Memorization 101 – You don’t have a “bad memory”, you just don’t know how to use it

About this page: Its main goal is to relatively quickly present a series of memory related tips and important concepts that anyone can start putting into practice today. I’ll explain some basic but very important notions that everyone should be aware of. If you read only one page on this website, it should probably be this one. You have my permission to quickly skim or skip over a few paragraphs and sections here and there, but I do think you should make the effort to understand all the main points and concepts.

I have some good news about your bad memory!

I don’t care how many times you swear that your memory is the worst. If you can learn how to use it, you will realize that it is much more powerful than you think. This article will teach you how. Forget all your silly excuses for a while. The methods explained below will work as long as you make the effort to use them.

Who am I to make such bold claims? Why should you trust the words of some random guy on the Internet? Those are legitimate questions that I’ll now answer as honestly as possible. I’m a 39 years old French-Canadian named Francis Blondin who lives in Montreal. I don’t have a PhD in neuroscience. English isn’t my first language and some of my sentences will probably sound a little weird. I was not a great student. I’m easily distracted and prone to procrastination. My natural memory is completely average and my IQ is nothing special. 

Nevertheless, in 2015 I started learning about the wonderful world of memory techniques. After practicing once a while for a few months, I was able to become the so-called “Canadian memory champion” in 2016 and 2017. It’s true, they said it on the Internet! I’ve been featured in the media more than 20 times. I can spend hours reciting with near-perfect accuracy the tons of fun and useful information I’ve managed to memorize. On a good day I can memorize more than 300 digits in 10 minutes. I’ve read tons of books about memory techniques, about learning and about the human brain. And I’ve taught what I’ve learned with great success to hundreds of people. So far I’ve yet to meet anyone who seems like a lost cause.

Here’s me either showing off what I can do on tv or teaching what I know during a conference. I feel somewhat silly adding those unnecessary pictures here, but I’m doing it anyway in case it can lead a few readers to take what I’m saying a little more seriously.

Ok so what can I teach you?

Whenever I get the chance to talk about the subject, first I’ll usually take some time to explain how most people throughout history didn’t have the option to write down everything they needed to remember. That didn’t stop them from accumulating and transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next. Before writing and cell phones became ubiquitous, all kinds of creative methods were used to remember tons of useful or interesting information: all the plants, mammals, birds, insects, fish along with knowledge related to astronomy, navigation, weather, genealogies, mythology, history and so on. I also like to show and explain how normal people can learn to use fancy techniques like the “memory palace” to perform previously unthinkable feats of memorization, like remembering the order of a shuffled deck of cards in a few minutes or even a few seconds.

From my point of view, that’s all extremely interesting and worth learning about. I’ll later direct you to some great resources if you want to learn more. However, I am aware that most people out there don’t currently have the motivation or the energy to learn those seemingly complicated and weird techniques. So in this article, I’ll attempt to remain relatively brief and limit myself to a limited number of practical advice that anyone can start using now. I can’t promise that I’ll manage to completely shut up about all that nerdy stuff, but I’ll do my best!

First some boring but useful common-sense advice:

There are all kinds of methods you can use to remember stuff. But I’ll be honest: if you’re not a student and there’s little that you need or want to remember, in today’s world you can function very well while rarely having to use much of your memory. That’s both a good and a terrible thing as far as I’m concerned, but that’s a discussion for another day. For now, here are just a few simple “hacks” that you can use to get in trouble less often in your daily life:

  • There’s nothing wrong with simply noting things down. I have several small books (about $4 each at the dollar store) that I’ll use to note all kinds of things. I have a calendar where I’ll note down important obligations. I have a whiteboard where I’ll write important tasks for the day. You do need to make it a habit to note things down when it matters. And you need to make sure that you will look at that calendar or that whiteboard or that planner before it’s too late. How can one build good habits and get rid of bad ones? That’s beyond the scope of this article, but you can look up some articles or interviews (mp3 version here) with James Clear if you want to learn more about this important and fascinating subject.
  • When it comes to getting things done and avoiding stupid mistakes, well-designed checklists are one of the most powerful tools you can use. There’s even a surprisingly great book on this subject. You can use one for things you need or want to do every day or every week (exercise, groceries, medications, work-related tasks and so on). You can have one for camping or other special situations that you will reuse every time those situations come up.
  • Use common sense, use your environment to your advantage and take care of the important stuff in advance. Don’t want to forget that you need to bring your umbrella with you tomorrow? Leave it clearly visible next to the door. Or better yet, put it in your backpack already.
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea you don’t want to forget, pick a pen or a small object and throw it somewhere visible on the floor. Next morning you’ll see the object and hopefully remember the amazing idea you had when you threw it.
  • Something is being cooked while you’re busy in the other room? Of course you can and should use a timer. But if for some reason you don’t have one, you could again use that fun “out of place object” technique. If you’re watching tv in the other room, leave a frypan or something on top of the tv!
  • Always leave your keys and your wallet and your cell phone in the same place in your apartment, or in the same pocket in your coat or your backpack. Didn’t your mother teach you that? If you’re leaving your keys in some unusual place for some reason, make an effort and PAY ATTENTION while you’re doing so. Even better, imagine that the drawer where you left them is exploding violently, leaving debris and wounded victims everywhere around. That explosion will (hopefully) remain completely imaginary, but it doesn’t mean that it won’t be memorable. 

And now some much more fundamental advice:

Sleep! Every day, as much as you need, on a regular schedule.

I always knew sleep was important, but I never knew how much until a few years ago when I started listening to Matthew Walker and reading his book. Getting sufficient sleep, and sufficient quality of sleep, is the single most important thing you can do for your health, your mood, your energy level and your ability to focus and memorize.

Make it a priority to sleep 8 or even 9 hours a day. Every day. At a regular schedule. It’s worth it. There are a few mutants out there who do just fine with much less sleep, but that’s less than half a percent of the population. Much more common are people who are deluding themselves into thinking they are “doing fine” with little sleep, but in reality are underperforming all the time while damaging their physical and mental health.

It isn’t about being lazy, it’s just about making sure your brain and body are working optimally. It will help a lot with every single thing in your life, including your memory. It’s possible to cram for an exam all night long and perform all right, but don’t confuse that with real learning. Real learning requires sleep both before (for focus) and after (for consolidation). Without that, nothing will stick.

Learn to focus on just one thing at a time. At least for a moment.

You can’t memorize something if you don’t focus your attention on it for at least a moment. Your ability to concentrate is crucial for memorizing and for most important cognitively demanding forms of work. Problem is: focussing can be very hard for many people, including me. That’s especially true in the modern world with its omnipresent distractions. Good news is: like most skills, your ability to focus can be trained and it can be improved. It won’t be easy, but it can be done. On this subject, I was profoundly influenced by Cal Newport’s concept of “Deep Work” and “Digital Minimalism“. It has had a very positive influence on my life.

If you’re a student and you want to learn and remember a lot, I’m very sorry but will need to put your cell phone and Internet addiction under control. I don’t use the term “addiction” lightly. In today’s world, we’re all addicted to those tools to some degree or another. It’s a real problem and there are no quick and painless solutions. Simple hacks can help. Simple mindfulness inspired practices can help even more (even if you don’t want to meditate). Radical changes to your habits are possible, but it won’t be easy! If you’re anything like me, you’ll have to go through several periods of trials and errors. In the short term however, you should be able to achieve at least some more modest but still significant changes.

Even if you’re not a student, your learning goals are much more modest and you have no intention of ever using the airplane mode on your cell phone, you can and should still make an effort to learn to focus on just one thing for at least 15 or 20 minutes at a time before taking a short break. I do mean just one thing! Multitasking is a terrible strategy. So is ostensibly single-tasking while frequently switching to some other task or distraction. Those quick once while 30 seconds check to your email inbox are much more damaging to your concentration than you can imagine.

That’s true for your work and/or study blocks. Ideally it should also be true for your breaks. Those should be used for walking around, getting lost in thoughts, breathing, chatting with someone or eating, not for your emails or for anything that will keep capturing your attention when you’ll try to go back to work.

By the way, did you know that having your cell phone around with you in the same room will negatively impact your concentration even when it remains closed off and out of sight? It’s true! It’s been tested! And did you know that leaving your cell phone on the table in front of you will have a worse effect on your performance on a cognitive test than smoking marijuana right before? Yep, that has also been tested.

Don’t just listen or read or reread, test yourself!

To remember something long-term, the two most important concepts that you need to know about are called retrieval practice and spaced repetition. This isn’t just my personal opinion, there are at least a few dozens gigatons or peer-reviewed research to back up that statement. Retrieval practice is basically just testing yourself. Don’t just reread your notes, close your book and see how much you can recall without any aid. 

Testing yourself isn’t just a way to verify what has been remembered, it’s also an extremely powerful way to learn. You can read and reread a million books and spend a million years sitting in class, but very little of what you’ve read and heard will stick if you don’t make an effort to actively process and recall the information. That’s true for simple information like the capital of Burundi, that’s also true for complex concepts that you might want to understand.

Reading and re-reading can be an important and often necessary activity, but it won’t be enough for most significant and durable forms of learning. So ask yourself simple and not-so-simple questions all the time! You can answer those questions silently in your mind. Or you can write down your answers before checking if you got everything right. Or even better, you can casually explain what you’ve learned to someone else. Or you can stand alone in your room and pretend that you’re lecturing a class. Even if you’re not a student and you only care about remembering a few stuff here and there, you should still use retrieval practice by asking yourself questions like “What’s my credit card number?” or “What’s the name of that guy again?”

Use spaced repetition

The other piece of the puzzle for remembering long-term is spaced repetition: many reviews in the beginning and increasingly less frequent reviews over time. If you wait too long in between reviews, you might have to relearn everything again. And if you don’t wait long enough, most of your reviews will be largely useless. You will do just fine as long as you remain somewhere in between those two extremes.

At each point of the process, you will need to make a small effort to retrieve the information, and that effort will lead to a memory that will become increasingly difficult to forget. Because efforts lead to more retention, ideally each review should be just a little difficult, but not too much.

For difficult information that you don’t normally use but still want to remember with very level of accuracy, your reviewing schedule could look something like the image I added below. For this model, on the first day you review as much as you need to make sure you won’t forget it after a few hours. One or two or three reviews will be enough for that purpose most of the time. Then you review once the following day. From now on, every time you answer something right, you will basically double the length of the previous waiting interval. So 2 days, 4 days, a week, two weeks, a month, 2 months, 4 months… Starting at the 4 months mark, just to be extra safe, you move on to a “+2 months” rule. So 6 months, 8 months, 10 months and so one.

This is just one example. Those revision intervals are particularly conservative and prudent. If you’re comfortable with a 90% retention rate, a model where the intervals are multiplied by about 2.5 indefinitely should work very well: so more or less 1 day, 2 days, 4 days, 10 days, 25 days, 2 months, 5 months, 1 year, 2.5 years, 6 years…

And that’s for difficult information that you aren’t usually thinking about. If you’re somehow using that information in your daily life, that’s an even more powerful form of review. In those cases, more formal reviews might become completely unnecessary.

If there’s a lot that you need or want to remember, I strongly recommend using a spaced repetition software like the free and awesome Anki. Anki’s interface and options can seem intimidating complex, but it really isn’t if you – like you probably should – limit yourself to its most fundamental functions. This tutorial will explain everything you need to know. (By the way, you can still get a lot out of Anki even if you stop listening to the tutorial after the first 90 seconds.) 

If you don’t want to use an app, you could buy some index card from the dollar store (100 for $1), write one question on one side (Social security number? Niece’s phone number? What’s the third law of thermodynamics?) along with an answer on the other side. The use of flashcards in one form or another is extremely common among high-performing students pursuing difficult programs. The image on the right is just one possible way to use them.

It will be easier if you use many different cards and you keep them short. To organize your reviewing schedule, you could have one box that you review every day, one that you review every Monday, one that you review on the first of every month and finally one that you review once every 3 months. In that case, it would be up to you to decide when you feel like you’ve learned some card well enough to move it from one box to the other. So for example, one card could spend 2 weeks in the “every week” box before you decide that you’re now ready to move it to the “every month” box. That system wouldn’t be the most efficient possible way to learn, but I think that it might be simpler to implement. Remember that the “good” system that you will use will always be infinitely more efficient than the “perfect” system that you won’t use.

I’m sorry I wish I could teach you some magic technique that would allow you to learn whatever you want in an instant while never having to review, but that’s unfortunately not an option. But if you can learn to combine spaced repetition along with retrieval practice for a long enough period of time, you’ll be amazed by what you’ll be able to remember. Of course, the hardest part is to kick yourself hard enough to get you to actually do those daily and weekly and monthly and yearly reviews. That’s not an easy habit to develop, but it’s worth it if you’re a student or if you just care about knowing stuff long term. 

Fun fact: Reviews will always be necessary, but you’ll be able to drastically reduce their required frequencies if you manage to become skilled with the use of mnemonics. This leads me to my next important point…

Use mnemonics!

There are many things that you can learn using mostly just focussed attention, direct associations, logic and understanding and your natural memory. When you hear something, you understand it, it makes sense and you know that you will be able to remember it later without too much problem, that’s great. In those cases, apart from reviewing what you’ve learned using retrieval practice and spaced repetition, you don’t necessarily have to do anything else. 

However, there are also a lot of pesky facts, difficult concepts, difficult words, names, numbers that won’t easily stick. You can always manage to remember those by breaking them down into smaller, more easily digestible chunks and by reviewing more often. That will work with enough patience, although it won’t always be fun or easy.

Fortunately, there’s an almost magical solution that is called mnemonics. Using to learn mnemonics is all about transforming something that is difficult to remember into something that your strange brain can remember much more easily. Like almost anything else, it’s also a skill that you can choose to practice and get better at.

Using mnemonics can sometimes be relatively straightforward. For example perhaps you can imagine a cartoonish and almost comical representation of what some historical event might have looked like. Or perhaps you can use some kind of metaphors to simplify what you’re learning about. Compound interest, for example, could be represented in your mind as being like a population of breeding rabbits that just keep growing faster and faster every day. 

Many good students have figured out by themselves how to use such strategies. They might use acronyms or silly sentences. If they want to remember that X can lead to Y and also sometimes cause Z, they can make up some silly fictitious reasons to “explain” why that might be the case. If they are reading a lot about the inner working of the diesel engine, they might manage to develop some increasingly complex mental representation of all the different elements involved. However, very few of those students know how far mnemonics can be pushed. Those crazy “memory champions” who can memorize hundreds of digits and words and names or whatever in record time, they can only do so because they have trained themselves to come up with creative ways to transform what is hard to remember into something that is easy to remember

Let’s pretend for a moment that I’m contacted by a CBC journalist named RJ Skinner and that I want to remember his name. It’s easy enough if I just heard it and it’s floating around in my short-term memory, but I’ll forget it in a few seconds if I don’t make an effort. How can I make his name more memorable? First step is to make an effort and pay attention. What’s that guy’s name? Oh right, it’s RJ Skinner. Second step is to transform those sounds into something more memorable. RJ in my mind will become “rage” (not the same spelling, but close enough) while Skinner will become “someone who enjoys violently removing the skin of people”. In real life I’m sure that RJ Skinner is a lovely person who would never hurt anyone, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just a fun image that I’m using to remember his name, it doesn’t have to be related in any way to the real world. That quickly improvised image will transform what is initially a bunch of mostly meaningless sounds into something funny and easy to remember. In that case I could of course choose instead to use Skinner the character from the Simpson, a scanning machine, someone blessed with very nice skin, a “sinner” or whatever. I happen to enjoy using grotesque and sometimes slightly offensive images, but simpler more realistic or logical or cute images can work just as well.  

Friendly warning: When you meet someone, you don’t have to feel obligated to explain all the different techniques you will use to remember his or her name.

If you don’t have any inspiration, you can use a “bad” mnemonic instead of a good one. For Skinner again, a mnemonic like “sun” or “ska” or “score” or “runner” or “gunner” or “swimmer” wouldn’t be great, but it would be better than nothing. It’s often simpler to use a quickly improvised “bad” mnemonic and review more often than to waste too much time and effort trying to come up with a better image.

To paraphrase someone else, memory techniques work even when they don’t work. Just the fact that you’re paying attention to something and you’re playing around with it is enough to drastically improve your odds of remembering. Even if you didn’t find the perfect mnemonic, you’re making progress as long as you’re making an effort to process the information in a way that makes it more meaningful to you. 

There’s much more that is worth knowing about this subject. In the fun and crazy world of memory competitions, almost everyone uses what we call memory palaces. If you’re curious to know what the hell that is, I will let this New York Times journalist do most of the explaining for me.

Out of everything I’ve mentioned so far, in the long term mnemonics and memory palaces are what will lead to the most spectacular improvements. As far as I know, those techniques work with anyone who makes the effort to use them. Huge progress are possible almost instantaneously, especially if someone with more experience is guiding you. However it might take a while before you can start feeling comfortable using those techniques by yourself even in a variety of difficult contexts. There’s a learning curve. It’s as if you were skiing for the first time in your life. You can slide down the mountain, but it’s uncomfortable, exhausting and slightly scary. And it’s tempting to remove your skis and just walk. But if you don’t give up and you persist through the initial hurdle, it won’t be long before you’ll start feeling fully in control. 

Thank you for reading this far and best wishes to your “probably not that bad after all” memory!

If you want to learn how to use those strange memory palaces, check out this completely free and short 5-day, 20 minutes a day training program I made. It won’t be enough to turn you into an expert, but it will be a pretty good start and I believe it will make a significant difference. Many more free resources can be found by clicking here.

One last important point: Both meditation and physical exercises will help improve your memory, your self-control and your ability to focus, but those are just a few reasons among so many more why you should start developing those two habits. We now know that extremely short workouts with a few moments of strenuous exertion can be just as beneficial as 45 minutes of more moderate exercises. This means that lack of time can no longer be used as an excuse. As for meditation, it’s also worth doing even if just for one minute a day. I’m pretty sure I would never have taken up that habit if it wasn’t for the overwhelming amount of serious research about the benefits of that practice. It’s a subject that one can spend years exploring, but most of what you need to know can be told with just a few words here. I would also highly recommend listening to this conference.

Some fun and optional additional references:

  • I’ve been asked a bunch of questions about all the different “types of memory” and the different ways one can improve them. There’s a lot here that the average reader doesn’t necessarily “need” to know, but if you’re curious, here are my answers.
  • Recent fascinating scientific study that has been talked about around the globe. It talks about how complete beginners can learn to use memory palaces and drastically improve their performance.
  • Very interesting lengthy report shown on CNN. It talks about the study referenced above, about the effect training seems to have on a group of young high school students (improved ability to concentrate), and it shows world memory champion Alex Mullen memorizing a deck of cards in only 15 seconds. “Memory athletes […] have always said there is nothing special about their brain and their memory, that anyone can do this. And now science is on their side.” Click on those 3 links for part 1, part 2 and part 3. Parts 2 and 3 are the most interesting in my opinion.
  • “Eleven teams, mostly from world-leading neuroscience laboratories, took part in the challenge of designing the ultimate system for learning 80 Lithuanian words in an hour. Around 10,000 participants were funnelled through the competing methods in the finals, giving the results a level of statistical power that cognitive scientists can normally only dream of.” The winning technique: memory palaces combined with retrieval practice. Report in The Guardian.
  • There are two great documentaries currently available on Netflix that are largely about the art of memory. There’s episode 1 of a great new serie called The Mind Explained. That episode is available on Youtube, so you don’t need a Netflix subscription. There’s also a longer documentary called Memory Games about the world of memory competitions.
  • Another mindblowing study I recently heard about is the following. Complete beginners using quickly improvised story manage to remember 93% of 12 lists of 10 nouns each, while the control group using just focus and repetition only remember 13% of those lists. Let me repeat: simple improvised stories led to a 93% retention rate versus just 13% for the control group! That’s not a small difference! I agree that testing just lists of nouns is a rather limited way to judge the efficiency of a learning method, but still those findings are amazing and should be widely known.
  • How one can learn 1100 words of Lingala, a language spoken in parts of the Congo and Angola, in only 22 hours spread over 3 months. Report in the Guardian.
  • Here’s a fascinating extract from a book about the memory techniques used by preliterate people. Want to learn more? Check out this conference, this audio interview, this other audio interview, this written interview or this Ted talk. I think this is amazingly interesting and consequential. I was slightly skeptical at first but read most of the book and came away convinced that the author is a serious and hard-working researcher who did her homework and actively sought disconfirming evidence before printing anything. The author will soon turn 70 years old and in recent years she has managed to memorize a spectacular amount of data despite what she calls her “appallingly bad memory”.