Three Rules for Getting Started

Three important rules to obey before beginning your spaced repetition practice.

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Rule #1 – Don’t try to memorize things that you don’t understand. 

Part of the reason that people love spaced repetition so much is because it makes learning more efficient. You don’t waste time on the things you don’t need to spend time on. 

Presumably the reason you’re doing this in the first place is because you want to be able to put something useful that you’ve learned into practice.

Our first rule is that you have to actually learn whatever it is that you’re trying to memorize. Certain things like numbers, dates, or lists, are fine and dandy, but the types of material that are best suited for spaced repetition are smaller pieces of larger concepts. 

This next part is essential: 

We want to commit knowledge to memory, not representations of knowledge. 

We want to be able to explain, and execute ideas, not just return pre-written sentences about a concept. 

In order to do this we need to focus on active recall, and we need to create dynamic questions. 

If you only have a few flash cards in your deck, you’ll begin to memorize them in the order in which they are presented. 

Additionally, if you always ask yourself the same question in the same way, you’ll memorize the answer to that question, not the fundamental thing that you were trying to recall. 

The end result is that you won’t be able to recall it under a different context. 

It’s the difference between knowing the name of something and the nature of something. 

Rule #2 – Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. 

Einstein said that, and I think it’s absolutely perfect for this rule. 

With spaced repetition we’re primarily using flashcards, or their digital equivalents. Really, anything that can be phrased in question and answer format can work. 

This rule has to do with how we break down a larger piece of information into smaller fragments that can be memorized over a period of time. 

You don’t just memorize an entire encyclopedia at once. You could, but it would be far more useful to have each individual topic available for use independently. 

An example of a bad question and answer: 

This is actually a pretty dense answer with several key pieces of information. If we threw this into our system we’d have a good chance of ending up with brittle knowledge. We might end up memorizing that sentence, instead of memorizing the information that it holds. 

Additionally, having multiple “answers” in a single answer strips us of some of the benefit of spaced rep anyway — namely that of only studying things we need to study, at exactly the time we need to study them. Say we know 2 of the 3 characteristics in that sentence. We don’t need to study those right now. 

It would be much better to create several questions to handle this: 

What kind of animal is a lion? – Cat

Which gender of lion has a mane? – Male 

What colors are typically associated with Lions? – Orange and White 

By doing this we’re not losing any of the information, we’re just making it atomic and specific. Simpler pieces of information are easier to study, easier to remember, and easier to put into practice. 

Rule #3 – Your system is only as good as your routine. 

You can have the absolute best system in the world, with perfectly written questions and answers, neatly organized, and bursting with usefulness, but at the end of the day, in order for it to work you have to sit down and do the routine. 

There are 3 pieces you need to figure out: 

  1. What information you want to memorize
  2. How you’ll get that information into your system 
  3. When, and where you’ll create your review habit 

I think that you could just add random things as you go about your journeys, but like most things, Spaced Repetition is better with some intentionality. 

Figure out ahead of time the types of things you’d like to remember. Maybe that’s a new language. Maybe it’s the name and capital of every country on earth. 

Setting that intention allows us to create meaningful outcomes. We can choose what we want to be able to do and then put together the information that we’ll need. 

The next thing you need to do is figure out how to get the information into Anki, or whatever you decide to use. The next video is dedicated to this part, but I like to have a way to highlight text as i read it, so that i can go back in later and put that onto cards. 

The final thing you need to do is develop the review habit. You need to sit down and review the information. You need to test your active recall, and you need to make sure that you’re strengthening your memories just before you’re about to forget them, which is the whole point. 

There are apps and things you can use for this, and the one we dig into later will help, but you need to just go in with the commitment that you’re going to open your spaced rep app every morning or evening before bed or whatever. For most people it’s just a few minutes per day, as in two or three minutes, not some big commitment. 

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I'm a developer, marketer, and writer based in Appleton, Wisconsin.