Flexible Focus #8: Memory is a slippery slope

by William Reed on July 1, 2010

The ability to recall and recount good ideas is a key skill for success in business. In our hyper-connected world, we are blessed with easy access to an abundance of good ideas, expert advice and solutions on nearly any subject. Because the information keeps coming, there is seldom time to really read and digest it. The simple solution is to bookmark it or file it for later. But how often do you actually return to it, much less review it?

Understanding something when you read it is no guarantee that you will remember it when you need it. In this way, the better part of the ideas we are exposed to simply slips through our fingers.

You have probably heard of the learning curve, a graphical representation of progress in learning a skill with practice over time. More significant and less understood is the forgetting curve, the phenomenon by which without periodic review in the short term, we forget more than half of what we learn within the first hour, lose about 70% of what we learned within 24 hours, and in a month’s time we retain only about 20% of what we learned a month before.

This process of rapid forgetting is known as the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, but with with it came an interesting discovery, that relearning through frequent review is not only easier, but greatly facilitates long-term retention.

Becoming a frequent flier

Numerous studies on learning techniques have demonstrated that the best strategy to increase retention is through frequent repetitions and revisions. The challenge for both full-time students and working professionals is that no one seems to have the time or discipline to schedule the frequent revisions that are recommended. If you are learning multiple subjects and have a busy schedule, how and when are you going to make time to frequently review or keep track of what you have learned?

If you have to return to review the original material in its full length, you will never be able to keep up. Taking copious notes can actually hinder your memory. Too much information and too little filtering reflects and reinforces the confused mind. Outlines can help, but the process of outlining is tedious, and can sap your enthusiasm for learning. Note-taking is the art of capturing the gist of ideas in words or visual form, and creating memory hooks that make it easier to review and recall.

The Mandala Chart offers an elegant alternative. You decide from the start to capture the essentials within the 8-frame format, which forces you to focus on the essentials. Having your notes on one page makes it much easier to review in a short time, and makes frequent revisions both feasible and fun. It makes it possible to become a frequent flier.

Tips on Taking Notes

Taking notes with the Mandala Chart can facilitate the process of flexible focus. There are several things that you can do to quickly master the process, and improve your retention and recall of important information.

  1. Create your framework before you start reading: Curiosity is the best frame of mind with which to begin reading. But rather than just following your nose, why not mark your trail by using a Mandala Chart that focuses on quality questions? A good place to start is with a Mandala Template on the basic 6W3H Quality Questions: Why, What, When, What, Where, Who, Why Me, How, How Much, and How To?
  2. Set your initial level of focus: If you don’t have specific questions you can start with chapter titles. Capture the key ideas of each chapter in bullet points, putting a sketch or image of the book cover in the central frame. If the book has more than 8 chapters, simply start a new Mandala for chapters 9 and up. However for review purposes, it is best if you can keep it on one page by combining chapters, or creating your own way of dividing and thinking about the content.
  3. Keep your notes concise and accessible: You don’t need to stick to the author’s framework. You can start with a blank Mandala Chart, and simply determine to find the best 8 topics or ideas in the book. This approach is like creating your own customized index, complete with annotations, sketches, and page number references. If you find more than eight great topics, simply start a new Mandala Chart and follow your curiosity.
  4. Keep a notebook specifically for revision: Your notes won’t do you any good if you can’t find them. If you store your notes in different locations and different formats, ranging from computer to file folders to backs of envelopes, it will be impossible to access them for any disciplined review. Store all of your notes for review in a single notebook specifically for that purpose, which you can carry with you. Do your review in a cafe, on a train, or while waiting for a friend. Take as much or as little time as you like for the review, and feel free to add notes as you get new insights.
  5. Number and track your revisions: An easy way to organize your review schedule is to store your Mandala Charts in a notebook with punched holes and tabs. Create 6 tabs in your notebook labeled as: next hour, next day, next week, next month, next six months, and long-term archive. Review your chart in the next hour shortly after you create it, then move it to the next tab. Simplify the process by scheduling one review session per day, one per week, one per month, and twice a year. Write the review dates on your calendar, and every time you review a Mandala Chart add a checkbox with the number of the revision and the date. This is the minimum review schedule to ensure long-term retention. Of course you can look at the charts beyond this as often as you like.
  6. Talk or write about what you have learned: One of the best ways to increase retention is to put what you have learned into your own words and share it with other people. Talk to your friends and family about it, or write about it in your blog. You won’t need to remind yourself to do this, because your schedule of frequent review will ensure that the topics are close at hand.

To remind yourself of the importance of active participation in the learning process, have a look at the Cone of Learning, and see how much you can draw it from memory two weeks later! Put this task on your calendar and test yourself. It will be a lesson you will never forget.

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