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Retaining What I Learn Revisited

In 2019, I set a goal to retain more of what I learned. I enjoy consuming a variety of educational media in books, newsletters, podcasts, and more, but I had difficulty retaining it much of it.

By the end of that year, I called it a mixed success with a few takeaways:

  1. Mental reviews immediately after consumptions helped assess what I had actually digested
  2. Not all facts are worth remembering
  3. Contextualizing facts in a story helped
  4. Nightly reviews while journaling were another good test, but didn’t actually help me retain it

For awhile somewhere in there, I also tried to use a personal wiki, and although it was a useful way to unload and store knowledge, I didn’t feel like it helped me internally retain knowledge in a useful way.

Since then, I have refined my learning process and wanted to share my current system.

Three Types of Facts

After I wrote that post, I got somewhat deeper into another specific method of learning: taking notes.

Whenever I got sufficiently deep into something, like a book or topic, I would open up the Notes app, start a new note, and put it all into a coherent story or progression. This process would reveal gaps in my knowledge, and I added a reminder for myself to periodically review the notes.

I was never consistent in reviewing, and there were so many facts packed in that I didn’t really get a lot from the process. However, taking extensive notes on a variety of topics, from cosmology to Godel, Escher, Bach helped me discover a new way to categorize knowledge. I could break up facts into three types depending on how I wanted to use them.

  1. Trivia. Random stuff, like where Napoleon was born, what the difference between a marsh and a swamp is, how high the ISS is, or the proof that the halting problem is undecidable
  2. Wisdom. Really good ideas for the right moment, like “Take Small Risks” or “Watch Tape”
  3. Reference. Something I would want to look up later, like how to design a D&D puzzle or a list of topics for job interviews

With that system in place, I have come up with three different way to store and work on retaining this knowledge.

Retaining Trivia: Spaced Repetition

The classic way to memorize vocabulary words or other facts in school was through flashcards. It’s almost cliche, and it also almost works. It just takes two tweaks to make it work for more than cramming before the test.

First, don’t stop. We forget facts because we stop reviewing, so just keep doing flashcards. However, this can become awfully cumbersome to have an ever-growing stack of cards.

Second, review the hard stuff more often. When I did flashcards in school, I would remove the flashcard whenever I got it right. It’s the correct principle, but to mash it up with “do flashcards forever”, we just tweak it so that the better you know the card, the less frequently it should come up.

Combined, this new system of flashcards is spaced repetition, which is trendy in learning these days. I think it works best with an app that can automatically figure out how frequently to show cards. I myself use the Brainscape app and have populated it with hundreds of facts across history, natural sciences, and more. Whenever I come across some good trivia to remember, I add it.

Retaining Wisdom: Thought of the Day

I think the best advice most of us get is when someone just says the right thing at the right time. A week before or a week after, and the same advice might seem entirely inappropriate, but sometimes it’s exactly what you needed to hear to deal with your child, fix a problem at work, or get out of a rut.

Of course, most of us don’t constantly have a font of wisdom and mentorship available to us. Instead, we look to self-help books, the wisdom of the ages in philosophers, or smart people on Twitter to fill in the gaps. They all have wonderful ideas, but maybe just not the right idea to solve the problem right then.

It’s possible to capture these facts using spaced repetition, but I have found that wisdom is best briefly meditated on and not just held by rote. For these facts, I write them all down and have a webpage that randomly picks a few every day. Each morning, when I start up my browser, I get these ideas and carry them around for the rest of the day.

Of course, it’s not perfectly targeted. In fact, random is completely untargeted. However, I have found that lots of wisdom comes as serendipity, and just being reminded of a few good ideas each day is enough serendipity for me to make it valuable.

References: Pinboard

So far, I talked about trivia, which are facts to whip out at any time, and wisdom, which are facts that I want sprung on me at the right time. The last category are references, which are things I don’t need to know instantly but also could be looked up. For those, I have Pinboard.

Pinboard is a bookmarking site. It’s actually a social bookmarking, but I have never looked up anyone else’s bookmarks nor shared my own, so it’s really just for me. Particularly, Pinboard works for three reasons.

First, most of my references are now on the internet. Either I discovered it first online, or I can find someone who has reproduced at least a summary of the same information online.

Second, I can tag bookmarks with categories, like “management” or “parenting.” This helps to dig up specific references when I need them.

Third, I can leave a note. I liked the system of reviewing what I had learned, and a short note forces me to reproduce that knowledge. The summary also helps me quickly skim my references later.

I have been using Pinboard intermittently for years, so it isn’t new, but I only recently have thought about it as part of everything I know.

Final Thoughts

Like all aspects of my life, my retention system is always subject to revision and has variable adherence.

I recently re-organized a bunch of things across these three systems as I realized how I could use all of them differently. That exercise, however, left me with one lingering concern that knowledge in these three systems are difficult to port across platforms or formats. But maybe that’s okay because that validates that all of the formats are very distinct and for very different purposes.

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