Fix Your Memory with Spaced Repetition

An introduction to spaced repetition for memory enhancement.

spaced rep

Lifelong learning is part of my operating thesis on what it means to be an intelligent, intentional human being. Most of the learning I do happens online, and I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to use technology in ways that make that process more efficient. 

In my system, there are three distinct phases:

  1. Discover relevant information.
  2. Collect the useful bits for later reference.
  3. Put the material into practical use. 

The first step is pretty straightforward. Most of us know how to use search engines and things like Reddit to help us discover information. I begin by going out and collecting information related to whatever I’m trying to learn. This normally comes in the form of articles, videos, podcasts, or books. 

As I make my way through the corpus of content that I’ve collected, I need a way to pull out the useful bits. This is the second phase of the process. 

I try to rely only on digital versions of books and articles so that I can use the built-in highlighting features of either Instapaper (for web content) or Kindle (for books). If what I’m after isn’t available digitally, I’ll either scan and OCR it (if it’s short form), or take notes in a digital tool as I read. 

Either way, my goal is to get a set of interesting digital artifacts as quickly as possible. 

It always surprises me how often people stop there. Once they’ve got their set of notes in Evernote (or Notion, or whatever), they’re done — time to move onto the next thing. 

That seems to me that they’ve created a system that is optimized for producing notes, not practical knowledge. 

The difference is that notes are inert. We can’t solve problems unless the material is available to us whenever we need it. 

The third phase of my system: “Put the material into practical use,” solves this problem, and it does so through spaced repetition. 

What is spaced repetition?

Spaced repetition is a method of study that helps us move things into long term memory. The general idea is that the best time to study something is just before you’re about to forget it. 

In the late 1800’s, a german psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted a handful of experiments that established the forgetting curve. 

forgetting reviewed

This curve helps us to understand when we’re likely to forget what we’ve learned. It also helps us to use our time efficiently, as we can focus each day on studying only the things that we need to, at this particular time. 

The other half of the method is active recall. If you’ve ever used flashcards before, you’ve engaged in active recall. Active recall means pulling something out of your brain. The inverse of this, like multiple choice, is passive recall. 

The magic is that each time that we engage in this active recall process, we strengthen the memory, which leads to long term viability. We want durable memories that survive over time. 

Said a different way, the active recall process solidifies our memories at the key times produced by the spaced repetition algorithm. 

…But I don’t need to study anything.

Oh, but you should. This stuff isn’t just for teenagers and med school students. I’d be half the marketer I am today without spaced repetition. If I try to quantify the impact of spaced rep on my development career — I can’t overstate it. My most marketable skills are built on my spaced repetition system, full stop. 

It’s also somewhat likely that you’ve already used spaced repetition in some form or another. Many language learning programs are built on SR algorithms. 

I think that spaced repetition and active recall are criminally underreported on. I’m not the only one who thinks so… there was an article published in a psych journal several years ago, appropriately titled, “The spacing effect: A case study in the failure to apply the results of psychological research.”

How to get started with Spaced Repetition

As I mentioned before, I’m a big fan of digital media, primarily due to the portability of the content. I can take my highlights and export them into any format I’d like, for use in nearly any program I’d like.

So it makes sense, then, to choose an app for spaced repetition. That way we can simply copy/paste our artifacts into the system and go. 

There’s an open source piece of software called Anki. It’s available for Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, and iOS. All are free, excepting the iOS version.

Conveniently, Anki has a back-end sync service. My strategy consists of adding cards on desktop and then syncing them to my mobile device for study. I do my spaced repetition work every morning on my phone with a cup of coffee — it takes about 5 or 10 minutes, depending on the amount of new material I introduced the day before. 

Cards in Anki are analogous to flash cards. There are many different types of cards, but the one that I suggest you use is called a cloze deletion card

Cloze deletion is the process of hiding one or more words in a sentence. This is what it looks like: 

anki cloze

Cloze cards are better than regular flashcards because they can be a bit more dynamic. One sentence can be turned into two or more cloze cards that help create more durable knowledge.

It gets really interesting when you apply this concept to images through the image occlusion card type: 

anki image occlusion

I should mention that cards belong to decks. Decks are constructed according to a theme or topic. I have decks for things like grammar, programming languages, keyboard shortcuts, and US states (it’s a map with image occlusion to help me memorize every state visually). 

Decks are studied individually — so at some point, it makes sense to combine decks and get a random smattering of cards during each session. Otherwise, if we continue to see the same questions in the same order (unlikely, but possible) our brain will begin to contextualize and memorize the sequence and sentences (the representation of the information), and not the information itself. 

Dig in deeper 

I’m a big fan of spaced repetition and I’m beyond excited to share it with new people. I’m working on a video course that takes you through the entire thing, from soup to nuts. We’ll dig in deeper and understand the what, the how, and the why of spaced repetition. Along the way, we’ll also learn how to use Anki and review my personal system for knowledge management.  

Here’s the course table of contents for you to begin:

You might also like:

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