Most people forget what they’ve just learnt within 12 and 24 hours. If you are reading this post now, chances are that tomorrow you’ll not even remember it.
Our brain works like a big search engine, when you insert a new piece of information, it goes on a big stack called short term memory. When you want to remember that information, your brain will try to search inside that stack for the information you requested.
This process happens asynchrony, that’s why you often remember a title of a song after many hours from your first attempt.
If you are trying to recall something after a long time (it can be even 1 hour for useless information), your brain will have an hard time finding it, as it’s more likely you have forget it.
Knowing this, we can try to understand why we forget what we’ve learnt just a few hours ago. When a new piece of information enters your brain, it is stored as a volatile information, because your brain doesn’t know if it’s useful or not. For example you don’t need to remember every car you’ve seen in your daily commute to work.
But what happens when you try to recall something you’ve previously learnt? Most times you simply can’t. If I would tell you now that to find the sum of the number from 1 to n you have to calculate (n+1)*n/2, chances are that within one hour it’ll be already hard for you to recall the correct formula, although it’s pretty easy. This happens because (if you are not good at math) your brain does not find similar information already stored in your brain, so it’s hard for it to reinforce that information alone. And by now you’ve probably forget it :D
As you’ve just read, the major difficult for your brain is to reinforce and create consistency, and the best way to help your brain doing it is by recalling what you’ve just learnt multiple times.
What does this mean in practice?
Knowing this, you can probably understand why your life doesn’t change even after reading the best how to book you’ve ever read. Even if I was telling you the perfect formula for solving all your problems, and that formula would make perfect sense to you, you would forget it after a few hours, and your life would remain the same.
Unless, of course, you deliberately reinforce your new knowledge and make it part of your life (also known as taking action).
How do you keep track of new stuff?
Depending on the nature of the information you’ve just acquired, there are many ways to keep track of what you’ve learnt. If you want to master a new technique on your sport, the best way is to repeat it as many times as possible until it becomes second nature for you. If you are following an history class at school, it may be a good idea to create a mind map with the fundamental concepts and dates, and repeat it every day.
Enter the learning log
Given that I spend most of my learning time in front of a monitor, or reading a book, what I needed was something where I can store information very quickly. I used to have a personal wiki, but it didn’t quite work for me. Instead I am now using a learning log, which is something extremely simple that can be done both in your computer and also in a simple notebook.
The idea is to create a new entry every time you learn something new (assuming you want to remember it). If you are doing this on paper, you can just write the date on the top of your sheet and then make an incremental bullet list. If you are doing this in your computer, you can do the same thing, but you also need to keep track of your files in an efficient way where it’s easy for you to switch from one day to another.
With this simple method, it will be extremely easy to keep track of the new concepts you want to grasp. And if your system is not available at any time, you can make a note elsewhere, and merge it with your original file at the end of the day.
How often should you recall?
How often you need to recall depends on the mole of information you’ve stored and how important it is for you. As a general rule you should recall at the end of the day, after 24 hours, after 1 week, after 1 month, after 6 months, and after one year. This should be simple to do if your system is in order, as on a typical day you only have to recall 6 files. I tend to do a quick review at the end of the week for old files, but that’s a personal choice and you have to try what works for yourself.
If there’s something that I absolutely want to master and remember well, I copy it on new days until necessary.
Will your brain ever become full?
If you are worried that your brain will become full one day with a method like this, you have to know that it’s basically impossible to happen. So don’t worry and enjoy learning new stuff.
What to do now
If what you’ve just read makes sense to you, the best thing you can do now is creating your learning log. It doesn’t need to be perfect, as long as you get started you can always improve it.