[This page is a complement to the How to create more memorable images and deal with difficulties page]
Once you’ve understood all the basic strategies, here’s how you can push things to the next level.
* Note that some of the suggestions below will sometimes appear to be contradicting one another. That’s because you need to remain flexible and frequently be willing to adapt your tactics. Different strategies will work for different people in different situations. The brain is a complicated and often unpredictable thing. Explaining exactly how to push it beyond its comfort zone isn’t always simple.
Remember that difficult skills can and will become easy later
It’s completely normal at first to find the memorization process to be often tricky and difficult. You’re learning a new skill. Before it can become easy, your brain needs to build a bunch of new connections.*
The more experience you will gain with memory techniques, the faster the process will become and the easier it will be to find images or “tricks” to represent even the most complex concepts. Some individuals achieve remarkable results very quickly. Others have more difficulties, but all are capable in the short to medium term of dramatically increasing their starting level. Significant improvements will most likely happen sooner than you expect. This is harder than learning to ride a bike, but it’s much easier than most other complex skills one can choose to develop.
*For the super nerds who happen to be reading, here’s a published scientific study by Boris Konrad and others detailing the various ways that memory training can literally reshape some (small) parts of your brain.
Practice often, but not necessarily for long
The relationship between improvements and the amount of time you spend practicing isn’t quite as linear as one might think. It’s cool if you’re motivated enough to train for hours, but I’m not sure that those very long sessions will be that much more productive than some much shorter sessions of intense and well thought out forms of deliberate training. Longer sessions will almost certainly produce better results, but not that much better. The concept of diminishing return is important here. The first 5 to 30 or 60 or 90 minutes of training on any given day are the most crucial. Additional efforts beyond that can still be worth doing, but they won’t help nearly as much.
*While your training sessions don’t need to be long, they should be intense. As much as you can, try to (at least briefly) focus 100% of your mental energy on what you’re trying to accomplish. See the process as a series of short sprints, not as a long marathon. Try to cultivate the art of switching from a desired mental state to another: be very relaxed when you’re not training or you’re taking a break, and then try to instantly go into full-on focus mode as soon as you start memorizing. To be able to reach that level of focus, it helps to eliminate all possible forms of distraction (cell phones and notifications and visible open tabs on your computer are the devil) and to sleep as much as you need on a consistent schedule. Some carefully positioned anti-personnel mines left outside your front door can also be useful.
** Even if you do choose to go for longer and more frequent training sessions, you should still make sure that you get plenty of rest and that you always have all the energy you need. Personnally if I’m super tired one day and I still want to get something done, I’ll focus mostly on easier forms of exercises like reviewing the design of my memory palaces and drilling my number and card system.
*** Although ideally you should of course aim for more than that, I think it’s possible to improve semi-consistently with just two or three 5 to 10 minutes sessions a week. If you want to improve, maintaining the habit of practicing semi-regularly is important and it doesn’t need to take much of your time. Doesn’t mean it’s easy though! For many people, it can be just as hard or harder and than starting to physically work out regularly when you’re out of shape. Case in point: Even I have a long history of struggling to incorporate short semi-regular training sessions into my weekly schedule. It’s been going well recently, but it wasn’t the case not that long ago.
****To learn more about the most efficient ways you can understand and transform your daily habits, look up some of James Clear interviews and/or articles.
Aim first for a minimum level of accuracy, then aim for speed
Although I may talk a lot about how to be quick, I don’t think speed should be a priority for you at the beginning. I think you should go relatively slow at the beginning and try to master the process. When it starts to feel easier, go a little bit faster.
As a general rule, once you’ve managed to understand and use all the basic strategies, improving will often be a case of trying to frequently go just a little bit beyond your comfort zone. Something not too easy and not too hard. This isn’t easy to quantify, but aiming about 4% above what you’re comfortable with is a good rule of thumb.
Make some mistakes sometimes!
You should be making mistakes at least once a while. If you’re always getting everything right, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough. You’re aiming too low. You’re not going fast enough. You’re reviewing more often than necessary. On the other hand, if you’re making too many mistakes, you might need to slow things down and change your reviewing strategies for now. And get some more sleep! Don’t worry, it will get much easier with more time and practice.
Try to understand what’s causing your mistakes
When possible, try to guess why it is that you made this or that mistake. The real causes are often quite difficult to identify, but you should still try. Most often the reason will be one of the following:
- You didn’t pay enough attention to that particular word or element. Either you went over it too quickly, or your mind was elsewhere when it was supposed to be focused.
- The image you used was too confusing or not memorable enough.
- You didn’t memorably link your images to one another and/or to their environment.
- You didn’t review correctly.
- You did almost everything correctly but ended up making some simple mistake with some minor part of the process. Maybe you memorized the word “abbreviation” and ended up recalling “abbreviate” instead. Or perhaps you accidentally skipped over one locus. With numbers and cards, even when you manage all the images and recall them easily, you can sometimes end up making what I call “encoding” and “decoding” mistakes. An encoding mistake might be seeing a jack of heart and accidentally memorizing it as if it was a jack of diamonds. A decoding mistake would be when you have the right image in mind, but you misremember its meaning during recall, writing down 66 instead of 68.
- Today is just not a good day. Get some rest and try again tomorrow!
* You can also try to understand what’s causing your successes. When something goes particularly well, it’s possible there’s a worthwhile lesson or two to be learned from that experience. Maybe it’s simply because you slept well the night before. Maybe you were more relaxed. Maybe it’s just that the time you’ve spent practicing is finally paying off. Or maybe you did do some worthwhile minor adjustments to your memorization strategies.
** If you’re partly guessing an answer and you happen to get lucky, treat this experience the same way you would treat a mistake. When everything goes well, you won’t need to guess and you will be 99.9% confident that you got everything right.
Try to anticipate in advance what kind of mistakes you’re likely to make. And try to prevent them.
Will this image bring up the correct word to my mind? Is the link between this image and this other image strong enough? Am I going to misspell that name? I can’t really provide a detailed “how-to” guide covering the whole process, but those are the types of questions you can and often should ask yourself while you’re memorizing. Very often, just an additional second of attention spent considering a possible problem is often to prevent it. “Be careful, her name is Jullia with two L for some reason!”
In some minority of cases, it would be wise to try to prevent the mistake by subtly modifying our memory trick or by adding another one. Maybe Jullia with two L is carrying a pen in her right hand and another pen in her left hand? Or maybe she’s weirdly pronouncing her name when she’s introducing herself? “Hi my name is JuLuLia with Lots of L!”
Don’t overthink stuff
Don’t be too much of a perfectionist when choosing your images. Use as many details as you need to remember what you need to remember, but no more than that. Knowing how much details and time and attention are necessary for you to remember something is a skill that you will develop with practice. You’ll probably need to go slower when you’re first developing your skills. In the long run, in most cases some very quickly improvised very blurry and messy images will be all you will need.
Don’t stress about the clarity of your visualizations
Good for you if you can close your eyes and “see” on command a bunch of clear and detailed images that you just came up with, but you don’t need to be able to do that to become good with the art of memory. I can even name people with aphantasia (the inability to voluntarily create and visualize mental images in one’s mind) who managed to become particularly skilled. Personally, I rarely bother trying to form a very clear picture in my mind. Just some vague fuzzy impression of what’s happening where is often more than enough, especially when you take the time to invent some kind of weird story along the way. Even when I try to visualize something more clearly, I’m not sure I can say that I manage to “see” anything. Everything always feels quite vague and blurry to me.
* Here’s a relevant Why You Shouldn’t Stress Over Visual Clarity blog post by Alex Mullen.
Some suggestions for possible reviewing strategies you can use while practicing
Different reviewing strategies will be necessary depending on your goals, your abilities and the nature of the tasks. Some trials and errors will most likely be necessary here. You can read this blog post if you need some help in that regard.
Some poorly explained and not very well thought-out additional ideas about how to improve
All those articles are taking me forever to write! I’m not anywhere near done writing them yet. Until then, here are some ideas that I have noted down but haven’t yet explained correctly.
- Keep drilling the order of your locations in your training palaces, even when you know them well. You can also concentrate on specific sections that seem slower than others.
- When appropriate, you can adjust the design of your training palaces to try to make them more efficient.
- Cultivate complete focus. And try to cultivate the art of intelligently allocating your mental energy to all the various elements you’re trying to memorize. Don’t accidentally neglect some part of the process. Focus on each element for as long as you need, but not more than that.
- Make more training palaces and practice using them. Those new palaces will be less efficient at first, but that will change sooner or later.
- Use some ear muffs.
- Try to find the right mix of consistency and variety in your practice regimen. Consistency will make it easier to stick to your habits. Variety will push your skills in new directions. Try some new disciplines! Try practicing while taking the metro, while walking or while waiting in line. Try memorizing in a distracting environment for a while, then come back to your usual quiet practice space. Try very short drills. Try much longer drills. Try going insanely fast for a while just to make your more “normal” speed seem slow.
- Don’t compare yourself to those crazy world champions. Most of us will never be nearly as fast and efficient as they are. Who cares! We can still become better than we were before. And we can still outperform 99% of the uninitiated world population!
- Have faith that if you keep trying long enough and hard enough, you’ll improve eventually.
*I wrote before that you shouldn’t compare yourself to the bests in the world, but there’s an extremely small minority of people who should ignore that piece of advice. If you’re among them, then don’t set yourself any limits, always push yourself and always try to go faster! Even the current world champions are probably still far from achieving what is humanly possible.
Improving with numbers and cards
Most of what I wrote above remains valid for numbers and cards. For more numbers and cards specific advice, check this short post.
Why skipping recall could help you improve faster
Once in a while, whenever a particular memorization attempt went particularly poorly, I won’t hesitate to just skip recall. If for some reason I forgot half of what I tried to memorize, most often I’ll just stop, move on and try again. I generally don’t want to waste valuable time and energy trying to get a slightly better or less terrible score.
What I just explained is one situation where one might choose to skip recall, but there are others. Skipping recall can also be a deliberately planned practice strategy. I wouldn’t recommend this strategy to most beginners and casual memorizers. But if you’re trying to speed up your rate of improvements and you’re looking for any edge you can find, check out this short explanatory post.
Three quotes that I happen to like:
I think they are indirectly relevant here. You won’t find them in other compilation of inspiring quotes.
The very first is extracted from a study of Olympic athletes. It was quoted by Angela Duckworth in her book Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance :
“Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habits and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.”
The next one was improvised by three-time world memory champion Alex Mullen during an interview:
“Recognize that a lot of barriers are just psychological. People in 15 years are destroying the old world records for memory, records that at the time people thought were close to unbeatable. People thought that we were at the limits of human memory and [we’re now destroying those records]. It just goes to show that those were psychological barriers and I think the same is true for most things in life. […] Recognizing that is important to be able to accomplish anything.”
And this last quote was taken from an interview of Tim Ferriss. After he was asked what is his “definition of greatness”, he took a long pause and said the following:
“Trying to be just a little bit better, inch by inch, millimeter by millimeter, whether it’s the next day or the next week and not beating yourself up about it. If you fail, for an entire week, for an entire month, just get up and brush the dirt up and get back to it. It’s not a straight line. It’s a very jagged, intimidating and sometimes exhausting experience. Nobody who does huge things just takes off like a smooth rocket shot, it’s a roller coaster. The biggest names you can imagine (…) all of these people have self-doubt, they have moments where they want to give it all up and quit and just sleep under the covers and not get out of bed for the day. So my definition of greatness is recognizing that’s part of the human condition. You’re not a failure if you feel that way. I certainly feel that way, quite a bit, even today (…), it’s very intimidating and I don’t think it goes away. It’s not about overcoming your fears all the time, it’s about facing your fears and be like “Ok, I’m afraid, but I’m gonna keep on plugging away anyway.”