Regardless of whether you use Spaced Repetition Apps or not, you can’t deny that there is some controversy among language learners whether such programs are truly effective. Some people swear by it while others prefer more old-fashioned pen-centered strategies. It gets even better! Even among SRS enthusiasts, you can find different militant fractions. Some claim that Memrise is the best. Other that Quizlet is the way to go.
For many, it can be quite difficult to wrap their head around what’s true and what’s not. Let’s sort it out so you can finally know the answer.
What’s the scientific consensus about Spaced Repetition Apps
If you have ever seen one of the aforementioned squabbles online, the first thing you need to know is that opinions that SRS is ineffective are completely detached from reality. Spaced repetition is among the most thoroughly researched memory-related phenomena in the world. Its efficacy has been replicated in hundreds of comprehensive and extensive studies (read more about choosing the best language learning methods).
It is effective on a variety of academic fields and mediums.
Spacing effects can be found in:
various domains (e.g., learning perceptual motor tasks or learning lists of words) such as spatial44
across species (e.g., rats, pigeons, and humans [or flies or bumblebees, and sea slugs, Carew et al 1972 & Sutton et al 2002])
across age groups [infancy, childhood, adulthood, the elderly] and individuals with different memory impairments
and across retention intervals of seconds [to days] to months (we have already seen studies using years)
Source(probably the best article online about the spaced repetition, well worth checking out)
The benefits of spaced study had been apparent in an array of motor learning tasks, including:
maze learning (Culler 1912)
typewriting (Pyle 1915)
archery (Lashley 1915)
javelin throwing (Murphy 1916; see Ruch 1928, for a larger review of the motor learning tasks which reap benefits from spacing; see also Moss 1996, for a more recent review of motor learning tasks).
Heck, there are almost no exceptions to this phenomenon. Sure, there is maybe 5% of studies which haven’t replicated these findings. But upon reading more about their design and methodologies used, one might conclude that they are often an example of bad science.
The only notable exception I have seen so far is that children can often fail to exhibit a spacing effect unless they process learning material in a certain way. This, however, is a topic for another article.
Where does all this controversy about the effectiveness of SRS programs come from then? I will get to it soon.
First, let’s concentrate on what makes learning truly fast and effective.
Encoding – the most important criterion for effective learning
A simple model of memory
The process of memorization can be depicted in the four following steps:
Encoding – involves initial processing of information which leads to the construction of its mental representation in memory
Storage – is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory
Recall – is the retrieval of stored information from memory
Let’s concentrate on the second step of this process. Clearly, you can see that it’s a gateway to the land of remembering. But what does encoding really mean?
“Encoding is any kind of attempt of manipulating a piece of information in order to increase your chances of memorizing it.”
What’s more, there are two kinds of encoding.
Two types of encoding
Shallow encoding doesn’t help you to connect the piece of information with other meaningful information nor does it help you to further your understanding of it. It usually concentrates on meaningless banalities.
Example: you are trying to memorize the word “skada” (Swedish for “to damage”). The prime example of shallow encoding would be to start counting the number of vowels or consonants in this word.
The absolute opposite of shallow encoding. This time you are trying to make a meaningful connection between different items. The more the better.
Deep encoding is so powerful for your learning that it even shows up in brain scans as increased activity in key brain areas associated with memory. It is this activity that appears to give deep processing its memory advantage. (source: How Memory Works–and How to Make It Work for You).
So what’s the example of deep encoding in the world of language learning? Creating sentences or saying them out loud, to be more precise.
Interestingly, every time I say it, there is always someone who seems surprised. I guess the reason being that we don’t appreciate enough how complicated it is for our brains to create a sentence.
Why creating sentences is so complicated
In order to create even the simplest of sentences you have to:
remember actively the words you are currently learning
remember all the other words in the sentence actively
connect them in a meaningful way
apply all the known grammar rules
choose the appropriate register of the sentences (i.e. a form of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting)
remember the pronunciation of all the words in the sentences
pronounce all the said words by using your muscles
As you can see, it’s not that trivial to produce a sentence. And that’s why this process is so meaningful and memorable for your brain.
Initially, a lot of my students grumble about having to create many sentences. They say it’s too exhausting. I agree. The thing is that producing sentences equals knowing and being able to use a language!
To make your inner geek happy, it’s worth mentioning that encoding is very often connected with two other principles of memory which make your learning even more effective:
Interesting, right? Now it’s time to answer the most important question – what if somebody is too lazy to actually go through all the trouble of producing sentences?
Consequences Of Lack Of Encoding (i.e. why most Spaced Repetition Apps don’t work)
I hope that the following paragraph will help you make a very important decision – never ever use or buy any learning app. I don’t care that you read that Gabriel Wyner is working on a revolutionary app or that Memrise has a better algorithm now.
The most important and effective thing you can do for your learning is to create multiple contexts (i.e. sentences) for a word you want to learn. Simply repeating ready-to-use flashcards, especially the ones without any context, won’t work well. This simple fact renders all the memory apps combined useless. ANKI is really all you need.
Think for a second about the solution those apps dish out to you. Most of the time they simply give you ready-to-use flashcards, often without any context! Or meaningless games which perpetuate shallow encoding. Or even when you see a flashcard with a word in the context, it was not encoded by you and thus it will be way harder to remember.
Time to stop looking for magical solutions. You won’t find them in apps.
To my chagrin, I don’t see any big company talking about this. Of course, the reason is obvious. If you pay for an app, you have to be convinced that it’s truly magical and life-changing. I don’t think they would sell well if the owners started screaming from the rooftops “They are sh*t! What’s truly magical is the effort you put into encoding your vocabulary”!
The right way of thinking about such programs is seeing them as a white canvas.
Algorithms underpinning them are close to perfect in themselves. Unfortunately, some people crap in their hand and insist on smearing it until they get a one-eyed unicorn. The next thing you know is they are running around the internet and screaming that SRS programs don’t work. You can’t be lazy when you learn.
I know that doing ready-to-use flashcards seems “quicker” to use because you don’t have to invest too much energy into producing them. However, in reality, they are more time-consuming in the long run because you need to spend more time repeating words unnecessarily.
It has to do with the mechanism of passive rehearsal which is simply a mindless act of rattling off a cluster of pre-prepared information. Many years ago it was actually proven that it has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).
If you ever want to use such flashcards, simply treat them as a source of vocabulary to learn. Other than that, simply encode your vocabulary and you will be fine. All ready-to-use flashcards can do is create the illusion of time-efficiency while slowing your progress down at the same time.
I love how paradoxical the modern world is. You are just a click away from accessing almost every imaginable piece of information ever created. If you could acquire just some of it, you would be able to dominate almost every possible area of life. However, it seems like there is a glass wall holding you back. You can lick it all you want but you can’t get through it.
Why is it so? Why is it so difficult to master even one field of knowledge?
My guess is that most people are notoriously bad at tying information together. What’s more, we are also easily overwhelmed by the sea of information. All the facts that we face usually take a form of an impenetrable tangle.
In this article, I would like to show you a way out of this maddening maze. It’s not a complete map but it should be enough to help you wrap your head around any discipline. With some time and dedication, of course.
The remedy is a method of mine which I dubbed course-oriented thinking. Not only will it help you to create or consolidate your expertise but it’ll also, hopefully, give you lots of ideas on writing a book or a course.
Knowledge coherence – the best predictor of one’s expertise
Do you know what the biggest predictor of one’s expertise is?
Knowledge coherence, or in other words the way we structure information we acquire. And we suck badly at it.
Why wouldn’t we?
Throughout our entire education, everything is served to you on a silver platter. It’s always the same dish – the prechewed and predigested informational spaghetti. God forbid that you put more effort into your learning than it’s necessary.
And then comes the day when you need to recall and apply all this knowledge. You reach for emptiness. There is nothing there.
Why is that?
After all, the knowledge presented to you was structured.
What went wrong that you couldn’t remember it? The answer is “Easy come, easy go”.
Learning takes effort.
There is no way around it. It doesn’t matter how many people you will meet on your path who scream otherwise. You need to put in a lot of effort.
And let’s be honest here. If you receive knowledge in a form of a fully digested pulp, you won’t know how to use it. You won’t understand it either.
The truth is that nobody can structure and organize your knowledge for you.
And this is where course-oriented thinking enters the scene.
Course-oriented thinking – a general overview
In the simplest of terms, course-oriented thinking is based on one principle. You should approach every domain you want to master with a single goal in your mind.
You will create a course to teach someone all there is to know about a given subject.
It’s not going to be any course. It will be the best in the world. No other course will come even close. However,
keep in mind that your course won’t be any good in the beginning. Being the best is the end goal. It’s a journey.
Initially, it will rather resemble a steaming pile of manure. With time, however, you will turn into your own version of David Statue. The one made of marble, not s**t. I better add it so there is no misunderstanding here.
2. The most comprehensive course in the world
If you want to go in, go all in. Create a course which will teach you every aspect of your field of choice.
3. It has to be structured and organized
Keep in mind that the course should be able to teach a complete beginner how to master a given field of science. If you want to teach somebody how to invest, even a retarded, three-headed shrimp which survived a nuclear apocalypse will succeed.
Ask yourself this while working on your project – “How can you make a layman understand what you want to convey?”.
Another important assumption is that you’re going to sell it. Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether you do it or not. What matters is that this approach will give you some mental incentive to devote as much attention to it as it’s needed.
You wouldn’t sell people crap, right? Exactly. This way of thinking should help you keep your focus on the right track.
Another self-evident advantage of this rationale is actually creating something of value. You might be doing it for yourself right now. However, as the time goes by, you might be struck by a curious thought, “Why won’t I create an actual course or a book?”. And come it will. Trust me.
I still remember my bewilderment in college every time I saw an author publish a book. I couldn’t grasp how it’s possible to amass such vastness of information, structure it, and package it as a complete product.
The secret seems to be disappointingly easy. You start with a product in your mind and you learn as you create it.
5. It’s going to be YOUR course
If you set off on this journey with an intention of just copying a curriculum of already existing courses, you might as well stop reading right now. The course has to be your creation. Sure, you might borrow different concepts, methods or solutions from other authors in the field, but it has to be yours. Only this way will you be able to fully understand the scope of a given domain. Trust me, knowing how most of the puzzles fit together is amazingly empowering.
It also means that you can add whatever you want to the course. Dollop some funny pictures or a bucketful of ridiculousness on top of each module. Appreciate all those little peccadilloes that only you can bring to the table.
In my “investing course”, I find myself frequently quoting a lot of prominent figures from the investing world. Sometimes one quote is more than enough to help a give rule to sink in.
Here is the one by Warren Buffet which I use on a daily basis:
“The stock market is a device for transferring money from the impatient to the patient.”
Sure, I also include some scientific data to back up this idea. However, I don’t find it even half as powerful as the aforementioned quote.
Course-oriented thinking – how to structure your course
1. Tips for rookies
If you are new to some area of expertise, you may find it extremely difficult to create any curriculum. After all, what do you know?
Don’t worry. You don’t have to do all the heavy lifting on your own. Simply pick up any book, or google an online course which is similar to the one you want to create and copy its rough outline.
I would like to remind you that it’s just a place to start. You shouldn’t copy everything. Without the effort of creating a schedule, you won’t be able to learn nearly as fast.
2. Tips for old-timers
If you already possess a wealth of knowledge about some domain, you’re in a great place. You already did the bulk of work in the past. Now, muster all you know and start structuring it from A to Z.
Your mental framework for approaching new information
1. Be critical
Don’t take facts or information at face value. Pay attention whether the opinions are rooted in anything trustworthy.
As a rule of thumb, my bullshitometer buzzes like crazy anytime I hear that “there is a study proving …”, or better yet, “everyone knows that …”.
Have you read this study yourself? No, not an abstract, an entire study. If not, remain skeptical. As yet another rule of thumb, anyone quoting documentaries as a source of knowledge, especially about health-related issues should be slapped six feet deep into the ground by the mighty gauntlet of knowledge.
Sometimes I waive this rule temporarily if I respect a given expert enough. However, that’s an exception.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s hard. And I fully agree. Nobody said that forming your own opinion and knowledge is easy.
It’s confusing, I know. Can you be critical and open-minded at the same time? You can, and you should be.
The principle is best encapsulated by Stanford University professor Paul Saffo.
Strong opinions loosely held
At no point in time will you have a complete picture of a given domain. Hence, you are bound to hear lots of different opinions and theories which might contradict your present knowledge.
Don’t discard them just because they don’t sound right. Analyze their conclusions. And don’t stop there. Analyze the rationale which led to those conclusions as well.
A great example is a way in which I approach rapid language learning as described in a case study of mine.
After learning and analyzing hundreds of linguistic studies and memory-related books and papers, it wasn’t hard to see why a typical approach can’t work well. What’s more, it wasn’t too difficult to see why extensive reading and other passive learning approaches are usually terrible ideas. Yet, a couple of years ago there weren’t many people who shared this belief. Luckily, language learning is one of those fields where usually results speak for themselves.
What to do with the contradictory information
If I encounter some evidence which is either flaky or contradictory to what I already know, I still try to place it somewhere in the course. However, I always place an extra note saying “to be verified”.
You can choose to copy my methodology or think up some other way to mark uncertain information. Whatever works for you.
Upon doing so, you are left with two choices. You can either set off on a revelatory journey to discover what the truth in this particular case is, or leave it for time being. As you acquire more knowledge, the problem will most probably sort itself out.
The best program to structure your knowledge
In my book, there is only one clear winner – Evernote. It’s everything you will ever need to write a book, a course or anything else for that matter.
Of course, I might be biased as I don’t know many other programs of this kind.
Evernote makes it very easy to create module and units for every single folder (i.e. your course idea).
Course-oriented thinking – a long-term perspective
If you have ever dreamt of mastering many fields of expertise, course-oriented thinking should also be right up your alley.
Once you read this article, you can download Evernote right away and start creating course outlines for every single domain that interests you.
Will you be able to pursue them all at the same time with smoldering passion? Definitely not.
Will you be able to work on them for years to come until you achieve mastery? Absolutely.
You can think of every field of expertise you want to master as a journey. Maybe you won’t make too many steps in the forthcoming months. But you will keep on going and you will keep on getting better.
What’s more, the mere awareness of having a course which you can expand should keep your eyes wide open to all the wonderful facts and information you stumble upon.
They all will become a welcome addition to your creation. And as with learning intensely, the more courses you create, the easier it will be to master any other domain.
I am pretty sure that you already have a rough idea of which areas of expertise you want to explore. Regardless, I’ve wanted to show you some examples of the courses I have created so far. Of course, they are work in progress. Knowing me, I will keep on expanding them till the day I die. You might use them as a source of inspiration.
toxins in plants and fruits which affect our health (it got so big that I am actually turning it into a book)
common diseases like diabetes, thyroid disorders
visual diagnosis of diseases and micronutrient deficiencies
environmental hormonal disruptors
building online courses
muscle building program
The list is certainly not complete but it should give you a general idea of what to gun for. Remember to think long-term. Your course (i.e. knowledge) doesn’t have to be perfect from the get-go. The mere action of having such a project in place will help you put any piece of information in the right context.
Approaching learning in this manner can lead to truly spectacular results. You might discover that after some time, some of your projects will come to life and will become an inseparable part of your existence.
For example, I have never thought of myself as an investor. However, just a couple of weeks upon creating a rough curriculum of my investing course, I dipped my toes in the financial waters. Surprisingly, it turned out that I am really good at it. These days trading is a part of my everyday ritual.
So what do I think? I think you should give it a shot.
One of the most important factors affecting your ability to remember things is the coherence of your knowledge. Course-oriented thinking can provide you with an excellent framework for structuring your knowledge. What’s more, your potential courses can turn into real-life products which might benefit you in the future.
Keep in mind that your projects don’t have to be perfect from the very beginning. They will probably suck. Only working on them systematically and methodically can guarantee that they will become world-class products.
Don’t treat them dead-serious and don’t be too formal. Sprinkle them with silly memes, anecdotes or quotes. Your courses should be a natural extension of your character. Let your personality shine through the quality information. With time, you might be truly surprised how much this approach can change your life.
I often talk about what effective learning methods are all about but I have almost never mentioned all the memory experiments I have run which have failed miserably. It might give you the impression that this is the knowledge which came to me easily. On the contrary.
It was like wading through the puddle of crap to pick up something which seemed to be the gem of wisdom. Only to realize later that it was actually a fossilized chunk of crap. Only to realize a couple of months down the road that it was actually a beautiful diamond hidden beneath the dry shell.
I think you get my point. It was a confusing process where I had to rediscover time and time again different truths in different contents.
Of course, my process of reasoning wasn’t very rigorous at the beginning. Neither were my memory experiments. I was kind of going with my gut and trying to notice whether I remember more or less.
Only later did I start to actually construct hypotheses and test them. Everything got even easier when I started learning more about memory and reading studies related to this area of knowledge.
Before I share with you my conclusions and failures, let’s start with how my experiments were run.
2. set yourself a suitable deadline to test the idea (ideally, at least 3 weeks – 1 month)
3. test it
4. measure the results at the end of your memory experiment
5. draw conclusions
6. rinse and repeat
How did I choose words for my memory experiments?
This is a very important question. Some people think that any words will do. That’s far from the truth.
If you want to run a meaningful memory experiment you need to make sure that the words tested are as different from any other words and concepts you know as it’s only possible.
The reason is that your current knowledge modulates the new knowledge you want to acquire.
If you know English and you’re learning French your results will be immediately distorted. Depending on a source, 40-50% of English words originate from French.
If you want to get unbiased results you need to test the words from languages you know nothing of.
In my case, I frequently tried to memorize words from languages like Basque, Finnish, and Hungarian. They were absolutely foreign to me and I couldn’t associate them in any way with my background knowledge.
“Collectively, these findings provide strong evidence that pre-experimental stimulus familiarity determines the relative costs and benefits of experimental item repetition on the encoding of new item-source associations. By demonstrating the interaction between different types of stimulus familiarity, the present findings advance our understanding of how prior experience affects the formation of new episodic memories.” – Pre-experimental stimulus familiarity modulates the effects of item repetition on source memory – Hongmi Lee, Kyungmi Kim, Do-Joon Yi, 2018
Also, it’s worth noting that a typical batch of items which I tried to commit to my memory was 20. Typically, I tried to memorize between 3-5 batches.
What did I test?
Time to get to the nitty-gritty of my memory experiments. As you already know, I experimented almost exclusively with words which were completely foreign to me in order to minimize my background knowledge interference.
Another important part is the methods I used to test my knowledge. I always tested my recalls using the following methods:
Free recall describes the process in which a person is given a list of items to remember and then is tested by being asked to recall them in any order. Free recall often displays evidence of primacy and recency effects.
Primacy effects are displayed when the person recalls items presented at the beginning of the list earlier and more often. The recency effect is when the person recalls items presented at the end of the list earlier and more often. Free recall often begins with the end of the list and then moves to the beginning and middle of the list.
For that reason, I always tried to recall all the batches at once in order to minimize the number of learning sessions. That gave me the certainty that my results were warped.
Cued recall is when a person is given a list of items to remember and is then tested with cues to remember the material.
There are two basic experimental methods used to conduct cued recall, the study-test method, and the anticipation method. In the study-test method participants study a list of word pairs presented individually.
Immediately after or after a time delay, participants are tested in the study phase of the experiment on the word pairs just previously studied.
One word of each pair is presented in a random order and the participant is asked to recall the item with which it was originally paired. The participant can be tested for either forward recall, Ai is presented as a cue for Bi, or backward recall, Bi is presented as a cue for Ai.
In the anticipation method, participants are shown Ai and are asked to anticipate the word paired with it, Bi. If the participant cannot recall the word, the answer is revealed.
During an experiment using the anticipation method, the list of words is repeated until a certain percentage of Bi words are recalled. – Wikipedia.
The learning curve for cued recall increases systematically with the number of trials completed. This result has caused a debate about whether or not learning is all-or-none.
Why did I use both methods? Because they both show you different things.
“Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009). However, transfer tasks, such as the written fill-in-the-blank activity and the problem-solving task are perhaps better measures of true learning (Mayer, 2009).”
Many people have argued with me that just because they are able to recall words after using some method, it surely means that it’s effective. As you can see, it’s only a part of the story.
That’s why it’s also so important to test any method for the prolonged period of time. Always give yourself at least 3 weeks 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
Why even measure it at all?
Measuring your results certainly doesn’t sound sexy but it’s absolutely necessary. You can’t know for sure that one method is better than the other if you don’t verify it and you don’t control your variables.
What’s more, if you don’t measure, you can’t improve. And that means a great deal in the world of language learning. Using ineffective methods can literally mean that you will have wasted thousands of hours by the end of your life.
I am not that loco and I was never willing to take such a risk. And I am pretty sure you also don’t want to be the guy with a tombstone saying, “It took him 20 years to learn a language to an A2 level, what a moron. Love, family.”
Whenever you’re in doubt – measure your results. It will help you get to the truth.
What does it mean that the experiment failed?
Under every experiment, you will find an explanation of why a given experiment failed or not.
What do I mean by that?
Most of the time it means that it either didn’t provide me with the results I expected or it wasn’t more effective than the method I tested it against.
Of course, in a sense, none of them failed. They all helped me to understand the science of memory better and to improve my memorization skills. Or in more elegant words of Thomas Edison, I can say that:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison
The list of methods I have tested
Below you will find a long list of methods I have tested throughout the years. I can’t vouch that I have included all of them. I have a nasty habit of throwing away everything I don’t need. Unfortunately, in many instances, the victim of my habit was a bunch of notes documenting my experiment.
All my experiments are accompanied by the main conclusions and complementary articles when needed. Enjoy!
Chapter 0 – The typical school stuff
I guess this is the type of learning which is a baseline for many people. All you do is what they tell you to during a class. You read something, do some grammar exercises, write an essay and so on.
Why did it fail? What you give is what you get. I think I simply didn’t apply myself to learning hence my results were just terrible.
The main takeaway:
Apply yourself? Learn regularly? Take your pick.
Chapter 1 – Using a notebook
The first learning system of my own devising was fairly uncomplicated. Ready for it? Every time when I used to encounter any English words I didn’t know, I jotted them down.
Next, I rewrote ALL their meanings, collocations and such from an Oxford Dictionary into my notebook. Then I read my notes on my way to school.
You’re probably wondering why I didn’t just mark these words in a dictionary and read them there, huh?
Well, maybe because I was fed with a lead spoon as a child. Or it has something to do with repeatedly falling down headfirst from a tree.
I don’t know. But these are some of the excuses I use. If it wasn’t bad enough I used this method for at least 3 or years when I was about 18-22.
Why did it fail?
The method was clearly unsustainable. It took me a lot of time to rewrite all the words I needed. What’s worse, there were so many of them that I couldn’t review them in any regular way.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
This was my first system. It was really bad but it also taught me an important lesson. You will always progress, no matter how slow, if you have any kind of learning system in place. Sure, this one sucked but at least it gave me a systematized way of learning new words and their meanings.
The first program of this kind which I bought was called SuperMemo Advanced. It was a brilliant creation which ushered in the new era in the world of my personal learning.
Back then, I already spoke quite good English. Or at least that’s what I thought. To my surprise, it quickly turned out that out of over 10k words which this program contained, I knew almost none.
My grind started. I started slogging through all these words with dogged determination. I was terrified by the number of reviews I soon amassed but somehow I pulled through. I think it took me about 18 months to cover all the words.
What about the final result?
My vocabulary certainly expanded. Initially, I could recall a lot of words but after some time, the novelty effect wore off. I soon found myself forgetting more and more words despite working my butt off every day.
And thus, I decided to keep on searching for my Holy Grail.
it kinda failed
Why did it kinda fail?
The main reason why my experiment failed to some degree is that I didn’t create my own sentences. Most programs of this kind give you ready-to-learn sentences.
Unfortunately, if you don’t actively encode words on your own, they will slip your memory anyway. The optimization algorithm which programs of this kind use is an extremely powerful tool.
Maybe even the most universal shield against forgetting we currently have. However, no amount of reviews can guarantee that the words you learn will be transferred into your long-term memory if you don’t encode them (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik & Tulving, 1975).
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
The optimization algorithms are your best friend learning-wise. It doesn’t matter how much you delude yourself into thinking that you can learn faster by reading, listening or other means.
It won’t happen.
Having a ready-to-use wordlist is extremely convenient and can speed up your learning. You won’t have to waste your time scratching your head and thinking what’s the next word you should learn.
I enrolled in a language school to master German and after about four years I was ready to sit the Goethe-Zertifikat B2 exam. The last trial before the real thing was a mock exam. I took it, I passed it and life felt great.
I felt so proud of myself as I was leaving my language school, “Now I know English, German and Polish, there are 7 languages to go”.
The life had different plans for me. Just as I was ambling down the street I was approached by an elderly German couple asking me if I speak any German.
“I do”, I replied proudly.
“Do you know any good restaurants around here?”, they asked.
As they were finishing their question something terrible happened. I froze. I couldn’t spew out any coherent answer. I huffed and puffed and floundered until I managed to form some vague answer.
As they were leaving I felt devastated. I spent 4 damn years in a language school and couldn’t even hold a simple conversation! On top of this, I just passed a B2 certificate.
Frustrated by this experience I decided to simply pick up a Polish-German dictionary, mark the works I didn’t know but I found useful and start creating short sentences with them.
I used to take this dictionary everywhere with me. I kept my nose in it and wandered around oblivious to my surroundings.
I definitely looked strange but at least I had my pants on most of the time and didn’t yell “repent sinners” so that’s nice.
it kinda failed
Why did it kinda fail?
The problem with this method was that it didn’t allow me to review my vocabulary in any meaningful way. I was jumping from one word to another.
Oftentimes, I spent way too much time concentrating on the words I already knew. Considering that your average pocket dictionary has usually at least 15k words, it was the problem of considerable size.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
1. Even though this method didn’t seem like much, I consider it a big success to some degree. It was then that I realized that creating my own sentences with virtually any word can boost my vocabulary retention.
Contrary to the common wisdom, it doesn’t matter if your sentences don’t sound like something that could originate from the silky smooth lips of a native speaker.
You need to encode words on your own and you need many words in order to convey your thoughts.
2. This method further reinforced my conviction that having a ready-to-use word list can positively affect my learning rate.
Up to this day, I remain a huge fan of pocket dictionaries. Even on the days, when I don’t have much time, I can encode and learn up to 30 words in 15 minutes simply by picking them up from a dictionary.
Trust me, no other method comes even close to this.
I stumbled across the first mentions about mnemonics in an article when I was about 20-21. Even though I was fascinated by the general idea behind mnemonics, I quickly forgot about it.
A couple of months later, by fate, I discovered a small book about mnemonics. It turned out to be a copy of Harry Lorayne’s classic “* How To Develop a Super Power Memory (1957)”.
One week later, I was a full-time mnemonics preacher.
How could I not?
Any person, who tried to learn anything with help of mnemonics can attest to their effectiveness. And that’s true. Compared to your typical “cram and forget” approach, mnemonics work very well.
It takes some time and objectivity to discover that perhaps mnemonics are not as great as many experts like to believe. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here is a list of different memory systems I have tried.
If you have never heard of mnemonics, here is, more or less, how they work:
1. Find a word you want to learn. 2. Inspect it thoroughly and try to spot any associations or familiar word in it. 3. Create a funny/absurd picture based on these words or associations. 4. Place the picture in some location which is well-known to you (e.g. your home). 5. Repeat this process for many words and make sure to connect your pictures with each other. 6. Take a mental walk and decode these words.
Example: Let’s say that you want to learn a Spanish word for “trabajar”. Upon a closer inspection, you notice that:
a) “traba” looks a lot like “drab” b) “jar”, well, it looks like a “jar”.
Next, you combine those words into a short story: you work as a slave at the desk in your room producing enormous “drab jars”.
Can you see it?
The only thing left is to retrieve these words by imagining this entire situation.
If you have never tried this method, it can be quite effective. And, as you can probably guess, that was my initial impression as well.
Why did it fail?
1. I have mentioned before that encoding your own vocabulary is extremely important. If that’s true, then why do mnemonics work so badly for long-term memorization and retention?
here are two types of encoding:
a) shallow encoding
Shallow encoding doesn’t help you to connect the piece of information with other meaningful information nor does it help you to further your understanding of it.
It usually concentrates on meaningless banalities.
Example: You are trying to memorize the word “skada” (Swedish for “to damage”). The prime example of shallow encoding would be to start counting the number of vowels or consonants in this word.
In our case, it would also be creating meaningless pictures based on abstract associations which has nothing to do with the actual use of the word.
b) deep encoding
The absolute opposite of shallow encoding. This time you are trying to make meaningful information between different items.
The more the better. In the case of language learning, it’s simply building sentences with the words you want to learn.
2. The other reason is fairly simple. Sometimes it takes a lot of time to find the right associations. Needless to say, spending 5 minutes on every word in order to do this is pointless.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
1. Even though this method didn’t seem like much, I consider it a big success to some degree. It was then that I realized that creating my own sentences with virtually any word can boost my vocabulary retention. You need to encode words on your own and you need many words in order to convey your thoughts.
2. This method further reinforced my conviction that having a ready-to-use word list can positively affect my learning rate.
After some time, I decided that the main problem was the time I needed to find my associations. I decided to identify the most important prefixes for any language I was concentrating on at that point.
Example: The prefix “ent” is fairly popular in German. I decided to substitute it with the word Ent which is a race of tree-resembling creatures from Tolkien’s fantasy world Middle-earth.
Every time I encountered some word starting with “ent” I could immediately create a picture involving the Ents.
How did this method affect my learning pace?
I started memorizing words lightning fast. Partly because I have created my own “mnemonic picture dictionary” which consisted of over 1000 syllables with their respective pictures.
And yet, once again.
Why did it fail?
Unfortunately, I failed to recognize that quick short-term memorization doesn’t equal successful long-term memorization.
Sure, I was memorizing word quicker but I still had problems using them in conversation and kept on forgetting them anyway.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.
Mnemonics and meditation
Another brilliant idea of mine was thinking that if I only improve the vividness and clarity of my pictures, I will be able to retain them much longer.
I decided to include a 30-minute meditation session to my learning schedule. During that time, the only thing I did was revisiting my mnemonic stories and making them more vivid.
Why did it fail?
No matter how clear your pictures are – if you don’t apply active encoding to your learning, you will inevitably fail.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.
Mnemonics with SRS
The next step for me was combining mnemonics with SR programs like ANKI. I figured out that if I only optimize my repetitions, my retention rate will go through the roof.
Even with this method, I was using a lot of variations. Among others I tried to:
a) use google map images to memorize thousands of words at the same time. b) use virtual and phantom locations and connect them into memory palaces. c) shrink my stories to squeeze even dozens of them into one room.
Why did it fail?
This is where I gave up on mnemonics. My stats and personal experience were very clear about this method of learning.
It doesn’t matter how much I tweak every tiny element of this method – it will always suck as it fails to encapture the very essence of learning – applying contextual learning and deep encoding.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.
I have always been a bookworm so this experiment was quite pleasant to me. In 2016 I decided to read about 60 Swedish articles in the span of about 2 months.
At that time I was already on a C1, or maybe C1 / C2 level. That means I could read without any problems.
In total, I read 52000 words, mainly from the major Swedish news outlets. At about 300 words/min, it took me about 17 hours to go through them all and about 2 hours to find something interesting to read.
I didn’t write down any words, I was just trying to memorize them while reading (without mnemonics).
The final result?
After a careful analysis of my vocabulary, I found out that I picked up 5 extra words.
In other words, I spend 19 hours and had nothing to show for. To fully showcase how ridiculously slow that pace it’s worth reminding you that on a bad day, I can encode and learn up to 30 words in 15 minutes simply by picking them up from a dictionary and encoding them in ANKI.
That experiment definitely echoes the experience of my students. Even though it’s only an anecdote.
Over one year ago, a student of mine who learned German decided to read the first two books of the Harry Potter series in German.
At the time, she was on a B1/B2 level. I tried to discourage her from doing it and direct her efforts to active learning but she put her foot down.
After about 4 months she told me that she finished reading them – in total about 1000 pages or so.
The result was once again quite depressing. Once she told me about her intention, I started jotting down EVERY NEW WORD which came up during our classes. It wasn’t difficult at all as I taught her from the very beginning. I knew exactly which words she already used.
After 4 months, countless hours, 1000 pages she managed to introduce 0 extra words to her parlance.
In my next experiment conducted in May 2018, I set off to check how many new words I can pick up from watching English movies with French subtitles. I was pretty sure that this method would be more effective since it involves more sensory channels.
In total, I watched about 60 hours worth of TV series. My level at that time was about B1. During that time I was able to pick up 11 words, most of which I was able to use spontaneously.
I haven’t been able to memorize other words than the ones I learned before. In other words, it allowed me to learn more.
it was a success and a failure at the same time.
Why did it fail/succeed?
1. The experiment was certainly a success because it confirmed something I have been telling for a long time. Passive learning can be an amazing tool if you use it as an adjacent method.
Every day you should do your best to concentrate on active learning. Once you’re done and you can’t din more words into your head, feel free to read or listen as much as you want.
Spontaneous activation of words is much easier once you already have these words in your head. This is definitely something my experiment confirmed.
Even though I avoided speaking for 2 months, my fluency was actually higher after 60 hours of reading. Mind you that I didn’t pick up almost any new words. But the ones I knew came to my mind much quicker.
2. The experiment also failed because clearly reading was subpar to basically any active learning method, I have ever tried.
The main takeaways (i.e. what I learned):
1. “Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009). However, transfer tasks, such as the written fill-in-the-blank activity and the problem-solving task are perhaps better measures of true learning (Mayer, 2009).”
Just because you have a general impression of remembering words after a reading session, it doesn’t mean that you’ve committed them to your memory. The only tests which can confirm involve the active use of the said words.
2. Acquisition of new vocabulary from reading will be terribly slow and ineffective until you learn about 5k words. 5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).
Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997). If you’re hell-bent on learning this way, make sure that you know at least 3k words as it’s the minimum threshold needed for contextual guessing. (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).
3. Your ability to speak fluently and produce spontaneous speech is dependent to a high degree on the amount of input you expose yourself to.
As painful as it is for my analytical heart, I have never run any rigorous memory experiment involving extensive listening. All I have are my anecdotes concerning three main languages I teach (Swedish, English, German). For that reason, please take it with a grain of salt.
I haven’t done any form of extensive listening practice for any of those languages until I was at least at a B2 level. In other words, my vocabulary amounted to at least 5k words which warranted quite accurate contextual guessing.
Even though I can’t give you any specific number, we’re talking about thousands of hours of listening practice for English and hundreds of hours for both Swedish and German. My main listening activities concentrated mainly on watching TV series and movies.
Why did it succeed?
Despite the lack of detailed stats, I could definitely notice that my ability to produce spontaneous speech and to understand was greatly increased.
What’s more, vocabulary acquisition was also much higher compared to extensive reading. The probable reason is, once again, the wealth of stimuli, which is related to watching movies.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
1. Extensive listening is certainly the most useful form of passive learning. Especially up to a C1 level.
2. The vocabulary acquisition rate is also quite high provided that you build your core vocabulary first. I can only speculate that on earlier stages, it would be quite ineffective since the cognitive load would be too high to enable effective learning.
It’s worth keeping in mind that extensive listening is still quite a terrible tool of acquiring vocabulary compared to almost any active learning strategy. Once again, it can be treated as a perfect supplement to active learning.
Chapter 4 – Random memory experiments
All the experiments presented here reflect a very interesting stage in my memory journey. Back then, I was willing to run almost any memory experiment as long as there is at least one scientific paper behind it.
In hindsight, sometimes I don’t know what the hell I was thinking!
As you can see, it had nothing to do with language learning or memory improvement. Of course, that didn’t stop me. The experiment went on for 3 weeks. During that time I almost pissed myself a couple of time but it certainly did nothing for my retention rate.
a Dutch scientist conducting this study, Mirjam Tusk, was actually awarded Ig Nobel.
Why did it fail?
Because I was a silly and impressionable dummy. But hey! At least I have an anecdote to share!
There are a lot of studies which show that spending time in nature helps to boost your memory. Some of them even show that staring at a photo of trees or a brisk walk in the woods can improve your memory and attention performance by 20%.
And obviously, that was a good enough reason for me to try it.
For three weeks in 2014, I spend 1 hour per day learning Swedish in the nearby park. The results were quite clear – no advantage whatsoever compared to studying at home.
Why did it fail?
Because the memory experiment conducted in the lab are usually detached from reality and don’t carry over to real life? That would be my guess. Interestingly, I noticed that my attention performance dropped while learning in the park. I was constantly distracted by damn squirrels, dogs, and bawling children. The general conditions weren’t very conducive to studying.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Learn where there is a minimal amount of distraction in order to maximize your memory performance.
Emotional modulation of the learned material
One of the undeniable laws of learning says that we always remember better items which are emotionally salient. That gave me the idea that if I learn how to modulate this saliency, I could use it to my advantage to boost my retention.
I did lots of weird things to achieve this goal. I screamed foreign words out at the top of my lungs. I made myself furious or jealous with the help of my imagination and then proceeded to memorize short lists of words.
Why did it fail?
Truth be told, I was able to remember a lot of these words right away so the first impression suggests that the method works. But as I usually say, in order to truly discover whether something works you need to run delayed recall tests.
You have to wait at least 1 or 2 weeks before you retest your memory. Only then do you get a clear answer about whether a method works or not. This strategy failed.
In hindsight, the reason is simple – if everything stands out emotionally, nothing stands out emotionally.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Learning before going to sleep
Another great strategy which I have heard about was learning before going to sleep. Like all short memory experiments of mine, it lasted 3 weeks in September 2015. The idea for this experiment was sparked by research showing a correlation between time of studying and how it can potentially improve your recall.
The protocol was very simple. I tried to memorize 10 random words from languages I knew right before going to sleep.
How did I fare?
Not much better than usually. My retention rate was improved by about 4%.
Why did it fail?
I know that you might think that 4% is not too shabby and it’s worth something. However, in my case, I deemed the results less than impressive. Especially considering that I tried to memorize words from the languages I already knew which was a major mistake.
What’s more, if we include other co-founders, my results won’t be much better than the chance. I had definitely better results with practicing motor skills before going to bed.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Try at your own risk – I don’t see any super-duper benefits. It’s much more important to have a sound sleeping schedule than to practice at any specific time.
Combining learning with physical activity
There is plenty of research demonstrating the benefits of combining physical activity with learning. The general idea is to space your learning sessions and to interrupt them with bouts of vigorous exercise.
Here is a great excerpt from Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (2011).
One immediate outcome of the research is a process known as spaced learning, in which teachers give short lessons, sometimes of less than ten minutes, before changing to physical activity and then repeating the lesson. In one trial, the pupils scored up to 90 percent in a science paper after one session involving three 20-minute bursts, interspersed with ten-minute breaks for physical activity. The pupils had not covered any part of the science syllabus before the lessons.
I started testing this idea in early 2016. Since I dislike gyms, I decided to weave in quick calisthenics workouts into my learning schedule.
Long story short, such an approach managed to significantly improve my attention span and slightly boosted my recall.
Why did it succeed?
Even though there is a lot of great science which explains in a detailed way how exercise can help you with studying, I think it has a lot to do with Serial-position effect.
Serial-position effect is the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst.
Why do I think so?
Because I have noticed similar improvements while taking so-called meaningful breaks i.e. taking a walk, or just lying down and breathing mindfully.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Mixing work-outs with your learning is certainly worth replicating
John J. Ratey – Spark, The Revolutionary New Science Of The Brain And Exercise
Learning with pictures
1) a traditional approach
I am more than sure that even if you haven’t tried using pictures in your own studies, you at least heard how great of a method that is.
But the real question which many people seem to ignore is – how much does it really help?
My answer is – not that much. Most of the time you will be able to just remember a picture very well. Based on my experiments I can say that the overall benefit of using pictures in learning is not big and amounts to less than 5%. At least when you stick to a typical approach i.e. adding random pictures to your ANKI flashcards.
Is there a better way?
2) a different approach
Since my initial results with this method weren’t very satisfying I decided to step it up and tried to check how different kind of pictures affect my recall. What’s more, I also verified how using the same picture in many flashcards affects my learning.
What kind of pictures did I use?
I concentrated on pictures which are emotionally salient. I tried everything starting from gore pictures to porn pictures. The results, especially with the latter, weren’t very good. I was sitting there like a horny idiot and couldn’t concentrate even one bit on any of the words. It’s like having a sexy teacher in high school. You can’t wait till you get to your classes but once you do, you don’t hear any words.
Funny enough, I remember most of the pictures from this experiment to this day which only further proves to me that your typical approach won’t work here.
So what kind of pictures did work?
Pictures from my personal collection. I found out that if I use one picture in a lot of flashcards where every flashcard concentrates on one word, I am able to recall words extremely easily. In addition, my retention rate has also been improved, although not as significantly as my ability to retrieve words.
Why did it fail?
While it’s true that it’s really easy to memorize picture, I haven’t noticed any amazing benefits using a typical approach i.e. inserting a new picture into every flashcard.
Why did it succeed?
I think that my approach to using pictures in language learning is so effective because it mimics a lot how we normally acquire vocabulary as children. It’s much easier to memorize names of different objects and phenomena if the same situation occurs frequently.
I have never seen any scientific experiments in this vein so I hope that the linguistic community will pick it up one day.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
If you want to use pictures in your language studies, don’t waste time trying to find a new picture for every word. Choose one picture and use it multiple times in different flashcards. Each time try to memorize a different word.
Learning with GIFS
Don’t worry, this will be a short one. If you haven’t known this before, you can insert GIFs into your ANKI flashcards. Overall, it will give you an additional recall and retrieval boost.
Why did it succeed? GIFs are very similar to real life situation. There is some dynamism there connected with visual stimulus.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned): It works provided that, once again, you use the same GIF for many flashcards.
Writing vs speaking
Another interesting experiment which I set out to conduct, in 2017 if I am not mistaken, was to settle once and for all what’s better for language learning memory-wise – writing or speaking?
I won’t elaborate about it since I have already written a full article about this problem (you can find the link below).
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
All in all, my opinion is that for the most people out there, speaking is the superior learning method as it allows you to practice what probably matters to you the most – being able to communicate. What’s more, writing offers almost no benefits memory-wise compare to speaking.
Having that said, you should remember that the ultimate answer might be more complex for you. Some learn a language to write, some to watch movies and some to talk. Choose your goal and choose your preferred learning method in accordance with it.
Even though conducting all these experiments might seem like a lot of work, I think it was more than worth it. Especially since I have always been more interested in how memory works than knowing many languages.
I thought that it might be interesting for you to see how my quest for better memory has influenced my learning speed throughout the years. However, please remember that using the right methods is one thing. Another is that with every next language, it’s getting easier and easier to learn the next ones.
Of course, even a layman might learn extremely fast if they know how to do it. I have managed to teach a lot of people to a B2 level in a couple of months with just 1 hour of classes per week so it can’t be that bad (read more). Heck, some people who took my course Vocabulary Labs managed to do it without any help whatsoever within that time frame.
Side note: the numbers below don’t represent my current levels, just how fast I learned these languages to a B2 level.
My learning pace over the years
The languages below are chronologically ordered starting with the ones which I learned first. I never bothered tracking how much time I needed to get a C1 level and beyond in most of these languages. The number below don’t represent my current levels, just how fast I learned these languages to a B2 level.
When did I start? When I was 12.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 7 years
Was the level verified? Yes, an FCE certificate
When did I start? When I was 15.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 10 years
Was the level verified? Yes, by a private tutor
When did I start? When I was 20.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 4-5 years
Was the level verified? Yes, a mock Goethe-Zertifikat B2
When did I start? When I was 25.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 1-1,5 year
Was the level verified? No
When did I start? When I was 26.
Time needed to get to a B1 level: 6 months
Time needed to get to a B2 level: about 2 years
Was the level verified? No
When did I start? When I was 27.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 3,5 months
Was the level verified? Yes, a multifaceted, internal verification in one of the global corporations
Czech was also the last language I learned. About that time I decided to focus on other fields of science and improving my languages.
Right now, for the most European languages, I don’t think it would take me more than 6-8 weeks to learn them to a B2 level. When it comes to trickier languages like Hungarian or any Asian language it’s hard to say as I never looked into them deeply. Although probably if enough number of people are interested I will do another language mission in the future and will document my progress thoroughly.
Does it mean that these methods are bad?
As you have seen, I have classified quite many methods with which I have experimented as a failure. Does it mean they are inherently bad? Not necessarily. Depending on your current stage in language learning, many of them might boost your learning significantly provided that the one you’re using right now is bad.
Even my results which show modest boosts (e.g. 5%) in recall and retrieval rate should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, if you’re a person who is not very physically active, you might experience a significant increase in your ability to recall if just work out more.
Regardless of that, a lot of my experiments should show you rough effectiveness of many of these methods. I hope that one day I will find time to come back to this article and expand my lists of experiments including some others which I missed this time.
You might also wonder why I haven’t covered many of the popular apps and learning systems in this article. The answer is very simple – I didn’t have to. There are dozens of principles of memory to master in order to learn effectively. Once you acquire them, you can simply disregard many popular solutions because you can spot all the mistakes they are perpetuating. Not every experiment is worth your time.
How many of these methods have you experimented with? Let me know.
Growing-up has to be one of the saddest things ever from the outside perspective. It’s like a backward evolution. You see how amazingly curious creatures turn into mindless corporate drones.
You see how the pursuit of knowledge turns into the pursuit for money.
I believe that curiosity and the power to create are the very things that can ward off all the negative in the world. However, in order for those qualities to survive, you have to feed them constantly. The problem is that the modern times actively discourage people from pursuing apolymath.
What’s more, we live in the conviction that there is not enough lifetime to master many areas of expertise.
I would like to show you that it’s definitely possible if you play your cards right. Within your lifetime you can become great at many things. But before we get to the specifics let’s start with a basic question:
Mastering many fields of knowledge – is it worth it?
I like to think of knowing many things as of the magical glasses – the more you know, the more you are able to see.
Being stuck in one field of specialty is nothing short of being blindfolded. You can go throughout the life without being able to spot all those enchanting intricacies coming from the expanded perspective.
Everything starts making sense. You know why leaves are green. You know why bread turns brown.
Unfortunately, being good at many things is not encouraged these days. We want everyone to be ultra-specialized which breeds ignorance in almost all other areas.
Kant elegantly touched upon it years ago:
“It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all.
I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.
The guardians who have kindly taken upon themselves the work of supervision will soon see to it that by far the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex) should consider the step forward to maturity not only as difficult but also as highly dangerous.
Having first infatuated their domesticated animals, and carefully prevented the docile creatures from daring to take a single step without the leading-strings to which they are tied, they next show them the danger which threatens them if they try to walk unaided.
Now this danger is not in fact so very great, for they would certainly learn to walk eventually after a few falls.
But an example of this kind is intimidating, and usually frightens them off from further attempts.”
It couldn’t be any truer. Of course, we don’t have to know everything. But will it hurt to learn just a little bit from many areas of knowledge?
Were we really created to be stuck in one groove all of our lives?
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
~ Robert Anson Heinlein
Even though it’s advisable to master at least one field of knowledge intimately. It’s usually not necessary to do it for more than one.
Mastering many fields of knowledge the smart way – The Pareto Principle
Once again – the Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. However, if you apply the Pareto principle to the Pareto principle you might see that roughly 64% of the effects come from 4% of the causes.
It means that if you are able to determine the absolute essentials, you will be able to become good at something while spending only 4% of your time / effort.
In other words, with just between 40-80 hours you will know your way around a given discipline.
For example, what if you don’t trust your endocrinologist and would like to, sort of, become one.
Easy, it’s enough that you learn:
what hormones are
how they function
what are the main hormones in our body
how they are produced
sprinkle on top some knowledge about Type 1 and 2 Diabetes, thyroid disorders and osteoporosis and you’re good to know.
As difficult as it’s to believe, most specialists deal with the same old cases day in, day out.
Remember – you don’t need to know every possible exception to every possible rule to be good.
What if you want to be a semi-professional gourmet? No problem. Memorize the scale for describing foods and start tasting!
Mayonnaise, for example, is supposed to be evaluated along:
1) six dimensions of appearance
(color, color intensity, chroma, shine, lumpiness, and bubbles)
2) ten dimensions of texture:
(adhesiveness to lips, firmness, denseness, and so on)
3) and fourteen dimensions of flavor split among three
a) aromatics (eggy, mustardy, and so forth);
b) basic tastes (salty, sour, and sweet);
c) chemical-feeling factors (burn, pungent, astringent).
What if you want to get good at persuading people (because manipulation is such a dirty word)? I would dare to say that reading Cialdini’s classic book should be enough to be at least decent at this craft. The rest is practice and the automation of those rules.
A famous quote by Bruce Lee echoes that thought:
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.
Oftentimes, you might discover that a slightly smaller knowledge which is automated is much better than knowing a lot of theory.
How to master many areas of expertise – your action plan
Even though we are talking about mastering potentially a lot of fields of knowledge we all have to start somewhere. Here is a simple list which might help you with the preparation process.
1. Make a list of all the things you want to learn and choose no more than 3
Once you master those fields of expertise, you will be able to move on to the next ones.
2. Make sure that they are potentially applicable to your life
I want to emphasize that you can learn whatever you want. However, if you choose useful skills at the beginning, you will find it much easier to find time to practice them.
Learning practical things is also extremely rewarding and can help you keep your motivation high.
3. Choose how much time you want to devote to them daily
I don’t want to be too lax in my calculations that’s why I am going to assume that being good enough at something requires 100 hours.
That tells us that with about 1 hour per day for each field of knowledge, you should be able to know them relatively well in a little bit over 3 months.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that the more you know, the easier it will be for you to acquire even more skills and knowledge (so-called the Snowball Effect).
Remember that you don’t have to religiously cling to these numbers – they are here to impose some general guidelines.
4. Determine what you should learn
You can try to google what are the essentials of the given area of specialty or simply contact somebody who does it for a living. That should do the trick.
5. Get your learning materials
Once you know what to learn this step shouldn’t be too difficult. The only thing I can add here is this – make sure that your source of knowledge is reliable. You don’t want to waste your time remembering things that have no reflection in reality.
How to master many fields of science – recommended strategies
Congratulations! Now you know roughly how to organize your learning. It’s time you familiarized yourself with the strategies which might help you achieve your goals faster and with less effort.
1. Use deliberate practice
Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. – source.
Some common characteristics of deep learning include:
it gives you a specific goal
it requires your full attention
it’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
it gives you feedback
In other words, deliberate practice gives you a goal and tells you to mercilessly concentrate on a given concept until you’re ready to move on to the next one.
I will be the first to admit that it’s not the most pleasant learning strategy. However, if you power through it, you will find out that it’s definitely the quickest one out there. For me, a little pain for a lot of gains is certainly a trade-off I am willing to make (read more about deliberate practice here).
2. Combine skills (aka laddering, skill transfer)
It’s important to realize that a lot of different skills might be combined with each other in order to save you time and make your practise sessions more productive.
you can exercise and listen to a lecture at the same time
you can learn a language and use it to master a certain area of specialty
you can learn how to negotiate to get a job in the different department where you will be able to use your newly acquired programming skills
The number of combinations is literally endless. Give it some thought and contemplate what kind of combinations might work for you.
Personally, I like to watch pointless YT videos from time to time but I never do it without a work-out session.
3. Use and automate your knowledge
Not every skill has to be useful but it’s certainly much easier to maintain it if you automate its use and you are able to use it. At least on a semi-regular basis (read more about automating your skills here).
4. Do interesting things / choose difficult projects
Simple tasks don’t require much brainpower – probably that’s why soon 50% of our planet will be replaced by multifunctional AI blenders.
If you really want to let your talents shine, always strive to take up difficult projects which involve the use of many different skills. It doesn’t matter whether they are a part of your job description or just a personal project. Try to make them relatively challenging relative to your current skill set (read more about doing the hard work here).
5. Help others
There are literally thousands of people in the world who might benefit from your knowledge. Find them and do your best to help them alleviate at least part of their problems.
Not only will you feel slightly better and decrease your chances of becoming a skull ashtray for all the hellish abominations below us but you will also consolidate your skills significantly better.
Because the more you’re able to embed your knowledge in the reality, the easier it is to remember it.
Share your thoughts with me – do you want to master many fields of knowledge – if yes, what are they?
Nootropics are certainly one of those things that capture your imagination. You pop a pill and everything becomes clear. You are more vigilant, more observant.
Sure, three months down the road you start resembling a patient with a full-blown neurological disorder. You catch yourself scratching your arms nervously while your eyes twitch.
And if your pill is nowhere to be found you drop on the floor and start rhythmically convulsing.
But hey man! Those moments of clarity!
In all seriousness – nootropics have definitely become a thing in the last couple of years. The appeal is understandable.
At the price of a pack of pills, you can become a better version of yourself.
Is it really the case? Nope.
If you ask me, it’s definitely more of a fantasy for the naive. Let me explain step-by-step why it is so and what you can do instead to become this sexy learning-machine.
WHAT ARE NOOTROPICS?
Not everyone is familiar with this notion. Since I don’t want to risk keeping you in the dark, let’s delve into it.
Nootropics are natural and synthetic compounds that can improve your general cognitive abilities, such as memory, attention, focus, and motivation.
As a rule of thumb, natural nootropics are much safer and can actually improve the brain’s health (see Suliman et al. 2016).
As you can see the definition is very far from being precise.
Let’s suppose you go into the panic mode before an important meeting and your colleague bitch-slaps you. You suddenly become more focused and sharper.
Can this backhander be treated as a nootropic?
Once again, the definition is unclear. What is clear is that, even though you might not realize it, you probably take some of them already.
SOME OF THE AVAILABLE NOOTROPICs
Our civilization can pride itself on having a long, rich history of drugging ourselves to feel better and smarter. Here are some of the weapons of the mass enlightening:
If your head bobs like a crazy pigeon if you don’t get your daily fix, you are probably not surprised to see it here.
These days, it can be found almost everywhere. Especially in soft drinks, dark chocolate and, of course, in coffee.
Effects: At normal doses, caffeine has variable effects on learning and memory, but it generally improves reaction time, wakefulness, concentration, and motor coordination. – Nehlig A (2010). “Is caffeine a cognitive enhancer?”. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
L-Theanine, or simply theanine, can generally be found in tea.
Effects: Offers neuroprotection via stimulation of PKC phosphorylation; upregulation of PKCepsilon mRNA; induction of Bcl-X(L), Bcl-w, and BDNF mRNAs; and downregulation of PKCgamma, Bad, and Bax mRNAs.
The CAF+ contains a combination of ingredients that have separately shown to boost cognitive performance, including caffeine, l-theanine, vinpocetine, l-tyrosine, and vitamin B6/B12.
It was supposed to be the next big thing in the world of nootropics. Alas, it turned out to be a flop.
Here is the conclusion:
We found that after 90 min, the delayed recall performance on the VLT after caffeine was better than after CAF+ treatment.
Further, caffeine, but not CAF+, improved the performance in a working memory task. In a complex choice reaction task caffeine improved the speed of responding.
Subjective alertness was increased as a result of CAF+ at 30 min after administration. Only caffeine increased diastolic blood pressure.
We conclude that in healthy young students, caffeine improves memory performance and sensorimotor speed, whereas CAF+ does not affect the cognitive performance at the dose tested.
And that’s exactly my point. A lot of those compounds which are being plugged shamelessly by different fancy-sounding brain websites are close to useless.
Do yourself a favor and stick to the devil you know.
It’s not uncommon to find comments on a Reddit about Nootropics saying that
“500$ for nootropics is not that much. This is just the price of admission for finding the one which is right for you.”
It doesn’t sound alarming at all. No sir. Don’t think of yourself as a cowardly version of a heroin addict. You’re a brave brain-explorer! On a more serious note – a lot of these nootropics are not only shady but expensive as well. Keep that in mind, if you decide to try them out.
Unkown long-term effects
Even though natural nootropics are potentially safe, or even very safe, it definitely can’t be said about synthetic nootropics. By taking them you automatically volunteer to become a guinea pig.
Many of the nootropics change your levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, GABA and many others.
The thing is that so do many drugs like cocaine.
The long-term effect is usually a strong imbalance of transmitter levels in order to compensate those extremes.
It reminds a lot of enthusiasts of brain-zapping couple of years ago. Even though there were almost no double-blind studies confirming its effectiveness, people glibly jumped on this bandwagon.
Call me old-fashioned but if somebody needs a pill every time they want to feel smart or sharp, maybe they are not that smart or sharp? After every use, it’s time for a cold and lonely wake-up call.
It’s a lazy solution
The important question to ask here is:
what kind of people would like to take such pills in the first place?
There are two groups
a) lazy-ass slackers and loafers
These are people who have probably never put effort into any of the things they have been doing in their life. I know that you’re not one of them because you can read. That takes us to the second group.
You know much, you’ve achieved much but you want more. That’s great. That’s admirable.
But as a high-achiever, you know that there is no such thing as a lunch for free. Things which are worth your time come with a price.
There are a lot of better, and more permanent, solutions to becoming a person with an extraordinary mind.
What to do instead of nootropics?
1) improve short-term memory
Your short-term memory is the bottleneck of your ability to acquire knowledge. By improving it, you can greatly accelerate your learning rate.
If you eat like crap (e.g. a lot of processed foods) and you look at a cucumber as if it touched you in your childhood, you should definitely take care of this problem.
3) fix your dietary indeficiencies
If you have problems with brain fog, concentration, and mental sharpness, there is a very good chance that your diet caused a lot of deficiencies. No nootropics will fix that for you.
Get your blood checked to see what minerals and vitamins you’re lacking.
Not sure if you lack anything? Check your nails.
Healthy nails should be smooth and have consistent (pinkish) coloring.
Any spots, discoloration and so on should be alarming.
What’s more, most of the time, you can basically assume that you lack Vitamin D3. Especially if you have an office job or don’t live in a sunny climate. You probably also lack magnesiumunless you’re a health buff.
4) improve your lifestyle
More sport and more physical interactions with people. Both these things will give you a nice dopamine and serotonin kick. If you suspect that nobody loves you, try hugging stray dogs. Even this will do.
5) learn how to learn faster
Call me biased but no pill will substitute this kind of knowledge. Let’s assume that you want to learn a language and you gobbled up a magical tablet. If you use bad learning strategies, you will still get nowhere. This time, however, a little bit faster than before.
Knowing how to learn is a permanent power.
6) learn how to be more productive and how to focus
The quality of your life depends mostly on your ability to make the right decisions and to solve problems. One could think that in the world of almost unlimited access to information our decision-making abilities should be getting better and better.
Is it really the case?
I don’t think so. There are many explanations for why it is so.
However, instead of delving into them, I would like you to show you how to improve the quality of your thinking and problem-solving skills with the concept of my own devising – The Magnet Theory.
But first things first. Let’s start with a structure of knowledge.
Bloom’s Taxonomy – The hierarchy of knowledge
Not a week goes by when I hear someone say – if you don’t understand something, don’t learn it. And some part of me crumbles away every time when I hear it.
Because nothing could be further from the truth.
Understanding is very often the by-product of all the information at your disposal.
Let me explain why.
Let’s start with fundamentals i.e. Bloom’s taxonomy. The Bloom’s taxonomy depicts the structure of knowledge and how it is organized.
Take a look at the foundation of this pyramid. Can you see it? That’s right. Understanding doesn’t seem to be the most important element of knowledge.
Why do you think it is so?
I will tell you why – because you can’t think without facts.
Facts are frequently the foundation of the good solutions and thinking.
Why understanding is overrated
My guess is that most of the time, on the surface, it is easier to understand something than to memorize dozens of different facts.
We like to assume that if A leads to D then it surely happens in a nice progression – A causes B. B causes C. C causes D.
The reality is that most of the time progression looks more like this.
A -> L -> B -> G -> C -> K -> X -> E -> D
It’s an interaction of dozens of different elements which we very often don’t see because of our limited knowledge. This phenomenon is called “The illusion of explanatory depth“.
“People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.”
“This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” Sloman and Fernbach observe.
The real reason why understanding starts with memorization
That doesn’t inspire much confidence comprehension-wise, does it?
How many concepts do you know that can be understood by knowing just 3-5 facts? I can tell you right away, that there are not many of them. And even if you find any, they probably won’t be worth your while.
In order to see the big picture, you need a lot of facts. Which, truth be told, can be problematic.
Because you don’t know how many puzzle pieces are needed to create it. That leaves you just one choice – you have to keep on memorizing things even if they don’t make any sense at the moment. You need to memorize facts before you understand what they mean.
If you memorize just the things you understand, you will never be able to look beyond the obvious.
The problem nowadays is that almost nobody is willing to do it. Why bother if all the knowledge you need is at your fingertips?
It is the tendency to forget information that can be found readily online by using Internet search engines such as Google. According to the first study about the Google effect, people are less likely to remember certain details they believe will be accessible online.
The thing is that if you want to be the best at something, you need all those pesky details.
My answer has always been the same and possibly disappointing to others – I try to memorize everything.
I don’t care how abstract or vague a given piece of information seems. I will commit it to my memory. I do it because I can’t possibly know which fact will tip the scale and raise the curtain to reveal the magnificence of understanding.
That’s why I can’t be picky.
At some point, the facts always come together to form a clear answer. Sometimes, you just have to wait for it.
For example, right now I can tell you quite exactly what science currently has to say about the process of working-memory consolidation. This knowledge includes even tiny facts about frequencies of different brain waves.
And I will be honest with you. I don’t know right now the purpose of this information. I am more than clueless. But I am pretty sure it will come handy one day. Maybe in one year, maybe in ten. Whenever it might be, I know that I will be ready.
It might not be the most pleasant way to acquire expertise. However, it’s sure as hell the fastest and the most certain way to do it.
The Magnet Theory – how to understand the process of effective thinking
Years ago, I was obsessing over the question – how come two smart individuals can arrive at the completely different conclusions?
I knew that asking good questions was important in that process. I also understood that you couldn’t think effectively without facts.
The effect of these cogitations turned into something I dubbed The Magnet Theory.
It’s a very elegant way of understanding the process of problem-solving and effective thinking.
Think of any question or problem you might have as a powerful magnet. The minute you encounter some riddle, the magnet starts doing its magic. It starts scouring your mind and attracting everything which might be useful in the process of cracking a given problem.
And I really do mean everything – anecdotes, scientific facts, your personal experiences and so on.
The whole comes together and creates a solution to the problem.
There is one more component of the magnet theory – your ego. It filters and potentially distorts all the potential conclusions you may reach. Even if all the facts are in favor of one solution, your ego might nudge you to reject them all.
The consequences of the magnet theory
1. Almost everyone has an opinion
How many people do you know who don’t have an opinion on some matter? Not many, right?
That’s the thing. Any question you ask or problem you state is a potential magnet for the mind of your interlocutor. The magnet will scrape up every little bit piece of information. As a consequence, this motley clue of assorted facts and anecdotes will form an opinion on a given topic.
Are these opinions worth much? You can answer this question yourself.
2. Your thinking is as good as the information you remember
Remember that you will always have an answer to almost every question. That doesn’t mean that the answer you come up with is any good. As the great and late Richard Feynman used to say –
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.
Don’t rush to the conclusions. Before you make a decision ask yourself this – how many good facts do I have at my disposal? Not opinions, not anecdotes but the cold scientific facts.
If the answer is “not many” then do your research to give your magnet some “better food”.
I routinely distrust anyone and double-check any kind of information myself. Maybe I am paranoid but my behavior is driven by one simple question – how many people appreciate the importance of memorization and treat it as an indispensable part of their expertise acquisition?
The answer is – close to zero.
That automatically renders the most of the opinions you will ever hear in your life invalid. Or at best they might be classified as half-truths. Sounds callous but it’s definitely true.
Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. – Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds | The New Yorker
3. Your ego can be the end of you
It’s worth keeping in mind that the more somebody holds himself in high esteem, the slimmer the chances that they will be swayed by facts that contradict their opinions.
What’s worse, everyone is affected by this bias. Especially all the people who think of themselves as experts or have fancy titles like Ph.D. or a professor.
Alas, the titles don’t mean diddly-squat if you don’t have vast knowledge.
If I invited you to a blind taste test of a $12 wine versus a $1,200 wine, could you tell the difference? I bet you $20 you couldn’t. In 2001, Frederic Brochet, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux, ran a study that sent shock waves through the wine industry. Determined to understand how wine drinkers decided which wines they liked, he invited fifty-seven recognized experts to evaluate two wines: one red, one white. After tasting the two wines, the experts described the red wine as intense, deep, and spicy—words commonly used to describe red wines. The white was described in equally standard terms: lively, fresh, and floral. But what none of these experts picked up on was that the two wines were exactly the same wine. Even more damning, the wines were actually both white wine—the “red wine” had been colored with food coloring. Think about that for a second. Fifty-seven wine experts couldn’t even tell they were drinking two identical wines. –I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi
Example 1 – Vitamin C
It reminds me of a great story. A couple of years ago, there was a lot of controversy in Poland around the man called Jerzy Zieba. What did he do, you might ask?
He wrote the book called “The Hidden Therapies – What your doctor won’t tell you“. The books shook the medical world in Poland to its core as it exposed incompetence and rigidness of the Polish health care. In one of the chapters, he described wonderful qualities of Vitamin C which can be used among others to:
treat cancer and various diseases
lower blood sugar
substitute anti-allergic medicine
As a result, the real shitstorm ensued. He was publically flailed and tarred and feathered at the altar of science. There were literally thousands of medical professionals who mocked him to no end.
After all, he was not a doctor. So what that in his book he quoted hundreds of scientific studies from all over the world to back up his claims. He was no one and had no say in the matter.
I saw professors of medicine and oncologists saying straight to the camera that this is scientific tosh and they haven’t seen even one scientific paper who proved it.
So why I am telling you all this?
Because each one of these detractors was dead wrong. There are actually hundreds of scientific studies proving the efficacy of vitamin C in treating almost every possible malady.
This anecdote is especially important for me because I have been personally interested in medicine for a long time now as it’s definitely one of the main fields of knowledge where you are only as good as your memory. Throughout the years I have read, gathered and memorized dozens upon dozens of articles and studies about vitamin C which confirm its effectiveness.
In the end, the professors were wrong. The ego got the best of them.
It’s an important reminder for all of us to never get too cocky. In other words – be humble or be humbled.
Example 2 – Losing Weight
Let’s ponder over the following problem. Let’s say that your aunt Elma wants to lose weight. She has been buying Vanity Fair for a long time so she knows that even though she accepts herself, she is fat and hideous, and needs to slim down.
The years of reading has equipped her with a truly powerful, intellectual toolkit.
She knows that she has to:
stop chugging gin before she gets to work
Is losing weight really that simple? It might seem so. After all, doing all those things takes us from point A to point B.
Before, I move on. ask yourself the same question. Be sure to follow the whirlwind of incoming thoughts. Can you feel how they are trying to organize themselves? Or do you maybe feel like you have a ready answer?
I can bet that your first instinct is to start spewing out all the facts in your head. I know that it is typically my first reaction.
However, what’s on the surface might be merely a tip of the iceberg. But only once you take a peek “under the hood”, will you be able to see the real complexity of the issue at hand.
If you want to lose weight, you have to:
improve fatty acid oxidation
manage blood sugar levels
Increase the breakdown of fat storage
Improve fat burning capacity
Increase insulin sensitivity
Of course, it would be just the beginning of your investigative journey. Next, you would have to learn what is responsible for each of these functions.
Only then will you be able to truly understand what is required to lose weight. And it would be a truly amazing journey because the truth is that there are thousands of possible solutions. If you dig long enough, I am sure you will be able to find the optimal one.
Do we have to understand all the things deeply?
I don’t mean to make you paranoid. Of course, you don’t have to possess a profound understanding of everything. Although I would suggest you do it for every area of knowledge which is of interest to you.
The Magnet Theory is an easy way to understand how the processes of thinking and problem-solving work. It can be summarized in the following way:
Problems and questions act as magnets
Those magnets attract every last scrap of information they can find to form an answer
The final answers can be potentially distorted by your ego
The theory leaves us with three conclusions which are applicable to every area of life.
(Almost) everyone has an opinion on anything. The magnet will always attract something which can be used to form a conclusion.
Your conclusions are only as good as the information at your disposal.
Your conclusions can be easily distorted by your biases and ego.
There you have it. I hope that you will be able to apply this theory to improve your quality of thinking.
Do you have anecdotes where some tiny piece of information helped you understand something? Please let me know in the comments.
The phenomenon of retrieving words at will seems to be almost magical. The mere intention of wanting to use any of them recalls them effortlessly and in no time.
Hah! You wish!
The truth is that most of us look like constipated capuchin monkeys trying to poop out a screwdriver when we try to retrieve vocab! It’s difficult and it sure as hell don’t come easy.
Why is it so?
Well, first of all, the universe is a cruel place and probably hates you. Other than that there are some other memory-related reasons for that state of affairs.
Since I can’t do anything about the universe, let’s concentrate on the latter.
Difference between remembering and retrieving a word
Let’s start with a very different distinction between remembering a piece of information and retrieving it. Contrary to the common knowledge and the intuition, they are not the same.
To explain this concept, let’s look at a simple model of memory.
As you can clearly see that first you have to encode (memorize) a piece of information and only then can you retrieve it.
It means that:
a) you can remember something but you might not be able to retrieve it.
b) if you can retrieve something you certainly remember it.
The infamous tip-of-the-tongue feeling refers to the so-called failure to retrieve error,
If you want to improve your chance of recalling an item you need to improve its retrievability.
What is retrievability?
Long-term memories can be characterized by two elements: Stability (S) and Retrievability (R) are part of the Two-component model of long-term memory.
Retrievability of memory is a variable of long-term memory that determines the probability of retrieving a memory at any given time since the last review/recall.
I would like to direct your attention to the word “probability”. You can never be certain that you will be able to retrieve a given memory. It all depends on a plethora of factors. But what you can do is increase your odds.
Let’s dig deeper.
Fundamentals – Retrieval Cues
Before we move on, you need to familiarize yourself with some basic memory concepts. Only then will you be able to fully understand why you can’t recall a word and how to change it.
Everything starts with a retrieval CUE.
A Retrieval Cue is a prompt that help us remember. When we make a new memory, we include certain information about the situation that act as a trigger to access the memory. Source: AlleyDog
As you can see, literally everything can be a cue! Let’s say that you meet a nice girl. The way she looks is a cue. Actually, every piece of her garment is a cue. The weather is a cue. The look of disgust on her face as you empty yet another cup of beer and whisper gently into her ear, ” Shh. Let the magic happen” is another great example of a cue.
The sound of your feet being dragged across the dirt by the security is yet another cue.
What? No. That did not happen to me! Mind your own business! Let’s get back to the science!
Saying that everything is a cue is a bit lazy, isn’t it? I think you will be able to understand them much better once you see how they are typically categorized.
And don’t worry. This is not an exercise in futility. This info will come handy.
External cues were ones that came from the environment.
Abstract (aka internal) cues were all thoughts or linguistic references to the original episode.
Sensory/perceptual cues were those that provided sensory/perceptual referents to the original episode.
Sensory cues can be further categorized as visual cues, auditory cues, haptic cues, olfactory cues, environmental cues, and so on.
State cues were physiological or emotional referents to the original episode
I hope that now it’s easier for you to understand that literally everything can be a cue – starting from a thought and ending with a smell.
Then, you might wonder, if there are so many of them, how come you still have trouble retrieving memories or words?
The easiest answer is that you need to use the right cues.
Memory principles governing recall
There are a couple of general rules which will help you with understanding when it is usually possible to retrieve a word.
1) The encoding specificity
Somewhere in the 70s, a psychologist by the name of Endel Tulving proposed a theory called the encoding specificity principle.
It states that:
” Successful recall relies on the overlap between the thing you are trying to remember and the situation in which you first encountered it, and the cues or prompts that are available when you are trying to recall it”.
This gives us our first rule:
The more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.
Let’s stress it one more time – it’s not guaranteed that you will recall desired words. Meeting the said conditions simply increases the likelihood of retrieving them.
Let’s say that you memorized (actively) a word “cat” in the following phrase: “a black cat”. If at any given time during a conversation, you decide to use this phrase, it will most likely come to the top of your mind.
But what happens if you decide to use this word in another phrase:”a wild cat”? Assuming that you already know actively the word “wild”, there is a chance that you will be able to string this sentence together. However, the likelihood of this is definitely smaller than in the previous example as you have probably never ever made such a mental connection before. This leads to problems with so-called “information transfer“.
If you memorized some word in only one context, your mind can cling to it so tightly that it won’t be able to transfer a given item into another context.
Any time you use a given word in one part of a conversation and then can’t use it in another one, you run into exactly this problem.
Interestingly, these rules stay true regardless of the relevance of the information you are trying to retrieve.
“When short-range contextual dependencies are preserved in nonsense material, the nonsense is as readily recalled as is meaningfull material.” – The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives
Side note: Now, when I am reading this sentence I think that I need to go out more often. I have a strange definition of “fun”.
2) The strength of associations
Another aspect of a successful retrieval is how strong your associations are. I think that it is intuitively understandable that the stronger the association between the cue and the target information the bigger your chance of retrieving an item is.
However, make no mistake:
The strength of your association is still not as important as the match between features of recall and features of encoding (Pansky et al., 2005; Roediger & Guynn, 1996).
Imagine that you are eating peacefully your breakfast in a hotel abroad and all of the sudden some cat jumps on a table and gracefully puts its paw into your cereal bowl.
You think for a second how to word your outrage in a language of your choice and then you finally cry out “I will skin you alive, you sack of fleas!”.
From now on, every time you decide to express your outrage in a similar situation the chance of using exactly this phrase increases.
Edward Vul and Nisheeth Srivastava presented another interesting perspective. Namely, the process of retrieval is the process of retrieving cues which anchor the said item.
From this it follows that:
recognition performance is superior to recall performance when the number of items is greater than the number of cues
recall performance is better than recognition when the converse holds.
It means that the bigger the number of words you want to memorize, the bigger the number of cues you need.
Don’t overdo it – a cue overload effect
There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing. If you decide to go over the top and insert too many cues into a piece of information you are trying to memorize you might notice that your recall rate didn’t change.
It happens so because:
If retrieval cues are not recognized as being distinct from one another, then cues are likely to become associated with more information, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the cue in prompting the recall of target information (Watkins & Watkins, 1975).
Let’s say that you want to memorize a two-word phrase “a disgusting slob”. If you just create a flashcard and then try to din it into your head, there is a good chance you won’t succeed.
The number of cues is minimal here. You can just see these words visually.
In other words, you are using one sensory cue. But as you know now, there are quite many different kinds of cues.
You can dollop more of them on top of this one.
You can add a sound (another sensory cue)
You can say it out loud (internal and sensory cue)
You can modulate your emotions (state cues)
Instead of just saying a phrase, you can shout it out angrily. Win-win! Unless you shout it out on a bus, of course.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s a slight simplification of a problem as it doesn’t factor in the capacity of our short-term memory.
4) Distinctivity of cues
The last (important) piece of a puzzle is how distinct your cues are.
“In order to increase the likelihood of recalling a verbatim-based piece of information, you need distinct retrieval cues (Anderson, 1983a; Anderson & Reder, 1999; Tuckey 743 & Brewer, 2003).
But why do we need distinct retrieval cues?
Shortly, recall of one item can prompt further recall of semantically related items (Collins & Loftus, 1975). This occurs through the spread of activation through the associative links of the memory network. Gillian Cohen – Memory In the Real World
You can think about it as a domino effect. One element leads us to another.
How to build good cues
Good quality retrieval cues often have:
(1) constructability (cues generated at encoding can be reliably reproduced at recall);
(2) consistency between encoding and retrieval within a given context (i.e. an effective retrieval cue should be compatible with the memory trace created during encoding and show high cue-target match);
(3) strong associations with the target and the ability to be easily associated with newly learned information;
(4) bidirectionality of association (the cue recalling target information, and target information recalling the cue).
(5) It is also important that retrieval cues are distinctive or discriminable.
Think about those rules as guidelines. Applying them will definitely increase your odds of retrieving an item.
However, don’t go too crazy and try to apply all of them every time when you try to memorize something. If anything, you should increase the number of cues only for the words you have trouble remembering.
How to maximize your chances of recalling words – a summary
Time to recap everything you have learned so far about maximizing your chances of recalling something. But let’s do it in plain English this time.
1. You should be the person who generates cues
If you download ready-to-use flashcards or use apps like Duolingo and then whine that you can’t learn then there’s your explanation.
High levels of recall usually occur when the cue is self-generated (Hunt & Smith, 1996).
2. Retrieve vocabulary in different conditions
If you just sit at home and pore over a computer or books you are encoding and retrieving items in the same conditions and that clearly hinders their retrievability.
As you already know in order to retrieve a piece of information we need to use good cues.
Retrieval is a selective process, relying on a complex interaction between encoded information and features of the retrieval environment (Tulving & Thomson, 1973).
3. Memorize natural phrases / collocations
One more time – the more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.
Let’s say that you want to learn the word “a bike”. You decide to put it into the following phrase which you will later memorize “a bike made with light alloys”.
If you have never ever heard yourself saying such a phrase in your native tongue then what are you doing?! Use something simpler and more natural, for example, “a new bike”.
Let’s look at the quickest way to retrieve a word in a conversation.
PHRASE YOU LEARN PHRASE YOU RETRIEVE encoding cue -> retrieval cue (identical or similar to the encoding cue) = success
Quite straightforward, isn’t it?
Now here is the path of retrieval when you decide to use mnemonics:
a big cat -> looking for associations -> turning them into pictures -> placing them in some location -> decoding them -> retrieval
As you can see, we are adding a lot of unnecessary steps into the process of retrieval. The usual effect is that you:
a) don’t remember them after a couple of days/weeks
b) you remember them but can’t recall them since you have no real context for these items
Associations are certainly a useful learning tool. The problems occur when there are too many of them. In my line of work I have met people who were obsessed with finding an association for every possible piece of information.
The thing is that the associations, just like mnemonics, can at best help you with remembering the word but not retrieving it.
A couple of associations are great because they are distinct. However, there is nothing distinct and special about 100 associations.
Another problem is that once again you are lengthening the process of retrieving a word
encoding information -> building an association -> decoding an association -> retrieval
(a cat) -> (it sounds similar to a candy bar ” Kit Kat -> (now you want to use the word in a conversation) it was something connected with a candy bar -> I bought a new Snickers!
I have mentioned before in a couple of articles that learning styles don’t exist (read about it more here). Sure, you can have preferencesfor a giving style of learning but that does not mean that this style of learning will be more effective memory-wise.
Sure enough, there is a host of studies which suggest that even teaching styles have no influence on the students’ ability to recall information.
If you have ever had a teacher who hired a throng of merry and naked gnomes in order to sing you a lengthy list of historical dates then I have bad news for you.
Although, you have to appreciate the effort, right?
Question for you
How often does it happen to you that you can’t recall vocab when needed? Let me know in the comments!
Reading fast is certainly an amazing skill. And the very tempting one.
Can you feel the thrill of endless possibilities? If you just knew how to do it, you could read, like, 10 books per week!
No wonder speed reading is a huge business.
There are probably thousands of books written on the subject. And 99% percent are crap. Promises-flavored crap.
Sure, everyone would like to be the guy who picks up a thick book, thumbs it through in two minutes just to say, “Do they have to dumb down everything these days?”.
Can you become such a person? Definitely no.
Can you become a person who reads very fast? Yes.
However, if you are looking for a quick and easy solution, you will get severely disappointed. Let’s start with some basic fact to help you read books fast without speed-reading.
0) Speed Reading Is Bullshit
I know that some might take this statements very personally, or even be offended. “How dare you smear the good name of the speed-reading community?!”
However, it has to be said as it frustrates me endlessly.
Almost anywhere I go, I encounter opinions that it is perfectly possible. From Tony Buzan’s classic to Tim Ferris’ article, everyone claims that reading with a speed of 1000 words/min is perfectly achievable.
Some even go a step further. Comments under any article on speed-reading usually spiral into some bizarre contest.
“800 wpm (words per minute)? That’s laughable, man. Try getting to 2000 wpm, like me, to see what REAL speed reading is!”
Sounds great, right? Doesn’t work.
Before we get to the specific methods, I think you should know a thing or two about …
MY EXPERIENCE WITH SPEED-READING
I started my speed reading journey about 12 years ago. I have always been a great believer in capabilities of a human mind.
No wonder, I quickly got sucked into the speed-reading world.
Initially, I thought that I was a very fast reader It quickly turned out that my typical reading speed of >300 wpm was pitiful.
Wouldn’t you feel that way?
You start reading about people who underwent a special kind of speed-reading training. About some sort of super-geniuses, or so I thought, who can read with 3000 wpm or even 8000 wpm?
I felt inadequate.
I started reading every speed reading book I could ferret out. There were good books and there were terrible books.
Ok, mostly they were terrible.
Some titles sound as if they were concocted by a shitfaced magician.
Here are some of them. But just a word of warning. Don’t buy them. They are crap. Go get yourself drunk instead. Or buy your horse a three-piece suit, It will be better use of your money
A Course in Light Speed Reading A Return to Natural Intuitive Reading
The Alpha-Netics Rapid Reading Program
The PhotoReading Whole Mind System
Did I get better?
Yep. At least in some way.
After a couple of weeks of training, I could read with a speed of 1000 words per minute. Then I pushed myself even more and I got to 1400 wpm.
There was just one problem, I couldn’t spot back then. The speed was there but I understood almost nothing
I guess Woody Allen summarized it quite brilliantly when he said, ” I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”
It was a very disappointing experience, I needed some time to digest the burden of this conclusion.
When I did, it became clear that
1) Nothing worth reading can/should be read fast.
2) You can read fast but you can’t understand and analyze information fast.
That’s why, as far as I am concerned, anyone who is selling “photographic reading courses” should be pilloried while a fat dude named Stanley sticks a tongue in his ear (so-called “seashell”).
Ok, we got this covered. Let’s move on to the things which can actually help you read faster.
1) Know Thy Goal
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. –
FRANCIS BACON (1561–1626)
When in doubt, trust in Bacon. He was definitely onto something.
The very first thing you should do before you open a book, and a waft of paper hits your nostrils, is to decide why you want to read it.
It doesn’t sound sexy. I know. You are a bad boy and you’d rather slap that book open right away. However, you need to restrain yourself as it is an extremely important step.
You might not feel it, but your decision, subconscious or not, will weigh heavily on what your mind concentrates on. And on what you extract from the text.
You usually read for
So try to choose one of the said purposes.
Of course, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint the exact purpose of reading. Nevertheless, you always do your best to determine it as precisely as you only can
2) Separate learning from reading
You are ambitious. That’s great. That’s admirable.
And very likely it is an invisible burden which hovers over your head and stops you from reading faster.
Let me guess. You are trying to read and analyze information at the same time?
You see something thought-provoking, adjust your monocle and say, “Oh my, utterly marvelous. Let’s ponder over it for a while.”
Then if your goal is to read faster, you are setting yourself up for failure. There is one crucial lesson here, you need to understand.
Reading is not learning. Learning is not reading.*
*it’s a good tattoo idea if you ever need one
Your brain is not a computer. It can’t switch effectively between two absolutely different activities.
Do it for a short period and you will burn through all the glucose stashed in your brain.
A headache, the feeling of general fatigue, malaise and so on. After a while, your brain becomes impervious to new information.
This method of reading is simply not very sustainable.
Mind you that I am not saying that you can’t read and learn at the same time. I am just stating a simple fact that it is not a very effective method of reading.
To be honest, I have struggled with this problem for quite some time until the two beautiful words dawned on me.
I am sure you are familiar with the term but just to be sure.
Batch working is a process of grouping items because they are similar, or because we plan to do something similar to them.
For instance, it wouldn’t make much sense to make a huge omelet without preparing products beforehand. Can you imagine how ineffective it would be?!
“I need twenty eggs to make this omelet”
*takes two and cracks them open into a bowl*
“I need two more”
*opens a fridge and takes another two*
Doesn’t it sound frustrating?
This is why you should always try to group similar tasks together.
This is what you should do – this is the method which, I am pretty sure, saved my sanity.
1) First mark/highlight
Whenever you stumble across something that is
you don’t agree with
mark/highlight it in some way.
Jot it down on a margin or copy it into some file.
Don’t try to dismantle any of the concepts you have read about. The time for that will come.
Done? Good. Keep on reading.
Marked another fragment? Good. Keep on reading.
After reading a certain number of pages, set aside some time for a more detailed analysis. Go crazy, analyze the heck out of everything.
Refute, digest, criticize to your heart’s content.
Learning is demanding enough on its own. Don’t mix it additionally with reading.
3) Learn what you read
This one comes from a very frustrating experience.
About two years ago I was binge reading even 3-4 books per week. Of course, being a sensible learner, I took notes and scribbled my remarks about everything even mildly interesting.
In quite a short period, I amassed notes from over 40 books. The bad luck had it that I hit a rough patch and didn’t have so much time anymore.
After everything settled, I came back to reading.
I didn’t do anything with the notes, mind you. They just sat soused in my notebook.
Fast forward year and a half, I was reading some interesting excerpt from a book on the cognitive neuroscience. My eyes lay on a particular sentence which solved one of the biggest obstacles I had at the time concerning my memory experiments.
I was freaking ecstatic!
The worst part?
A couple of months ago, I finally strapped myself to a chair and started going through the aforementioned notes.
A couple of minutes into the reading, I saw it. There it was. Guffawing blatantly at my helplessness.
The same damn fact.
The miracle solution was there all along. I just didn’t learn it. In the process, I wasted myriads of hours on useless experimenting.
Before you move to the next book, learn what you read before.
It makes perfect sense. Even more so if you want to specialize in some area. Your average author spends hundreds of hours researching his book or summarizing his knowledge.
Without notes, you will spend dozens of hours reading it and end up with almost no knowledge. You will remember just a couple of main things. Nothing more.
And it would be a damn shame.
Thanks to this strategy, your ever-growing knowledge will help you go quickly through most of the books.
It’s not unusual for me to read a 400-page book in less than two days. There is simply not enough new information for me to absorb.
It would be tantamount to kneecapping myself and expecting to run.
If you care about being good in the area of your choice, always try to master every word you encounter.
6) Build Core Knowledge
In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you. – MORTIMER J. ADLER
I can safely assume that whatever you read, you read because you want to learn more about. Or you want to master a given field of knowledge.
In any case, you should know that initially, your pace of reading will always be slow. But that’s good.
Slow is new fast. This deceptive sluggishness is the speed of light in disguise.
Look at this excerpt.
In an imagery study by Okado and Stark (2003), increased PFC activity for false memories was localized to the right anterior cingulate gyrus. Given the role of the anterior cingulate in response competition and conflict (Kerns et al., 2004), the authors concluded that this reflects the increased effort involved in incorrectly endorsing an imagined item as “seen.” ERP studies also support the conclusion that frontal regions may distinguish between true and false memories, and be engaged in greater monitoring and evaluation associated with false retrieval (Curran et al., 2001; Fabiani, Stadler, and Wessels, 2000; Goldmann et al., 2003; Nessler, Mecklinger, and Penney, 2001; Wiese and Daum, 2006).
This is a typical excerpt from a book on neuroscience. If you have no scientific foundation, it can be hard for you to read even a couple of pages from such a book. Let alone an entire book.
This is precisely where building core vocabulary and knowledge comes together.
It’s one thing to get familiar with the nomenclature. But do you really understand how these terms interrelate?
Do you understand, at least superficially, what is their function?
If not, you have to analyze it. Only then can you move on.
It’s not fast. it takes time. But there is not even one discipline in this world where you can skip basics
7) Read a lot
The more you read, the more efficient reader you become. The reader who knows ins and outs of different styles of writing. The one who knows when to skim and when to read deep into a text.
These benefits alone explain well why you should try to read as much as possible, But there is one more reason.
The spiral theory of knowledge.
But what is it?
The spiral theory of knowledge describes a fascinating phenomenon.
First, when you encounter a certain idea, you might not notice or comprehend it. Not fully anyway. Then you move on to something else. You learn other subjects, read other books. Then, after some time, you encounter the same idea again and only then can you get your Eureka moment.
“How could I not understand it before?! That was so easy. The answer was there all along!”
And that’s a great question.
How come you didn’t understand this concept before?
Your knowledge was to blame. At the time, it was patchy and full of gaps.
You were simply not ready to comprehend the full scope of the idea then.
The potential answer to whatever questions that might be bugging you, consciously or subconsciously, lies in yet another book.
Yes, there is a door behind the door. But you will never know if it has the answer written on it until you open it.
8) Use the knowledge you learn
Many people love to brag about the number of books they read every month. They are like beautiful shiny badges. The phenomenon is so well-known that Issac Watts wrote about it in his book “The Improvement Of The Mind” in 1821!
Such persons are under a great temptation to practice these two follies. (1.) To heap up a great number of books at a greater expense than most of them can bear, and to furnish their libraries infinitely better than their understanding. And (2.) when they have gotten such rich treasures of knowledge upon their shelves, they imagine themselves men of learning, and take a pride in talking of the names of famous authors, and the subjects of which they treat, without any real improvement of their own minds in true science or wisdom. At best their learning reaches no further than the indexes and table of contents, while they know not how to judge or reason concerning the matters contained in those authors. And indeed how many volumes of learning soever a man possesses, he is still deplorably poor in his understanding, till he has made those several parts of learning his own property by reading and reasoning, by judging for himself, and remembering what he has read.
Don’t be one of those people.
Try to find even the slightest use, if it is only possible, for whatever that is you’re reading.
Impress someone. Help a friend with some problem. Find a better job. Anything will do.
Just don’t let it go to waste,
As I did for such a long time.
Years ago I used to learn every single fact about anything. Literally anything. And I am sad to inform you that it was mostly wasted effort.
I don’t remember almost anything I learned.
Why would I?
My brain didn’t find this knowledge useful. I didn’t find it useful. And so it had to go.
We are wired to follow the path of the least resistance. No wonder. We are drawn to, seemingly, easy solutions such as speed-reading.
But you already know the truth, don’t you? There are no easy fixes. There are no easy solutions.
And yet it is still possible to read fast. Even very fast.
But first, you have to put effort into building a foundation.
The very same effort which will make your newly acquired skill taste so sweet.
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 another 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 become. If 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 Build Durable Habits
One of the frameworks which I teach my students is this (interested in other super-effective ways 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 your 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
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 your 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
“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 a 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 the 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.
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 ethe ffectiveness 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 ethe ffectiveness 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 keyword 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 for 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
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.
It might not seem like a big deal but it has tremendous implications for your (language) learning.
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 tonine 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.
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!
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!
Are Mnemonics Effective?
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.
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?
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
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.
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?
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”
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 a comparable period of time when you didn’t use this rule.
It can be a strategy which helps you to deal with your finances
IFI want to spend some money thenI’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:
The acronym SAMcan 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
To use the rules effectively, you have to know what problems you have.
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 a 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 totrack your (potential) progressto 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?
“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 afterward start laughing like a madman. 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 enables you to concentrate on your weaknesses. Such deliberate practice can significantly improve your language level.
What should I 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:
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. 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.
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!
Fail Fast and Fail Epicly – How To Do It Step By Step
Usually, there are three steps most people go through.
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 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 the 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 an 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?
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.
2) Perform an experiment to test those predictions
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 mnemonicscan actually solve all your problems with memory! Let’s take a look at some common reasons behind forgetting, as identified byElizabeth Loftus.
1. Failure to Store
I’d argue that this is the most important reason for 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. Brain 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 the 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.
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. The 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 the 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
The simplest solution to this problem is simply consolidation. When we learn new information, a certain amount of time is necessary for changes in 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 (read more about how to improve your short-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 a 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!