Relentless Memory

12 Dec 2011

Learning is the most important thing I do, but my memory is poor. I've just launched an app that helps me to do it slightly better. Here's my workflow:

My sources are generally books, articles, or discussions with coaches or friends. In each case I write notes, either as text or on paper. I prefer paper, because it's more expressive than text, but much faster than digital non-text. Often I'll scribble in a book as I read it (I don't use ebooks much because I can't do this), then rapidly reread and collate my notes.

I store the notes in Evernote, using a ScanSnap to grab the paper.

They're tagged in broad topics, so an Evernote search lets me quickly revise for a specific event. For example: "what do I know about negotiation?". The notes serve as a memory cue, so a quick read-through is enough to get ready for action.

This only works if I know exactly what I'll need to know, and I have time to revise it. For more permanent, general learning, I use a spaced repetition system. The open-source project Anki is a sophisticated SRS, but I don't use it, because it needs me to form my notes into formal flashcards ("What are the three steps in principled negotiation?", "In what ways is a Multiplier different to a Diminisher?"). This requires effort, it wouldn't work for all forms of learning, and it would give me a duplication of data, with the same material present in different forms in two different applications.

Study you don't do counts for nothing. I can't afford this to feel like a chore, so I sacrifice efficiency for convenience.

Instead, I used Evernote's API to build a web app called Relentless Memory. This is a naive SRS. On the first load, it pulls all the notes I've tagged 'remem' and shows them to me. I take some time to read each note, think about how I'd apply it, informally test myself on it, and then click "easy", "medium", or "hard" based on how well I think I'm remembering it. 'Hard' brings the note back the next day. 'Easy' or 'Medium' intelligently set a new date based on my history of encounters with that note.

It takes ten or fifteen minutes, so most days I revise over the day's first cup of tea, before I'm useful for anything else anyway.

Apart from better memory, this has a neat side-effect: ideas don't stick unless they're the right idea at the right time. I'll sometimes encounter things that were of only academic interest when I first read about them, but which - through serendipity - I can suddenly use and apply immediately.

Try it if you like: I'm continuing to develop it so I'd be interested in any thoughts.