When you’re engaged in learning, you’re actively cramming information into your short term memory. Whether you intend to or not. As you study you build mental models and understandings of what you’re exposing yourself to. You use this to build relationships and hopefully to align what you’re learning with what you’re trying to accomplish. As you move from study to practice, you further build your short term knowledge or at least maintain a level of short term engagement. Applying what you learn to real situations crams more in.
Some of what you learn resonates enough that it’s going to stick with you. But once you stop learning, much of what goes into short term memory is simply going to fade. Within a matter of days. While you’re in the zone you maintain a substantial amount of information in short term memory. Albeit you lose some when you sleep, you can retain this information across days if you keep studying. Certainly the longer you go, the more you will remember. But that’s not necessarily the optimal approach.
Instead, it helps to take breaks. And I’ve found it especially helpful to take breaks long enough to let my mind reset. A mental reset its like purging your short term memory, to see what remains in more durable long term stores.
The first step is to stop studying, applying and practicing. Put it down and stop the mental acrobatics. Physical activity is a great way to switch gears. In the process you’re mind will start to chew on what you’ve learned and you’ll have the opportunity to stew on it. You’re still going to be learning. This is a great technique regardless if you want a mental reset or if you just want to apply a different type of learning.
After enough stewing, you should be able to let go of it. The thoughts should stop bubbling up. Try watching the boob tube if you can’t get your mind to shut up. Nothing like the sedative mental effects of watching TV.
Chances are your mind is at ease but a lot of what you’ve learned still lingers in short term memory. You’re going to need to sleep on it for a few days. One day will lead to some loss. Several days even better. You want to get the learning out of your mind as much as possible. That means you rarely think of it. If you have the luxury, let a week pass.
At this point, your mind should have reset. By reset, I mean you’ve broken the continuation of remember things simply because you continue to study them. Things that will be lost once you stop for good.
What you’re trying to accomplish is getting your mind off of the topic long enough that when you come back to the topic, you have to rely upon memory that’s much more likely to be permanent. At least the important, worthwhile parts.
When you come back, see what you can recall. Especially with regards to what can help you make significant improvements. If something’s missing, figure out why it didn’t stick with you. Perhaps it wasn’t important, in that case, ignore it. If it is important, well, time to focus on it. Or, move on to other areas of improvement. In doing this, you are giving yourself feedback about your own learning.
And then yet again, repeat the cycle of a mental reset. Because each time you do this, you boost what’s really retained for the long haul. Even if it’s just a little, little bit. And long term memory is all that really matters. Hopefully what’s winding up in long term memory is the important stuff too.
So instead of waiting to stop and forget it all. Use intermittent stops, mental resets, to improve your learning.
With each cycle, try to focus on the important stuff only. There’s going to be a lot that goes into short term memory that’s irrelevant. You’ll flush it out soon enough. Try to really focus on one or two important things that you want to stick around. After the reset, see if they stuck around.
Otherwise if you cram all of your learning into one continuous binge. Say 3 days in a row, instead of 1 day a week for 3 weeks. Even though you expend the same effort, the following is more likely to happen:
Even though I’m speaking from experience, there’s science behind the idea of spaced repetition. I personally think it’s a no brainier if you iterate on learning that you’ll eventually learn. The best way to test this is to learn, let time lapse, check what you retain, and reflect to optimize future learning.