I was a noob, not long out of the Air Force holding a newly-minted MBA. He was the wise and experienced CEO of one of the world’s largest computer chip companies. Somehow, I’d been selected to escort him through the world’s largest computer convention and brief him on competitors in one of the markets we wanted to enter.
The Ebbinghaus Curve shows how memory degrades over time.
I called him to see when we could talk for a few moments prior to the next week’s convention. He answered the phone himself and surprised me with, “I’ll meet you in the main corridor by the big philodendrons. We can walk to my next meeting at the far end of the fab (fabrication plant).”
As he walked toward me he smiled, and reaching inside his jacket he pulled out a thin stack of 3X5 cards. Each had a few concise handwritten notes. He pointed to my shirt-pocket. Reaching up, I pulled out an almost duplicate thin stack of 3X5 cards. “Memory joggers,” he said. I said, “The Ebbinghaus forget curve.” The convention the following week went well. And neither of us forgot the important points we jotted down on our cards.
I’m a SmartPhone cybernaut, but I still carry unlined 3” X 5” cards for quick notes and memory refreshers. Here’s why,
- 3” X 5” cards turn the Ebbinghaus forget curve into a power memory tool that’s in your control.
- 3” X 5” cards are quick and unobtrusive. Pull them out, write or read a note, and quickly put them away. They are quicker to use and aren’t rude like staring and typing into a SmartPhone during a meeting or conversation.
- Research shows that handwriting notes cement the ideas in memory far better than typing.
- And then there’s the painfully memory from 18 months ago. Unlike your SmartPhone, you can take a quick glance at a 3X5 cards without getting a $300 “use of cellphone” ticket from the highway patrol.
Reviewing “Information Chunks” at Increasing Intervals Improves Memory
The Ebbinghaus forget curve established one of the first basic findings of human memory. If we don’t refresh what we learn, we forget it – rapidly. If we refresh “chunks” of memory by recalling them at increasingly longer intervals we cement that memory so the memory lasts a LONG time. You just have to know when and how to refresh. This graph shows how memory retention improves when you refresh at spaced intervals.
Testing yourself on “information chunks” at increasingly longer intervals dramatically increases recall.
Ebbinghaus did his research with chunks of nonsense letters, like CFQ or DTV, but his findings have been duplicated numerous times by more recent research.
We can stop this memory decay by,
- Chunking information into small “chunks” of concise related information
- Recall it at intervals to refresh our neural pathways until it is cemented in memory
- Relate it to what is important to you
Each time you refresh the “information chunk” the rate of loss decreases. Memory improvements techniques repeatedly show that refreshing memory at lengthening intervals significantly improves memory retention.
How to Create Memory Improvement Cards
You have probably used flashcards when in school. These memory improvement cards are similar, but there are a few additions you might want to note. (Sorry for the pun. The brain works that way with topics.)
Here’s how you create 3” X 5” memory improvement cards,
- Label one side of the card with Prompt and the other with Recall
- Write the creation date at the top of the Prompt side
- On the other side of the card at the same height as the prompt, write a “chunked” answer in very concise terms
- On the Prompt side write a prompt for the “chunk” you want to recall, for example,
- On the Recall side of the card write the discrete, concise chunk you want to recall and refresh. In this example it is the mnemonic of an innovation method and the words the mnemonic represent.
“Scamper” is a method of generating innovations and ideas
- Below Scamper you would write mini-chunks that go with the SCAMPER mnemonic,
Purpose, Put to a different use
You may want to put more than one set of chunks per card.
Improve Your Memory by Refreshing at Increasing Intervals
Different researchers recommend different refresh intervals. The refresh rate may also depend upon whether the information is short text, concepts, relationship to what you know, images, etc.
Here’s how to use the cards to refresh and extend your memory for most text information,
Refresh at the following intervals,
- 1 hour
- 1 day
- 3 days
- 10 days
- 30 days
- 90 days
In the morning,
- Put in your pocket the cards you want to review that day.
- When you have the time, read the Prompt side and try to remember the chunks. If you can, say the answers out loud. Saying it out loud stores memory in another part of memory.
- Flip the card over and check the answers.
- If there were any you missed, cover the answers and say them alouduntil you get it correct.
- Power Tips for Improving Memory
Here are a few power tips that have been proven to make this work even better,
- If you keep missing a chunk on a card, put that card back to day 1 and start it through the refresh cycle again.
- Have a workmate or friend flip through your cards asking you the Prompt. If you can’t get it ask for a hint rather than the full answer. Responding out loud cements the memory better than just saying the words in your mind.
- Make the information as relevant as possible to you and your goals. You may want to write a note how it will impact your work, project, life,…
- Create a story you can visualize of yourself loudly teaching the information to a class, or writing it on a white board, or …
- If you can sketch, you might want to put a sketch to remind you, like a squirrel for SCAMPER. Visual cues are very powerful and memorable.
- If you are good at words, write a mnemonic like those you used at school to remember the planets or music scale.
- Try to be in the same type of environment where you need to recall the information, e.g., meeting room, class room, pub, etc.
I speak in front of thousands of people each year. I have found this technique works well for preparing yourself to speak so you don’t read from the PowerPoint. (A real audience killer.) Break your speech into chunks. Only “card” big pieces. If there are precise numbers or phrases include those, but don’t try to memorize your words or every detail. Put the cards in the order of your presentation.
When you review for a speech don’t always start at the beginning. Practice by starting at different points. That way you will be strong at all points in your presentation.
If you see people walking around mumbling to themselves and glancing at note cards, smile at them, they probably belong to Toastmasters, a great organization for learning how to speak.
Improving School Grades
By the way, this is an awesome technique to teach your kids. Once they are old enough they should create the cards themselves. Remember, it is more than just flashcards. Combine the flashcards with the refresh intervals.