Improving with numbers and cards

This page is a complement to the “How to create more memorable images” and “How to improve faster” pages. Much of what I wrote on those pages remains valid for numbers and cards.

  • If you just want to be good, spend two afternoons designing a relatively simple system. Learn it. Practice it for a while and be happy with the results. For most people in most circumstances, that should be enough to outperform 99+% of the world population. And you can keep improving by simply continuing to use your system and drilling it once a while.
  • If you want to be as good as you can be, it’s not a bad idea to initially take more time to design a better more finely tuned system. Take all the time you need. And keep modifying it whenever it seems useful, especially during the first few weeks and months of practice.
  • As time goes by and using your system becomes second nature, substantial modifications should become rarer and rarer. Having to constantly relearn what you’ve learned before can often be counter-productive, at least in the short and medium term. However, minor tweaks are still perfectly acceptable. For example you can decide that from now on the character for 78 will be wearing a blue dress, without fundamentally changing the essence of this particular image.
  • There are various kinds of simple drills you can do to learn your system in the first place and to become faster at using it. I’m not talking about memorization and recall here, I’m just talking about practicing the act of quickly turning numbers and cards into images. Eventually you want to make this process as quick and effortless as possible, making sure that you can focus 100% of your mental energy on the memorization process. If continuing to improve is important for you, you can never do those drills often enough. Click here for a few more details on those drills. The Alex Mullen quote you will find below will also help explain the process.

Many years ago, in some obscure thread on the forum, a then-not-yet world memory champion Alex Mullen was asked for some advice to improve with cards. Here was his well-worth reading answer:

“The absolute first thing I would try if you haven’t already is recognition/visualization drills. Just run through a deck and see your images without memorizing. For recognition, realize what the image is and move on without actually seeing it. So this is very fast, and these days it takes me about 17-18 sec. For visualization, see the images with the same clarity as you would during memorization, just don’t place them in loci. This is a bit slower and should be near your actual memorization time. I’d time yourself to keep things interesting. I usually do about 5-10 of each every day. Doesn’t amount to that big a commitment. You could also try a metronome here.
Second to that, maintaining a consistent schedule (usually 1-2 decks actually memorized per day, plus the drills) has done the trick. I also wouldn’t be afraid to be change some images if you realize they’re confusing. You don’t necessarily have to throw out the image, just adjust a particular feature (clothing, hair, texture, shape, etc.). One last thing would be to try memorizing 2 or more decks. Mixing up lengths and intensities is something I do for all events, and usually when you come back to the desired amount you’re more comfortable.”

I agree with everything he said here, although some of the specifics will vary here depending on the individual. I would add that you should also take two decks of cards, use a marker to write 00 to 99 on those cards and use those modified decks for countless recognition/visualization drills for numbers as well. Don’t hesitate to carry those decks everywhere you go for some quick improvised drills while taking the bus or wherever you happen to be.

Don’t forget to also apply the relevant advice you’ll find on the “How to create more memorable images” and “How to improve faster” pages. I’ll probably have more to say about the subject some other day, but this is more than enough for now. Good luck! And keep drilling that system of yours until you puke!