By H. James Wilson
A group of Brazilian entrepreneurs who have come north for a week's worth of ideas on growing their ventures, are leaving a class, when one of them breaks from pack toward the coffee maker, where I'm heading too. He works the machine first, reciting something again and again in Portuguese as he watches his cup fill.
"Excuse me?," I say, unsure he's talking to me.
"Sorry, I am repeating what the lecturer said," he explains, "so I remember later."
Remembering new information is an underappreciated skill. The fact that most of us have never evolved our technique beyond the rudimentary and ad hoc approaches we used as middle schoolers suggests this. It is required for any sort of professional growth, since the need to learn is high, and can separate the exceptional performances from the mediocre ones. After all, would you prefer to hire the consultant who presented using cue cards or the one who pitched from memory?
Fortunately for us, insights from cognitive psychology have vastly improved our understanding of how we remember. Many of these are accepted wisdom in the neurological and psychological realms. But it hasn't been easy to transfer that knowledge to actual tools for individuals. Until recently, anyway. Easy-to-use auto-analytic tools that exploit our understanding of memory can now help you treat remembering as the skill it is, and improve it the same way you improve any professional skill, like public speaking. Here's how to get started.
First, focus on the right unit of measure. Yes, your objective is to remember better, but you'll get the best results by focusing on forgetting as your base unit of analysis.
Experimental psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus's pioneering discovery of the forgetting curve shows that we forget the majority of newly learned information within hours or days, unless we review it again and again. This alone won't be a shock to many of us. But Ebbinghaus demonstrated how systematic forgetting. It occurs exponentially on a predictable curve — researchers call this "exponential decay."
Different things you're trying to remember will have different curves. For instance, that piece of operations data that you remember clearly, since you prepped and presented it to your team, has a flatter downward curve (you'll remember longer) than that the now hazy sales figure a colleague mentioned during the same team meeting. Even so, each curve is predictable.
Practice remembering at the right time. Think about how you really use your memory for things that matter to you and your career, like in preparing for a speech. Maybe you're a crammer who tries to prime your memory by doing as many dry-runs as possible the night before. Or perhaps you've committed to ploddingly rehearsing your lines each afternoon for a month from 3 pm to 4 pm. Or maybe you're an improviser who finds time here and there, rehearsing what you'll say at random moments between meetings.
The forgetting curve suggests you should follow a very different memorization process than any of these entail. It shows that there's a precise moment that's best for practicing your lines. That moment is just before you are about to forget them.
So sessions aimed at learning new content should happen at "about-to-forget" moments, with spaces between practice sessions increasing as you approach mastery. This learning process is called spaced repetition, and can help us avoid the inefficiencies and risks of ad hoc memorization methods like cramming.