Why skipping recall could help you improve faster

[This page is a complement to the How to improve a little faster page]

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.

If you’re striving for excellence, you have to think carefully about how you’re spending your time practicing. Not all forms of practice are equally useful. Here’s something you will quickly notice if you start analyzing the way your practice time is divided: the recall part is much more time-consuming than the memorization part. And sometimes it can be just as exhausting.

So you might be spending 75% or more of your practice time recalling stuff you’ve memorized, and less than 25% practicing the art of turning information into images. Is that unavoidable? Partly, but not always. What if you sometimes were to practice “memorizing” something, and then simply not bothering to recall it? How much time and energy would you save? Typically the faster you are at memorizing, the most you have to gain from this strategy. So if for example you can memorize a deck of cards in 2 minutes, by skipping recall you might be able to “memorize” (turn the cards into images temporarily stored in a memory palace) 5 decks in 15 or 20 minutes, while taking short breaks in between each attempt. That’s a whole lot more than what you would be able to achieve if you were to try to recall every single deck. Similar though less spectacular efficiency gains can be made with words or names or any other disciplines. Skipping recall can be more than a way to save some time, it can also be a deliberate method to more specifically train some of the most crucial parts of the memorization process.

Here are three different ways one could choose to apply this for cards or numbers.

  • With no visualization: As quickly as you can, you look at the cards or the numbers while noting where the corresponding images would normally be placed in your memory palace. Try to just say the keywords in your mind for each image without visualizing anything.
  • Limited visualization: Same as before, except this time you will take the necessary additional fraction of a second to “see” or conceptualize the corresponding images. BUT, this is important, you won’t add anything to them. You won’t make them interact with the loci or with one another. You won’t make them memorable. It will be as if dozens of pictures were shown to you very fast, without leaving the time for you to process them.
  • Full visualization:  Here you’ll do everything as if you were planning to remember everything, using all kinds of tricks to make your images memorable. The difference is that you will go faster than usual, you won’t do any review and you will of course skip recall completely.

*With those “no recall” drills, there’s nothing stopping from using the same memory palace several times in a row.

* Time yourself and see how you can learn to speed things up with practice.

* I wouldn’t recommend those “full visualization no recall drills” to beginners. If you’re just starting out and the memorization process is still partly mysterious to you, you need that post-recall feedback to discover what you’re doing right or wrong. 

* This should go without saying but just in case: whoever you are, no matter how much of an expert you’ve become, make sure you practice with recall at least a significant portion of the time. You still need to make mistakes and to learn from them!

* Hypocrisy alert: I have long been reluctant to implement those “no recall” drills. Partly because I feel that skipping recall “robs” me of some of the fun and the satisfaction of the memorization process. I generally don’t practice often enough and I usually want those short periods to be fun. I’m especially resistant to those “full visualizations” drills. I “tried” them a few times and always felt the urge afterward to see what I could manage to recall. I also fear I’ll be making plenty of mistakes that I won’t notice and therefore won’t be in a position to take into account and try to correct. All that being said, I do want to start making an effort to practice variations of those drills much more frequently. Not all the time, but maybe half or a third of the time.