and doing the same silly mistakes time after time.

Having a solid plan, however simple it is, is definitely a step in the right direction.

Give it a try and let me know how it went!

Rules Are For Losers? Wrong! Here Is How They Can Help You With Learning

Picture by: Shawn Rossi

It would be beautiful if you could always just sit and learn, wouldn’t it be?
Unfortunately, as you know, it doesn’t work this way.

It seems as if the time is never right.
And even when you sit down, you often don’t know where to start.
Or what to start with.

If you find yourself in this description, why not give yourself a rule or two to make your life easier?
And the process of learning more automatic!

Having rules will get you learning and keep you learning.
You won’t be doomed anymore to ask yourself the ultimate question, “What do I do now?”.

What Is A Rule? (baby don’t hurt me, no more)

Just to be sure that we get the foundations right, I would like to quote definitions of both “a goal” and “a rule”.

I know it sounds silly but I have had my fair share of situations when someone tried to convince me that they are “basically the same”

Rule
Merriam-website dictionary gives the following definition of a rule:

  • a statement that tells you what is or is not allowed in a particular game, situation, etc.
  • a statement that tells you what is allowed or what will happen within a particular system (such as a language or science)
  • a piece of advice about the best way to do something

Goal
Business dictionary defines it as:

An observable and measurable end result having one or more objectives to be achieved within a more or less fixed timeframe

In essence, you can treat it as a logical loophole:

IF … then … and …

Of course, there can be some overlapping between these two. But that shouldn’t be a problem.

Great. But What Are The Rules In Practice?

A rule can be a number of things. Let’s go through some of the examples:

  • It can be a specific writing technique which you want to use in your freelancing

IF I write then I use a free writing technique.

Such a rule is simple and actionable.

It’s not perfectly measurable, but I would say that it is good enough.

You can track your writing output throughout a specific period of time. You can also ask your friends about the quality of your writing just to make sure that it doesn’t deteriorate.

  •  It can be a philosophy which guides whenever you find yourself in a specific emotional state

IF I’m afraid to take a bold step then I’ll think about death and potential regrets

Once again, the philosophy is simple and actionable.

It can also be measured easily by comparing the number of projects which were successfully concluded when you used this rule.

Of course, you have to compare the number of successes within a given period of time with a number of successes within comparable period of time when you didn’t use this rule.

  • It can be a strategy which helps you to deal with your finances

IF I want to spend some money then I’ll make sure that it costs less than 15% of all my financial resources

This is a personal example. Whenever I make a financial decision, I double-check if I don’t spend more than 15% of the money I have. If the answer is positive, it simply means that I can’t afford it.

The rule is so deeply ingrained in my decision-making process, that very often I don’t even think about it! And I’m more than sure that these rules have saved me from dozens of stupid financial decisions.

Otherwise, I would be buying myself a vibrating rubber finger that massages your gums . Yep, this is a real thing.

What Rules Are The Best?

The best rules tend to meet the following three criteria.
They are:

  • actionable
  • simple
  • measurable

The acronym SAM can help you to memorize these qualities.

Why this “trinity”?

Firstly, you have to be sure that the rules you have chosen can be easily implemented into your learning process. Complicate them too much and after a couple of attempts you’ll become bitterly discouraged and will drop them.

Secondly, if you don’t measure in some way how these rules affect your learning, how will you know if they are worth anything?

How To Use Rules In Your Learning?
Picture by: Allan Ajifo

Picture by: Allan Ajifo

To use the rules effectively, you have to know what problems you have.

1) Find a specific problem

Take a moment to think about it.

Once you find it, you can come up with a specific rule to aid your learning.

2) Choose a rule

Let’s choose a quite common language learning problem, i.e. “I don’t know which resources to use”.

What kind of rules could you use to solve it?

My take on this would be to separate language learning competences. Then I would attribute a specific rule to each of the competences I care about.

a) IF I practise listening then I’ll use X radio station

b) IF I want to improve my vocabulary then I’ll write down the words from dictionary and read something

c) IF I want to read something then I’ll read X newspaper

3) Track your results

As I have mentioned before, you have to track your (potential) progress to know whether the rule is good enough to keep it. After checking data, there is just one more step to take.

4) Decide whether to stick to the rule or replace it

Not much more to add here. This is self-explanatory 🙂

Personal Example – How I Juggle 8 Languages Using Rules

Believe me, if I didn’t have rules to guide my studying process, learning languages would be a living hell.

I would throw myself from one language into another. Without any clue what I’m actually doing.

Luckily, I have experimented a little bit and discovered what works for me.

As a disclaimer, I must add that I use this rule for 4 languages. The other ones I either use regularly or teach.

a) One week – learn Russian and French

b) Every second week – learn Czech and Spanish

Of course, this is a simplified version but it helps me to go through the weeks hassle-free.

How Will Rules Change Your Life?

As you can see, using rules in your learning and life can be surprisingly easy! And extremely beneficial.

However, beware of one weird misconception – some say that having rules makes your life miserable and strips it of spontaneity.

Of course, that’s a lie. Using rules doesn’t mean that you will become a soulless robot eating nothing but bolts and screws for breakfast.

Treat them like walking with a compass and map. You wouldn’t say that these are stupid, right?

Now…think about the rules which you might use in your (language) learning or life. How can they improve your life?



Benefits Of Talking To Yourself And How To Do It Right

“One advantage of talking to yourself is that you know at least somebody’s listening” Franklin P. Jones

You must be thinking now – is there a BAD way to talk to yourself?
Of course. Believe me, It’s definitely an art. Just like basket weaving.

But seriously – we definitely take our ability to talk to ourselves for granted. I actually tried to google “talking to yourself” in some languages. The result? Usually people are trying to make sure that they don’t suffer from schizophrenia.

Why so many bad associations?
Every time, every bloody time, when I mention to somebody that I love talking to myself out loud, they give me this weird look. They probably think that I put on my trenchcoat, get on the bus, sit near some nice, old lady and rub myself while blurting out some incomprehensible words.

That’s a grave misunderstanding. If used the right way, “self-talk” as psychologists refer to it, can be a very effective tool in your mental arsenal. It can, I kid you not, improve almost every area of your life.

So no more shameful hiding in the shadows. Embrace your inner voices and let me walk you through the advantages of self talk!

(Cognitive) Benefits Of Talking To Yourself

So what does the research say about talking to yourself?

Research from the University of Michigan found that those who worked through their stress about giving a speech about their qualifications using “you” rather than “I” performed better and were less tormented by anxiety and self-doubt.

When people think of themselves as another person, “it allows them to give themselves objective, helpful feedback“, says Ethan Kross, associate professor of psychology and director of the Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory at the University of Michigan

In another study, psychologists Gary Lupyan (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Daniel Swingley (University of Pennsylvania) conducted a series of experiments to discover whether talking to yourself can help you to locate lost objects.

Long story short – they established that speaking facilitated search, particularly when there was a strong association between the name and the visual target.

You see? Not only children can augment their thinking while doing some task!

Are there any other benefits other than being more likely to stay on task, staying focused better and showing improved perception capabilities?

Sure! Better memory. Think about it – when you talk out loud, you stimulate more sensory channels than when you subvocalize. You hear the sounds. What’s more, even though you may not realize it, your body feels the sound as it is conducted through your bones. Fun fact: Bone conduction is one reason why a person’s voice sounds different to him/her when it is recorded and played back.

Last but not least, every time when you say something out loud, you engage your emotions. One of the most powerful ingredients to boost your memory.

Research is great. But experiencing something the first hand is even better.

Choose some word you’d like to memorize and shout it out angrily or with joy and afterwards start laughing like a mad man. I’ll be amazed if you can’t recall it a few days later.

Here’s a good example. I’m sure you remember this scene if you have seen the movie.

I hope that by this moment, you’re at least muttering to yourself!

Speaking to boost yourself and prepare for important meetings

Everybody has his favorite tricks to deal with anxiety. But the one which I find the most effective is simply preparing yourself for what’s about to come.

  • Have a presentation?

Stand in front of the mirror and go through your presentation as many times as it’s necessary to turn it into a brilliant performance. Who knows? Maybe you will enjoy it that much that you will join Toastmasters.

  • Have an interview?

Collect the list of 20-30 most frequently asked questions and rehearse the crap out of them!

  • Want to confront your boss about the long overdue raise?

List all the possible questions that may come up during such a conversation and prepare your answers. Doing so will put you in a much better position when push comes to shove.

And so on. You get the idea. Proper preparation kills stress and anxiety.

Talk To Yourself To Practise Languages

What if I told you that you can actually learn a language without uttering a word to anyone else but yourself? You would probably think I’m crazy. And I certainly am. After all, I’m writing an article about talking to yourself.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I learned Swedish (B2 level) in order to get the job in less than 4 months without talking to anyone in Swedish (but myself). And while working 50+ hours per week.

Talking to yourself is actually one of the best (and cheapest!) way to improve your language skills. Conversations with others always impose various limitations on you. It’s fully understandable – It’s much more important to keep the talk alive than to experiment with different grammar constructions or new vocabulary.

Talking to yourself enables you to concentrate on your weaknesses. Such deliberate practice can significantly improve your language level.

What I should talk about with myself?

About anything you want! That’s the beauty of such practice!

All conversations are based on the “action-reaction” principle. Somebody asks you some question. You answer. And it goes on and on. That’s why, if you want to prepare yourself for conversations with, say, friends from abroad, you should list potential questions that might come up, together with answers to them. Don’t forget about taking into consideration the interests of potential conversation partners!

Of course, you don’t have to come up with all the question by yourself.

I’d like to recommend you two fantastic websites which I have been using for many years:

They cover almost every socially acceptable topic which might crop up during your conversations. Together with some more “unusual” subjects, such as – eye contact or Jamaica (wtf?!).

If you discuss most of these subjects with yourself, I can guarantee you that you’ll be able to talk with every native speaker about almost anything you want. Isn’t it a definition of being fluent?

Overcome Weirdness
Benefits Of Talking To Yourself

Picture by: Gabriel77

It’s only weird if you make it weird. You don’t have to rush to your friends to brag about this or even write an article about this (sic!). It’s just a tool to make you a better person.

It’s really perfectly normal. Do you know that computer scientists do it as well (not that it means anything!)?

Rubber duck debugging is an informal term used in software engineering for a method of debugging code. The name is a reference to a story in the book The Pragmatic Programmer in which a programmer would carry around a rubber duck and debug their code by forcing themselves to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck.[1] Many other terms exist for this technique, often involving different inanimate objects.

So don’t be a weirdo and don’t feel ashamed to talk to yourself!

Other uses for self-talk

That’s right. You might use the self-talk for various things, such as:

  • Energizing and motivating yourself – you can definitely psych yourself up with: “Come on!” “Let’s go!” “You can do this!”. Martial artists have been using screams for hundreds of years to give them some extra energy. I’m pretty sure there is a good reason for that.
  • Playing devil’s advocate – find the weaknesses in your argumentation. Try to debunk your own theories. Saying your options out loud and elaborating on the pros and cons can help bring the right choice to light, and you might be surprised at the unexpected direction your thoughts take when they’re audible.
  • Blowing off steam – don’t keep it all inside. If your colleague is a massive w*nker, say it out loud and berate him. Scientists actually found out that swearing can alleviate pain and decrease stress.
  • Cheering yourself up sometimes it just happens that others don’t appreciate you enough. So what? You can give yourself a pat on the back for being a great human being!
Frequently Asked Question

My spouse, brother, friend is talking to himself/herself a bit too much? Should I be worried?

Generally no. Unless you notice any of the two following symptoms.

  • The self-talk is accompanied by general hostility towards others, cupping some object and calling it “my precious”
  • It turns out that they are actually talking to the invisible friend called Jimmy

Remember, it’s not weird until you make it weird!



 

Fail Fast and Fail Epicly – Create Your Own Method Of Learning

Picture by: Sanja Gjenero

Do you know what all the people who fail in language learning have in common?
They don’t think. They are dull and unoriginal.
Actually, being “creatively challenged” is probably the main reason of failure in about anything you do.

Take a hard, good look at yourself. Are you one of them?

I know I was. For way too many years.
I used to buy almost every memory book I could find. I was looking for the ultimate method to remember everything.

To my disappointment, almost every book was the same. It took me a lot of time to come to realize that all the solutions are in my head. I just haven’t discovered them yet!

In hindsight, I can see that I went through the following stages to get where I am now..

1) The First Stage – The Sleeping Giant

How can you tell if that’s you?
It’s extremely easy to diagnose yourself.
I’ve prepared a checklist for you.

Or rather The Loser’s Credo.
If you tick more than one field, I have bad news for you…

  • you don’t like to ask questions
  • you don’t like to think about problems
  • you think that the old way is the only way
  • you are happy where you are currently at
  • you can’t take criticism
  • people who are better than you in any way are either lying or born special
  • you don’t see anything funny in this joke: “Dad what’s ignorance?”, “I don’t know and I don’t care”
  • you never question authority (The Big Lebowski anyone?)
  • you like to wait for the inspiration to act
  • you think that calling somebody “weird” is offensive
  • you try once, fail and never get back up

Frankly, I don’t believe that any of you fall into this category. At least, not when it comes to learning.
But we’re all there when it comes to other areas of life – relationships, the way we work, etc.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

But what if you know anyone who falls into this category? How can you help him?
Well, you can suggest it as subtly as you can. After all, understanding the problem is half of the solution.
What’s the next step? There is none. I’m sorry.

We generally change ourselves for one of two reasons: inspiration or desperation” – Jim Rohn

I changed my approach to learning due to desperation.

Many moons ago I was attending a German course at one of local language schools.
I felt very proud. It was my second language and after three years, the school classified my level as B1.

It was amazing feeling. WAS.

After the first conversation with a native speaker The Evil Bubble of Hubris burst.
I didn’t understand much. I started stuttering madly. Much like a retarded version of Mr. Snuffalufagus.

So yeah. I was desperate.
This soul-crushing experience helped me advance to the second category.

2) The Second Stage – The Awakened Mind

You read. Maybe a lot. Maybe a little. But definitely enough to know that there are many strategies to achieve your goal(s). So you read and read. And then read some more.

But the moment comes when you get stuck. And you’re desperately looking for people who might give you the answer.

But why would most people give you their best ideas. They spent years trying to come up with them!
Haven’t you heard of the rule?Two Rules Of Success

I hit this stage about 17 months ago. I can’t recall any specific situation which led to it.
I simply knew that I had to change the way I approach learning.
And then I found myself in the third stage.

3) Third stage – The Creative Behemoth

There are three characteristic qualities of all the people in this category:

  • you question most of the things until proved otherwise
  • you start coming up with dozens of potential solutions to your problems
  • you never feel fully satisfied with your ideas

It’s like the mental hunger you can’t satisfy.
You can only alleviate it with new ideas and concepts.

Once I started coming up with new hypotheses on how to memorize faster, it took me less than half a year to achieve such results. And I’m not done yet.

The beauty of this stage is that you can question almost anything.

For example – why do we shave with foam or gel?
Hell, I started to do it with a mix of shampoo and soap.
And believe me – it’s much more effective way to shave (try it and thank me later).

Fail Fast and Fail Epicly – How To Do It

There are two steps in this strategy.

1) Create the hypothesis.

The planning process looks more less like this:

  • Define what the problem is

This is the question you have to start with. Let your brain know that there is some obstacle to overcome.
From that moment on, you’ll start cracking it both consciously and subconsciously.

  • Learn the essentials of the subject you’re trying to master

It’s very important step. If you skip it, you might find yourself reinventing a wheel.
No need to waste your time like this.

Start with mastering the rules. Find out how others approach solving your problem.

  • Train your ability to observe

Start paying close attention to things which might contribute to the solution of the problem.

  • Create a hypothesis based on your observations

It doesn’t always have to be very logical. Go with your gut feeling.

For example. It’s generally proven that intensive emotions help us to remember better.

Start shouting out loud 4 random words everyday with your best furious voice. Or go to the graveyard and check if the general sadness of this place contributes to better learning.

  • Perform an experiment to test those predictions

Give yourself one week to test your hypothesis. Then measure the results (here are examples of the things you can measure in language learning).

There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.” – Enrico Fermi

In our case, a discovery simply means that the hypothesis wasn’t very good. It’s also great news.
Simply move to the next hypothesis.

If the results are better than the ones you got before, it’s even better news.
You can start using YOUR new strategy right away. You don’t need the old one anymore.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, the essentials of my method can be encapsulated in three points:

  1. come up with hypotheses as quickly as possible.
  2. set yourself a suitable deadline to test the idea (for me it’s almost always one week, but feel free to experiment with it as well)
  3. test it
  4. measure the results at the end of the experiment
  5. draw conclusions
  6. rinse and repeat

The faster you fail, the faster you can move to another potential solution.

Of course, there is one more thing to bear in mind. Before you start experimenting, measure your current pace of learning words or whatever else you’re trying to do.

I failed more times than I succeeded.
But the moments of victory brought me unbelievable results. And believe me – once you experience the thrill of discovering, you will never stop experimenting.

I see it that way:
If you want to be mediocre – stick with one method.
If you want to be effective language learner – try at least few methods.
If you want to be exceptional – try A LOT of them.

Fail fast and fail epicly.

Now, I want you to come up with your own method of learning and test it within next 10 days.

And as always, let me know how it goes.



Why do we forget and why mnemonics will save you

We’ve all been there. Sitting at the party and calling everyone “hey dude” because you can’t recall their names. It was there just a moment ago but obviously your brain deemed that remembering lyrics of some silly song might be more useful.

Well, sc*ew you brain!

So why do we forget? And why should you care?
Firstly, it’s fascinating but if it’s not enough for you I want to appeal to your practical side.
Understanding why we forget might actually help you remember more effectively.

What’s more, I’m going to show you that using mnemonics can actually solve all your problems with memory!

Let’s take a look at some common reasons behind forgetting, as identified by Elizabeth Loftus.

1. Failure to Store

I’d argue that this is the most important reason of not remembering.
You can’t recall something that you haven’t actually committed to memory!

Day in, day out we are flooded with thousands of pieces of information from various sources. Brian largely ignores them since they are not important for your well-being.
So what actually stands a chance of being remembered?

The information which you

  • a) pay attention to
  • b) encode (well)

Take your watch as an example (or a jacket). How well can you describe it without looking at it?
Usually the results are lousy. Sure, you remember general shape and maybe a couple of details. But that’s it. And there is a good reason for that. You didn’t pay attention. You don’t need this info to enjoy your watch or jacket after all.

What about encoding?

Let’s take a look at the following medical term: medial epicondylitis .
The mere staring at this term won’t magically transfer this knowledge into your long-term memory.
What about repeating it over and over again?
Well, it’s as effective as putting your shoes on your hands when you’re cold but why not?

So how can you encode this term well?

You might have noticed that the word “medial” consists of “me” and “dial”.
“Con” in Spanish means “with”. What’s more, you pronounce “dylit” like “delight”.

I can imagine myself saying “me dial” a number. If I want to do anything epic con delight in my life I might need this hand. Not bad, right? But we can also step it up and imagine the pain and the location where the said call takes place.

And that’s actually how mnemonics work! You dissect a word, create a story and place it in some location.

2. Interference

This theory says that information in long-term memory may become confused or combined with other information during encoding thus warping or disrupting memories.

It seems that forgetting happens because memories interfere with and disrupt one another (Baddeley, 1999)
There are two ways in which interference can cause forgetting:

  • Proactive interference is when an old memory makes it more difficult or impossible to remember a new memory.
  • Retroactive interference occurs when new information interferes with your ability to remember previously learned information.

That’s why it is really difficult to learn two languages which are similar. Brain quickly becomes confused and start mixing everything up. A good piece of advice is to space learning of similar information over a longer period of time.

Mnemonics come in very handy again. When you precisely encode information, the possibility of interference occurrence is greatly decreased.

3. Retrieval Failure

There are many theories which explain why we are often unable to access information. One of the most popular is the decay theory. The theory has it that a memory trace is created every time a new memory is formed.

With the passing of time, these memory traces begin to fade and disappear. If information is not retrieved and rehearsed, it will eventually be lost. Of course, the greater the interval time between the time when the event from happening and the time when we try to remember, the bigger a chance of memory being lost.

It’s worth remembering that some memories are context or state dependent. They are hard to access when there are no appropriate retrieval cues

Consolidation

The simplest solution to this problem is simply consolidation.
When we learn new information, a certain amount of time is necessary for changes to the nervous system to occur – the aforementioned consolidation process – so that it is properly absorbed. The information moves from short-term memory to the more permanent long-term memory.

Mnemonics can help with this problem as well. Storing information in certain locations makes it easy to access regardless of retrieval cues. But you still have to remember about consolidation. There is no shortcut here.

4. Your health and emotional state

I guess it’s stating the obvious but when you’re stressed, tired or in bad shape your retrieval and processing capabilities (and retention) gets worse. Usually it goes together with worsened concentration.

The remedy is quite easy here. Get a good night sleep, eat well and don’t get stressed too much.
Gee, if only life was that easy.

Do you have any stories of how your memory back-stabbed you when you needed it the most? Let me know!

10 Bizarre Ways To Improve Your Memory And Mental Performance

I’m sure that you know many ways to improve memory and IQ.
Learn a language, use mnemonics, get enough sleep, exercise and blah, blah, blah.

But what if they are too boring?
You’re a descendant of great explorers after all!

Where’s the adventure?! Where is the madness chasing away the shadows of conservatism?
What if the method for perfect memory is licking your knee while wearing a helmet filled with cottage cheese?!

I guess, we will have to wait a bit for the final answer.
But find comfort in the fact that scientists are relentlessly looking for out-of-the box ways to boost your memory.

Just take a look at this bizarre list!

1. Clench your right fist
Picture by: Robbie Veldwijk

Picture by: Robbie Veldwijk

Pretty weird, isn’t it? Scientists from Montclair State University established that a group of volunteers who clenched their right fists while acquiring new material and then clenched their left fist when recalling that material, remembered more than control groups who didn’t clench their fists at all.

2. Hold Your Urine

You’ve heard me right. Next time when you have to go wee wee, hold your horses. It seems that holding your urine improves decision making before choosing an immediate or a delayed financial reward.

The research was appreciated all around the world – a Dutch scientist conducting this study, Mirjam Tusk, was actually awarded with IgNobel.

3. Spend a Few Minutes Looking At Trees
Picture by: Andreas Krappweis

Picture by: Andreas Krappweis

If you are not a nature-loving and tree-hugging hippie you might want to reconsider – staring at a photo of trees or a brisk walk in the woods can improve your memory and attention performance by 20%.

4. Think Aloud

A study with 30 younger and 31 older adults showed that thinking aloud boosts performance of older adults on a short form of the Raven’s Matrices (Bors & Stokes, 1998, Educational and Psychological Measurement, 58, p. 382) but did not affect other tasks.

In the replication experiment, 30 older adults (mean age = 73.0) performed the Raven’s Matrices and three other tasks to replicate and extend the findings of the initial study. Once again older adults performed significantly better only on the Raven’s Matrices while thinking aloud. Performance gains on this task were substantial (d = 0.73 and 0.92 in Experiments 1 and 2, respectively), corresponding to a fluid intelligence increase of nearly one standard deviation.

Source: “How to Gain Eleven IQ Points in Ten Minutes: Thinking Aloud Improves Raven’s Matrices Performance in Older Adults” from Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, Volume 17, Issue 2 March 2010 , pages 191 – 204

5. Sniff Rosemary
Picture by: Hagit Berkovich

Picture by: Hagit Berkovich

One study revealed that memory in healthy adults could be improved by the aroma of rosemary essential oil.
People in a rosemary-scented room performed better when it comes to remembering events and being aware of the need to complete tasks at particular times (McCready & Moss, 2013).

6. Wear Red

You must admit, there is something intensive about this color. Russell Hill and Robert Barton, two researchers at the University of Durham, have systematically analyzed all the matchups of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

In 2008 they conducted the analysis of the teams of England’s Premier League from 1947 to 2003 which brought similar results.

The theory has it triggers feelings of dominance among the players wearing that color while having threatening effect on the opponents.

7. Eat Cocoa Flavanols

10 Bizarre Ways To Improve Your Memory

It seems an antioxidant in chocolate appears to improve some memory skills that people lose with age.
Participants with the memory of a typical 60-year-old improved to that of a 30 or 40 year old after only three months.

They drank a mixture high in antioxidants called cocoa flavanols for three months and performed better on a memory test in comparison with people who drank a low-flavanol mixture.

But before you start smearing chocolate all over your body with a manic look on your face read this:

To consume the high-flavanol group’s daily dose of epicatechin (one of flavanoids), 138 milligrams, would take eating at least 300 grams of dark chocolate a day — about seven average-sized bars. Or possibly about 100 grams of baking chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder, but concentrations vary widely depending on the processing. Milk chocolate has most epicatechin processed out of it.

So I guess we will have to wait till some new product is created. Shame.

8. Chew Gum

Doing it might increase your recall by 20% on a short test due to improved blood flow to the brain. Additionally it helps you to stay more focused on a task.

On the other hand it increases your chances of beings socially isolated if you can’t help but smack your lips!

9. Eat Walnuts
Picture by: Adrian van Leen

Picture by: Adrian van Leen

Why? Well, walnut? (shut up, I AM hilarious!)

The research showed a significant improvement in learning skills, memory, reducing anxiety and motor development in mice fed a walnut-rich diet.

Scientists suggest that “the high antioxidant content of walnuts may have a contributing factor in protecting the mouse brain from the degeneration typically seen in Alzheimer’s disease.”

10. Ignore Stereotypes

That’s one is pretty ironic – if you remind older people of stereotypes about age and memory, they will perform worse in tests (Hess et al., 2003).

One can only wonder if this phenomenon has the same effect on blondes.
Anyway – ignore stereotypes and you’re good to go.

 

Why don’t you give them a try? Just don’t use them all at the same time. That might be akward.

Are you going to use any of these methods? Let me know!



9 Powerful Tips To Untap Your Memory’s Potential Using Rhymes

Did you know that Mark Twain used to memorize a lot of stuff thanks to (silly) rhymes?

Well, now you know. And it’s the best recommendation and reason why you should do it as well.
Actually I should finish this article right now!

Ok, small rant first. So many people complain that learning is a drag.
Do you know why learning is painful? Because it’s no fun.
And it really does baffle me. As a society we seem to place a high value on humor and wittiness.

Yet, almost everyone seems to ignore it when it comes to learning! A peculiar paradox I might say.
What about you? Are you guilty as well? Probably.

The chance is that you were stripped of the need to have fun while learning by the soulless system of education. But good news everyone! With some intentional effort you can get it back!

First, let’s take a look at what you can use rhymes for:

USE RHYMES TO MEMORIZE VOCABULARY

Here is one of the hundreds of rhymes I’ve used to learn vocabulary.

поэтому что всегда заявка когда ты звезда
на вес золота моя поездка

(because there’s always an order, when you’re a star

my trip (ride) is worth its weight in gold)

le manque d’air sur (la) marche d’un escalier

(lack of air, on the step of stairs)

You see my friend how terrible my rhymes are. You might even feel sorry for me right now but I’m going to high-five myself anyway for this fine piece of art!

USE RHYMES TO MEMORIZE (FUN) FACTS

It’s one of the rhymes which I’ve used to memorize what Cecilia Payne became famous for.

Cecilia Payne doesn’t need mars
cause she discovered composition of stars

 

USE RHYMES TO MEMORIZE DATES

The Spanish Armada met its fate in fifteen hundred and eighty-eight

If I’m not mistaken this was actual rhyme used by Mark Twain

And of course these are just a few of hundreds of possible application of rhymes.
With a little bit of creativity you can memorize anything this way.

SO WHY WOULD YOU DO IT?
  • for better recall

If you still recall alphabet by singing ABC Song then you KNOW how powerful rhymes (and melody) can be. No need to be ashamed, you’re not alone. We’re strong in numbers.

But don’t take my word for it. Look around to find some real life examples.

What would you remember better – a bunch of some unrelated words liar, pants and fire or a powerful rhyme: liar, liar pants on fire!!!

  • because it’s fun!

You can basically come up with any silly rhymes you want. There is no judging.
You don’t have to show them to anyone!

Learning must go through your emotional filter in order to be processed effectively.
That’s why emotional memory is a critical component for the learning process.

When you have fun, your brain not only learns faster but also keeps you more interested in what you learn. Thus, increasing your attention span.

Check how easy it is to easy the periodic table with rhymes and melody

  • to save time

Sure, rhyming some words might seem time consuming. And I guess it in comparison with mindless cramming. But in the long run you can actually save a lot of time.

I can guarantee you that there’ll be many situations when you memorize some words after rhyming them and you won’t have to review them even again! They will be etched in your memory.

  • for experimentations’ sake

Come on, you’re basically talking to yourself right now reading this.
Writing some kick-ass rhymes won’t harm your respect in the ‘hood!
Who knows, maybe you’ll develop some mad rap skills as a bonus after some time?!

So why not try it just to see if it’s a good fit for you?

HOW TO DO IT

I know. These are just simple rhymes. Nothing too fancy.
Regardless of that, it’s worth taking these tips into consideration.

  • 1) don’t be afraid and let go of any inhibitions

I rhyme frequently about stuff which I’m not comfortable with sharing. And that’s perfectly ok.

  • 2) start small

Regardless of what you want to memorize, you don’t have to start creating lengthy poems in order to do this. Choose two or three pieces of information and bind them with some nice rhyme.

Once you feel comfortable using rhymes, you can start writing entire poems to memorize bigger chunks of knowledge.

  • 3) add them to Anki

Adding such rhymes to Anki will increase your recall even further.
It’s like using gauntlet instead of fist to make your brain understand that YOU MUST learn it by heart.

  • 4) use emotions

Do you remember one of the rules from my mnemonics course? Involve emotions, make your rhymes disgusting or funny. Just to give you an embarrassing example -I disliked my ex-boss.

That’s why I have a short rhyme involving words (ughm) “blade” and “anal insertion” in Russian, and his name. Result: some chuckling and a powerful recall rate of a couple of words.

  • 5) choose melody from some song (karaoke YT version) and sing your rhymes

  • 6) rhymes can include vocabulary from many languages

Rhymes don’t have to consist only of the vocabulary from the target language, mix it with some words from your native language. For example:

It’s not easy to borrar (Spanish – erase), when yo’re a handsome rock star

  • 7) brag about it

Read your rhymes to others, if you feel comfortable with it. It will make the information even more memorable.

  • 8) choose your style

What’s your style?

Do you want to write limericks or maybe like Dr Seuss?

I’m not a fan of rap so I prefer (actually LOVE) cheesy rock lyrics and rhymes. And that’s basically how my rhymes sound – cheap and cheesy.

But if you prefer something more sophisticated e.g. Eminem’s lyrics, go for it. Try to imitate them.

Or simply copy them, throw away some word and insert your own!

BONUS TIP : And remember – you are not allowed under any circumstances to call your friends homies!

  • 9) what’s most important – have fun

Because that’s the point!

Now, if you’ve enjoyed this articles please share it with the rest of the world!



The Beginner’s Guide To Improving Short-Term Memory

It’s a safe bet that you have heard about short-term memory (a.k.a. working memory).

But have you ever considered it a potential source of problems with knowledge acquisition?

Personally, it took me a long time to see it that way. We all know and have heard about not multitasking and about avoiding distractions when we try to do something productive.

But as it turns out these are merely a part of the bigger picture.

But first thing is first – capacity of working memory is often described using Miller’s number. Basically it means that you can memorize 7 (give or take 2) bits of information.

What’s more the duration of short-term memory seems to be anything from 20 second up to 40-50 minutes, depending on the kind of information and the way of encoding.

Let’s try to imagine a process of memorization in some picturesque way.

A funnel might be the capacity of our working memory, while donuts are bits of information we want to absorb. Let’s say that the information is stored when a donut passes through the neck of the funnel.

So what might go wrong?

What narrows the neck of the donut funnel?

In other words – what decreases the capacity of working memory?
Well-known culprits are:

  •  lack of sleep 

We all have met some guy (once or twice) who say “I swear man, I can pull a couple of all-nighters without any problem” But then you look at him and it turns out that he’s having a feverish conversation with a chair.

Depending on the study, a week of sleeping 4-5 hours per night seems to be an equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.1%. In the meantime your brain burns through the sugar stored in your body making you crave all the sugary goodies.

Did I mention that the first parts of the brain which fall victim to sleep deprivation are the ones responsible for higher order thinking? Because who really needs abstract thinking when you barely stand on your feet!

Remedy: try to get at least seven hours of sleep per night

  •  lack of exercise 

Shortly – many studies have proved that exercise stimulates new brain cell growth, increases connections between cells, and improves attention span.

Remedy: run fatty, run!

  •  improper nutrition 

Your brain is a powerful and formidable machine which needs its fuel to function properly. And let’s be honest – you know that McDonald won’t cut it.

Remedy: In order to keep your brain well-oiled and ensure formation of new brain cells feed your brain with proteins, Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B, foliate, zinc and drink much water.

  •  stress 

Stress triggers the Flight-or-Fight response. As a result your body releases hormones like adrenalin or cortisol.

You know the feeling  – your heart rate increases, your hands get all sweaty, you feel the surge of anxiety mixed with energy. And the thing is that, of course, such a reaction is completely natural. The problem appears when you face chronic stress.

As a result you may fall victim to: obesity, depression, ulcers, sexual dysfunction.

Remedy: all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Remember to do something to unwind every day. Get a massage, play with your kids, feed the pigeons – whatever floats your boat.

 

  •  multitasking 
In today’s world, it’s considered normal to multi-task in job or at home. Many people take great pride in doing many things at the same time, or in switching from one task to another. It saddens me greatly.

Cognitive costs of such a behavior are really huge. That’s not a big deal when you don’t work on anything productive at the moment. But if you really want to be productive and achieve some goal, you should learn how to focus on just a one thing in any given moment.

Such an approach helps to tune out all the distractions and get the most out of your time. And don’t be one of those people who says “BS, I know how to multi-task productively”. You can’t.

Remedy: Turn off your mobile-phone. Buy ear-plugs (this is my method) and find some quiet place to work on your project(s).

How to widen the neck of the donut funnel?

Trying to stuff 20 or 50 donuts through the narrow neck of the funnel would be plain crazy. Logic tells us that we should do something to widen the neck of the funnel.

So how can we do it?

Well, there are temporary solutions like medication and electrical brain stimulations but I guess they are a bit risky. More permanent solutions cover two things:

  •  mnemonics 

Let me quote you results from one of the latest studies concerning working memory (it can be found here):

Crystallized intelligence (Gc) is thought to reflect skills acquired through knowledge and experience and is related to verbal ability, language development1 and academic success. […] While previous studies have indicated that gains in intelligence are due to improvements in test-taking skills, this study demonstrates that it is possible to improve crystallized skills through working memory training.Tracy Alloway and Ross Alloway

Such a training concentrates mainly on mnemonics. It is important to know that memory uses them to trigger various physiological responses.

Depending on the techniques you use, mnemonics might include tastes, touch, emotions (fear, love, anxiety, pleasure), images, sounds, etc. Altogether they help you to remember better.

What’s more, since all the images created with help of mnemonics are placed in different locations, it’s much easier to “widen” the neck of our donut funnel and increase the amount of information you acquire.

Going from 5-6 words per 10 minutes seems actually quite slow after (even) initial training. (if it interests you, you can get my 7-part mnemonics course here. For free, of course!)

  •  chunking 

The second method which can help us with widening the neck of the donut funnel is called “chunking”. The essence of this method is to break up strings of information into units, or chunks if you will. It simplifies such a string and makes it easier to memorize.

Example:

424862365935636235861

It seems impossible to memorize it quickly. But let’s try to slice this string into smaller 3-digit strings.

424 862 365 935 636 235 861 

Now let’s imagine that these numbers express how far you were able to throw a rotten herring. You started with a decent throw of 424 m then it got better. And so on.

If you are a sports fan you might try to use 4-digit chunks and treat them as a 400 m run time. Be creative and come with some other way of breaking up this string!

Conclusion

The main takeaway is that you can improve your working memory by either unburdening it or by training it. As always – it’s not easy and takes dedication. But once you take a first step in the right direction it gets only better.

Think ahead and imagine how much you can change and achieve in your life if you only improve your memory. And don’t put it off. Choose the first strategy which you want to implement and start using it!.

I’ll leave with a great talk about working memory. Enjoy!

How being an assassin can help you to remember poisons in food better

Wouldn’t it be great to be an actual assassin?

Not to mutilate anyone, of course, but to have his confidence, strength, KNOWLEDGE…

(and it’s sure as hell more interesting than being “Jeff, an IT guy.”)

And we all know that no assassin would be complete without secret knowledge of poisons.
With knowledge like that – who would ever tread on you?

But what does it have to do with learning?!
I rush to explain.

Usefulness In Learning

There are many principles which help us to understand how to memorize more effectively.
But there is one which has a key function in our lives.

USEFULNESS

Your brain discards most of the information you come into contact with.
It is useless.

Why would you remember some date or a name of an obscure plant?
SURVIVAL – that’s what important.

And needless to say, your profession is indispensable to your survival.
Cooks remember recipes better than most non-cooks.
Programmers have better memory of code than people who simply dabble in coding.

Sure, there are factors which come into play:

  • understanding of the given field
  • number of repetitions
  • using right associations

And the list goes on…
But let’s concentrate on USEFULNESS.

Who Would You Like To Be?

I know that you have your profession.
This is what you’re great at and you stick to it – fully understandable.

But what if you could create a set of characters to improve your life (and your learning curve)?
Just like in role-playing games (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons).

You could be anyone you want, even if just for a day!

The Power Of Belief

But does pretending to be someone you’re not make some knowledge useful?
Yes, it does. It does if you choose to believe that you can be that person.

Our brain is the most magnificent thing in the whole universe.
And it has a truly breath-taking quality.

It can’t tell fiction from reality.
Just look at what power of belief can do to you:

  • Memory Implantation – Does the thing you remember really happened?
  • Stress – very often the biochemichal reactions of our body depend on our perception of this situation
  • Rationalization – we can justify even the stupidest decisions or choices and remain convinced that we’re right
  • The Placebo Effect
  • Multiples Personalities Disorders – where one of the personalities is allergic to some specific food while other are not
  • Mental training in sports

So are you ready to become an assassin?!

Poisons in Food

I’ve prepared a list of 5 popular food products which contain various poisons.
Of course such products would be lethal only in extreme situations (and large doses) so take it with a grain of salt!

  • cherries – contain cyanogenic glycosides
Cherries - more info
  • apples – their seeds contain cyanide

Apples - more info

  • tuna – contains high levels of mercury and frequent source of salmonella poisoning
  • marlin – contains high level of mercury
Marlin - more info
Potatoes - more info

Prepare “Action Plan” – Story That Is

We also tend to remember stories better than facts.
That’s why, to remember these poisons better, we can come up with some interesting story.

Let’s say that you have an imaginary enemy called Bob.
And, to put it gently, you’re not the biggest fan of his.

Why not invite him for a fancy dinner?

Compose the aforementioned products into the meal which Bob won’t ever forget.

Let it be a reminder to him that nobody messes with the assassin!

Conclusion

The huge takeaway from this article is that our brain creates its own reality.
If you believe it – it’s true.

So try to be creative – come up with your secret alter egos which can help you to memorize information better  from the fields of your interest.

Fake it until you make it.

And remember to put your knowledge to good use!

I guess to balance this article, next time I should write about being a druid and healing…!

What other poisonous food ingredients do you know?