You can remember anything you want.

How to Remember in 4 Basic Steps

By Bill Powell

With these four basic steps, you can master any subject.

Welcome to! Let’s look at the four basic steps to remembering.

  • Pay attention
  • Get interested
  • Make connections
  • Practice and renew

Pay Attention

You can’t remember what you haven’t seen. Or heard. Or somehow sensed.

This seems obvious. But how often do you give something your full attention?

I know that I often read, listen, and look with a divided mind. A huge percentage of my mental energy is sucked into a neverending internal monologue. While that part of my mind natters away, I have less energy to focus.

Full focus feels special. We’ve all experienced that keen awakening when we really look at something, even for a few moments: a stunning flower, an awesome new toy, a beautiful face. Those moments are highlights. Those are the kinds of impressions we never forget.

The secret is that we can make strong impressions whenever we want – if we choose to focus. But we won’t make that choice unless we get interested.

Get Interested

Your mind will only remember something if it’s interesting. Period.

Now, many contemporary (and ancient) memory guides think that you should make material interesting by bolting on mnemonics (memory prompts). For instance, if you want to remember a “2”, you can think of a swan, which has a similar shape.

I used to think this way myself. I made hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mnemonics.

And mnemonics have their uses. I’ve written plenty of articles on them.

But mnemonics also have a dark side. They can distract you from the very things you’re trying to learn. They reinforce the perception that the material itself is dull.

Here’s another secret: everything is interesting.

Seriously. You could write a dissertation on dust bunnies, if you had to. Start asking questions. (Where do dust bunnies come from, anyway?)

We find things dull when they have no meaning for us. You could give the most exciting story in the world a blank stare if it was written in a foreign language.

How do we find new meanings? Partly, by looking and listening with greater attention. But also by connecting new things to what we already know.

Make Connections

We remember by connecting.

Think of a baseball geek. He can remember thousands of game scores, because he’s interested. Obsessed, even.

But those scores don’t float about in isolation. His brain is a baseball network, a power grid humming with thousands of criss-crossing connections. Every game score is connected to those players, to those teams, to the epic story of that particular season.

Ultimately, all this “data” connects to his enthusiasm for baseball itself, his memories of the actual games he’s played and seen.

A few days ago, I wrote about using these steps for remembering names. You collect names and classify them. Instead of making mnemonics, you study the names themselves. You see how they connect to each other. In short, you become a name geek.

The more meaningful connections you make, the better you’ll remember. You craft your own mental network.

Practice and Renew

But this network needs to be strengthened by practice and renewal. Otherwise it fades.

Practice is pretty basic. Memory is like anything else. Use it or lose it.

But memory is also unique, in that well-planned renewals can yield astonishing results. With “spaced repetition”, you can renew your memories on a special schedule. You do a lot of reviews at the beginning, but as time goes on, you can wait longer and longer between renewing a specific memory. Eventually, you can wait months or years.

On the other hand, scheduling spaced repetition isn’t always worth the trouble. Sometimes, it’s easier to renew something every day until you’ve mastered it. Then you can move it onto a long-term schedule.

The usual method for spaced repetition is computer flashcards. But flashcards can lead to burnout. For anything more complex than vocabulary words, flashcards can shatter knowledge into random little bits.

I’m currently exploring how to renew what I learn without losing the larger context. More on that in future posts.

Learn More

Speaking of renewal, can you remember all four steps you just read? Close your eyes and try.

Here they are again:

  • Pay attention
  • Get interested
  • Make connections
  • Practice and renew

For more on these basic steps, read Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It, by William Walker Atkinson (1912). You can read it for free here. This book is packed with specific, unique tips on memorizing that I haven’t seen elsewhere.

Or, get a quickstart guide to remembering names.

Posted: Thu, Oct 25, 2012