New Year's Goals

Retain More of What I Learn

In my last two posts, I reviewed how I did on my hobby goals of tabletop gaming and cooking. Now I’m left with my two less leisurely goals.

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

  1. Read, watch, listen to, or otherwise consume some new information
  2. 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
  3. That evening, go through the reminders and journal on the takeaways and facts
  4. 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.

More Curious

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.

Why Retain?

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.

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