How to Not Instantly Forget All the Shit You Learn

Do you ever feel like there is just TOO MUCH TO LEARN? Which sucks, because you want to be smarter and, you know, intelligible in conversations over dinner. And so you try to devour everything as quickly as you can to make time for it all. Or, at least, you feel like you should devour as much as you can as quickly as you can.

Well, I’m sorry to tell you that your approach to learning is wrong. It’s annoying, I know, but just reading/watching/listening to as much information as you can is not the best way to learn. It is, however, easier than doing things that are actually good for learning. Because it’s not the first take of information that’s useful for learning. That stuff will vanish from your mind to make room for the new stuff you’re trying to shovel in, quick as you can say ‘I read about that once! But uh, I can’t… quite… remember… Pass the wine, would you?’

The thing is, in order to retain information in a useful way, you have to actually think about it. And thinking is hard. Proper, deep, analytical thinking. That takes effort, man. And humans are lazy fucks by nature. We want to do the absolute minimum, both physically and mentally. I assume this is something to do with needing to retain our energy to run away from, like… lions. (Lions? I don’t know. God damn this learning thing.)

Either way, the fact remains: we would rather read a book then move straight on to the next one than set aside any time to think about what we’ve just learned.

Part of the reason I read is to make sense of myself and the world around me. But to really achieve this, I have to think things through. Really mull over this new information. It requires a certain type of mental energy and focus.

Here’s what Lewis Carroll had to say on the matter:

As to the mastication of the food, the mental process answering to this is simply thinking over what we read. This is a very much greater exertion of mind than the mere passive taking in the contents of our Author. So much greater an exertion is it, that, as Coleridge says, the mind often “angrily refuses” to put itself to such trouble – so much greater, that we are far too apt to neglect it altogether, and go on pouring in fresh food on top of the undigested masses already lying there, till the unfortunate mind is fairly swamped under the flood. But the greater the exertion the more valuable, we may be sure, is the effect.

BAM. Says it all, right? (Carroll’s essay is totally worth checking out by the way. It’s called Feeding the Mind.)

There are two excellent ways to think things over, aside from just going for a walk to collect your thoughts (this is useful, but I find I can still easily forget what I’ve learned). Here are my two favourite ways to think about – and therefore fully learn and understand – stuff:

1. Put It into Action

No shit, eh? This doesn’t just apply to stuff you read in books. Or blog posts. Or anywhere else. It also applies to the stuff people tell you (assuming they are not one of those douchebags who make stuff up to sound intelligent when it’s clear they are actually massive bullshitters). It also applies to stuff you learn from documentaries, lectures, wherever.

So yeah: the best way to retain information about stuff and to fully understand it is to USE IT. Hands down. Best way. Because if you’re actually using this information, by nature you have to think harder about it. Your mind has to work through problems. Imagine you read a book about how to run a successful blog. It gives you step-by-step instructions. The information is spot on, very useful. You say to yourself, ‘Excellent! I will remember this when I eventually start my blog.’

But then you put it off. ‘I’m not ready to start my blog yet! I need to sort this other thing out first and learn a few more things!’ Then you finally get around to it (maaaybe, you lazy human fuck). And you’re all, ‘Wait, what was the first step again?’ Whereas if you’d used that information immediately, not only would you not have forgotten it, but you would now fully understand it. You don’t easily forget the intricacies of how something works when you’ve put hours into it, analysing it, thinking it over, tweaking it because you think this other way might be better. It’s hard to do the analysing, thinking and tweaking when you don’t have anything tangible to work with.

2. Write About What You Learn

Sometimes what you learn might not be something actionable. Maybe it’s just, like, good stuff to know. So you can sound like a smart person in adult conversations. Instead of going, ‘Duuuhhh… I read about that once. And that’s all I have to say on the matter,’ then doing an about-turn and striding away.

But writing about something is a great way to analyse and better understand the information you’ve just consumed. Because writing is basically thinking onto the page. Note: I actually mean writing about something – not simply copying stuff down a la exam revision. Something I’ve been trying to do more of is write about what I’ve learned from books (hence this post!). This helps me to understand things better and to form opinions about stuff.

Blogging is one of the best ways to do this. Not only do you get to write your thoughts down and shape your opinions and form coherent arguments, but you also get to share your newfound knowledge with others. This, of course, means you win some brownie points in this game called life. But it also means you get to have conversations with others about stuff, which will help you further your understanding even more. Also, it’s nice to be able to organise your thoughts into categories and to use your website’s search function to find stuff. Much better than flicking through handwritten notes and going, ‘Aaaagh, when the hell did I write about that thing?’

So, what does all this mean, in practical terms? Probably it means this: STOP TRYING TO LEARN EVERYTHING. YOU WILL FORGET IT ALL BEFORE YOU’VE HAD CHANCE TO DO ANYTHING WITH IT. SLOW DOWN. DO ONE THING AT A TIME. LEARN ONE THING AT A TIME. IMPLEMENT ONE THING AT A TIME. READ ONE BOOK. ABSORB ITS LESSONS. READ THE NEXT BOOK. If you keep doing this, you’ll just end up with a head full of vague information that you can’t really do anything with. And then you’ll just be the moron at the party going ‘duuuhhh…’ and striding away.