Retain More of What I Learn
When I wrote this goal, I didn’t know how I was going to accomplish it. I felt like I had sought out many sources of new information to continue to learn, but I didn’t feel like I retained much of it. And if I wasn’t retaining it, what was the point of learning it in the first place?
I read some advice and tried out a few things and eventually came to this process
- Read, watch, listen to, or otherwise consume some new information
- Afterwards, if it seemed useful to remember, write the topic down in a reminder and do a 10 second mental review on the important content
- That evening, go through the reminders and journal on the takeaways and facts
- Periodically glance back at older journal entries to see what I had learned
I used this process for most of the year and learned a few things about learning along the way.
Retention is Hard
Forgetting is easy. Learning, retaining, and remembering is hard. Sometimes facts made sense in the moment, but when I reviewed it in the evening, I had forgotten the important points and had to either re-read an article on how antibiotics work or look up the wikipedia article about the Battle of Britain. Sometimes knowledge didn’t even get through the first time as I roamed through an art museum and instantly forgot the blurb I had read seconds before.
In pursuing this goal, I don’t think my memory for facts has gotten any worse: I just noticed that this retention problem was even worse than I thought.
The evening review session did help, but it isn’t enough. I looked back in my journal and saw the diagram I drew about how CRISPR worked. I couldn’t reproduce it right now.
However, there are some things that I remember easily. I had always wondered why English wasn’t a Romance language since it was conquered by Caesar. Now I can rattle off the story of the Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman influences on the English language.
The key part in there is “story.” In writing journal entries, I learned the lonely facts are hard to remember. Contextualized facts are better, and a good story makes the most sense. And unless I want to spend a lot of time in memorizing things, I have to learn the story first.
In putting together stories and recalling facts, I discovered how many holes there were in my apparent knowledge. I would write out what I learned about cholesterol, then realize that I knew that trans fats raise LDL levels, but I didn’t actually know what a trans fat was. And then suddenly I was looking diagrams of chemical bonds and learned the difference between trans fat and cis fat.
Or I read about potential types of rocket fuel and then realize I didn’t know what paraffin wax was made out of.
Or I would come across a word like “obsequious” in a book I didn’t know. In the past, I would either use context clues to guess at what the word meant, or I would just gloss past it. It turns out it has been worth taking a few seconds to look up a word.
And by disappearing into wikipedia or dictionaries, I gathered a bunch more facts that made a more complete story. Ironically, I ended up needing to retain a lot more since stories are composed of many facts, but it certainly sticks much better.
I ended up combining the evening journaling exercise with another activity: gratitude. Apparently studies have consistently found that gratitude journaling has positive mental and health benefits. I took that idea and coupled it with a few other things as a daily reflection exercise. I write down:
- I am grateful for…
- I made a mistake by…
- I am proud of…
After finishing that, I would go through my reminders list and write out what I learned that day. It has been a worthwhile ten minutes to spend on a daily basis.
I started this goal with the intent to learn more and more deliberately, and in paying more attention to the information I consume, I noticed how much I wasn’t retaining. And when I went to add things to my reminders, I realized that much of that information were things I didn’t care to remember.
In the past, I steadily increased my media consumption because I wanted to learn and know more. Even if it seemed like a lot, I figured I could learn more by osmosis with podcasts on in the background and skimming email newsletters.
And then maybe two or three years ago, I became more deliberate in trimming down my consumption. Most of that was around news since I figured that even if politics was informative and topical, it was depressing, and I didn’t need that. I tried to stick to just the informative bits that I could process.
This year, I realized how little I can actually process. Thinking back on the year, I actually learned comparatively little from periodicals. I learned the most when I deliberately studied something.
That being said, I still listen to podcasts and read newsletters. I think I just do it with a different mindset. Even things like science news aren’t really about learning: they’re my mental floss, and that’s more entertainment than education. If I enjoyed learning something for just a moment and then forgot it, then that’s okay, too. I still enjoyed it.
So I call this goal a mixed success. It will take time to determine if I have actually retained more, but I am certainly far more aware of what I do and don’t try to remember.