In the past year I’ve radically improved my ability to learn and memorize information, and you can too, by using the following six practical tools to simplify and diversify the required repetitions.
What is learning?
Whenever we learn something new synapses in our brain connect to each other to form a neural pathway. If you were to look at neurological movies you would find that it looks a lot like two tentacles becoming entangled with each other.
What is remembering then?
The act of remembering or memorizing something is to maintain that same neural pathway we formed before by re-using it every once in a while. This means that we have to do repetitions.
One of the basic slogans of the neurological community is that neurons that fire together wire together. To relate this to the topic at hand, it means that the more repetitions of something we do the stronger the corresponding neural pathway becomes and the easier it becomes for our brain to do that same thing again. It is also important to do repetitions on multiple levels – reading, reviewing, writing, speaking, watching, and summarizing.
In this post I’m going to briefly outline my framework for learning – my method for getting these neurons to fire together more efficiently – and how I have been able to radically boost and speed up the amount of information that I can learn and memorize.
The first practical tool that you should use to improve learning is to study history.
1. Study History
Why should you study history?
Because the brain learns through associations, and studying history provides you with a ton of associations. Your brain will find similarities between things that happened before in history and the things that are happening RIGHT NOW.
For example: I recently read Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged, and the battle between the looters and the men of the mind is very close to the philosophical battle between Socrates and the Sophists in Ancient Greece. If I hadn’t studied history I wouldn’t have been able to make that connection – and my capacity to learn and memorize wouldn’t be as potent as it is. I wouldn’t have made that association and it wouldn’t have been as easy for me to remember keys things about the book.
2. Note Taking with a Multi Colored Pen
The second practical tool you should be using to improve your learning is taking notes with a multi colored pen.
After a lot of experimentation, the best way that I’ve found to take physical notes is by using a multi-colored pen. The reason why I recommend doing this is because it teaches your mind to think in terms of hierarchies and priorities when reviewing a text. When you review your notes it will be SO MUCH easier than if you had been using only one color and had to struggle and think, “Which part was the most important part here?”
Here’s my method for using the multi colored pen to take notes:
- Red is the most important color. I use it only for the most important things and to highlight.
- Green is the second most important color. I use it for subheadings and mostly in the margin.
- Black is the third most important color. I use it for new words, concepts, or to draw models.
- Blue is the least important color. I use it for the normal text.
3. Book Summaries
The third practical tool that you should use to improve learning is to write summaries. I suggest you keep a book summaries book.
The reason why you’d want to do this is because it teaches you to simplify and to distill the core message of the book. Try keeping your summaries to 1-4 pages depending on the size of the book you read.
4. Keep a Journal
The fourth practical tool that you should use to improve learning is to keep a journal.
Why should you keep a journal?
There are a number of different reasons why, and you should really consider why before you start in order to get the most out of it. Here are a few good reasons:
- To improve memory you could write down everything that has happened throughout the day.
- To get better at summarizing you could write down the key lessons that you learned today.
- To improve your self-reflection you could write down how you reacted to things that happened to you and what you will do the next time these things happen.
Or, if you’re ambitious, you could do all three together.
In either case, keeping a journal is an excellent reason to form the habit of writing consistently – and writing makes you smarter and helps crystallize your thoughts. Writing is a great tool for improving your focus.
5. Keep a Commonplace Book
The fifth tool that you should use to improve learning is to keep a commonplace book.
Keeping a commonplace book is a hugely powerful tool to improve your learning, creativity, and thinking. I simply cannot overemphasize how important it is. Please read this post that I dedicated specifically to explaining why a commonplace book is crucial to learning.
For the purpose of this post there are two main reasons why keeping a commonplace book is essential:
- It is extremely scalable. Let’s say you watch one video of TED Talks per day and take notes in a folder you call TED Talks in your commonplace. That adds up to 365 notes per year.
- It is easy to organize by categories and search within. You can quickly retrieve information you have written before, this makes reviewing notes quick and easy.
A commonplace is like your own mini-version of Google. Everything you write down and learn should be stored here. All information is then easily searchable; and it adds up a lot over time if you write down things every day; perhaps you would like to start keeping a quotes section?
All the things I’ve mentioned so far can be combined in the commonplace book if you use Windows Onenote or Evernote. You can also sync it to your cell phone so that you can access the commonplace, edit it, or write notes on the bus or the train.
6. Film Yourself with a Video Camera
The sixth and final practical tool that you should use to improve learning is the video camera.
Most people will not dare to use the video camera because they think it’s too uncomfortable or too much of a hassle – or maybe they will say that they don’t like the sound of their own voice.
By filming yourself you can easily see what you do well and what you need to work on. Using a video camera is an excellent tool for objective feedback.
There are a few unconventional means for using a video camera as well. Personally I shoot video logs of myself for 10 minutes every day where I speak about random topics, usually related to something I have learnt that day. This enforces yet another repetition and boosts learning and memory. When I do video logs out in the public people tend to react in two ways:
- They think I am a celebrity and become very interested.
- They think I am a weird guy with serious psychological issues.
It’s quite polarizing.
To conclude my framework of learning, here’s how it works:
The more repetitions you do of something the stronger the neural pathway becomes and the longer and more easily you will remember it.
If you read something that’s one repetition, if you write it out that’s two repetitions, if you review your notes that’s three repetitions, if you shoot a video log or speak about it that’s four repetitions, then if you write in your journal and do a book summary that’s six repetitions. And you can store it all in your digital commonplace book.
Remember to do repetitions on multiple levels – reading, reviewing, writing, speaking, watching, and summarizing.
To make this process easier you can, and should, make use of the six practical tools:
- STUDY HISTORY – Accumulate a bank of past events to associate with the present.
- TAKE NOTES WITH A MULTI COLORED PEN – Teach the brain to think in terms of hierarchies, simplify reviewing of notes.
- BOOK SUMMARIES – Learn to summarize and distill the most important things from a book. It is a useful skill.
- JOURNAL – improve memory or reflect on things that happen to you. Use it as an excuse to write, writing makes you smarter.
- COMMONPLACE – Keep everything you do and all your information in your commonplace as a personal library so that you can easily search for information. Small things add up, the commonplace is very scalable.
- VIDEOCAMERA – film yourself to get excellent feedback. Speak – you don’t know something well enough unless you can speak about it or teach it to somebody else.
What are some of the tools that you use to speed up your learning process?
Ludvig Sunström runs the practical self-development blog Startgainingmomentum and has written the book Breaking out of Homeostasis. Apart from self-development and writing, he is passionate about learning, reading, philosophizing, eating healthy and hitting the gym. Connect with him on Twitter and Google+.