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I am not good on the spot.

If you ask me a question and I’m not expecting it, it’s going to take a long time for you to get the answer you want. I am someone who really needs to think, process, compose, and then slowly speak my thoughts.

This means that when I’m learning something new and I’m expected to perform my new skill or talk about what I just learned, it’s going to be slow going. And I recently got a question from someone in our Popforms email that reminded me of this dilemma:

“I guess I’ve got so much going on, even though I’ve got a lot of great information that I’ve learned about leadership and interaction, I have a hard time remembering it sometimes.

Perhaps you could come up with ways to make it easy to remember when I’m in certain situations to pull out a certain set of skills.”

So what can you do when you learn something new, but you’re afraid you’ll forget it on the spot? Today, a quick and dirty guide to remembering anything.



How memory works and why remembering things is so hard

When we have trouble remembering things, there are two possibilities for why that’s happening. Either we didn’t do a good job cementing the information when we were learning it, or we don’t have a good retrieval strategy for accessing that information later.

They key to remembering things is to have a focused strategy for remembering that thing, and then also creating a retrieval strategy that will allow you to find that information later.

You need to plan out the best way to get the information in *and* how you’ll get the information back out later. Both parts are equally important.

While researching this post, I found an interesting list of concepts on how memory and memorization work:

These are the 11 properties that determine how difficult something is to memorize.

  • Familiarity – How much exposure you have had to it
  • Size – How much there is
  • Order – How logically structured it is
  • Salience – How interesting it is
  • Complexity – How difficult it is
  • Relevance – How useful it is to you
  • Importance – How it will impact your life
  • Immediacy – How soon it is required
  • Abstractness – How conceptual it is
  • Humanness – How relatable it is to the human experience
  • Sensuous – How you perceive it with your senses

And, here are the ways to improve the effectiveness of your memorization strategy based on each property.

  • Familiarity – Review it more frequently
  • Size – Break it down into smaller chunks
  • Order – Restructure it in a way that makes more sense to you
  • Salience – Create a whacky or funny story about it
  • Complexity – Break it down into smaller, simpler steps
  • Relevance – Find how it could be useful in your life
  • Importance – Set a goal/objective
  • Immediacy – Set a deadline
  • Abstractness – Relate it to something that exists around you
  • Humanness – Include it in a story with you as the main character
  • Sensuous – Associate it with another sense (smell, taste, touch, etc.)

I thought this list was so useful because it is a good reminder that not all information is created equal. Just because you can memorize all 50 state capitals doesn’t mean you’ll have the same ease with remembering how to operate a new software tool you just had a tutorial on.

Different kinds of information need to be looked at and remembered in different ways with different strategies.

And don’t forget the power of emotion in helping us remember things. If you’re nervous or stressed or distracted when you’re either trying to remember or recall something, it will affect your ability to grasp that information. Effective remembering skills rely on being able to channel the right tools when you need them.


How to retain huge amounts of information (and recall it later)

We all learn new things all the time. Some of it happens by accident, and some of it happens through careful study, reading, listening, and seeking out courses to help us improve. So how do you make the stuff you really want to learn stick so you can use it later?

Here are some of the best tips:

Learn things when your mind is fresh.

If I’m reading something for work or learning a new skill, I try to schedule these activities for the morning, which is when my mind is most awake and fresh. If you can, try to schedule your learning for whatever time of day your mind is most active. If you can’t schedule the activity around your preferences (like a meeting), then take notes and revisit the information the next time your mind is at peak performance levels.

Take notes.

Writing things down helps cement the information in your mind. The physical act of writing causes you to be deliberate with the information; that is, by choosing what you’re writing down, you’re making the information a part of your thought process.

If you want to *really* make this work, do another note session after the meeting. Write down what you thought the key points were, or how you would explain this process to someone who hadn’t been there. That will help you narrow your focus to what really matters and think through the actual information or process, and again, writing it down will help it stick.

Revisit your notes or material.

When you’re first going over new information, it’s new. You don’t yet have all the context for everything, especially the first few things you read or hear. That’s why revisiting your notes — once you’ve heard everything, asked questions, etc — will help you retain the most information possible. When you reread things you’ve written, having had some time to process and understand the full picture, they are more likely to stick because they’ll be more familiar and logical.

Tell a story to make the information relevant.

One of my favorite things that KateM used to do for me when we started working together was helping me turn complicated management theory into stuff I already knew about. Maybe I’d never fired someone, but I had definitely had fights with friends or situations at school where someone wasn’t pulling their weight on a group project.

Sometimes really technical or out-of-your-normal-reach content can be hard to process because it’s so foreign; our brains have no context for what this stuff means, so it’s harder to hold onto. If you can take the key points and apply it to something you do know about, then you have a framework to hold it in which makes it easier to remember.

Give your brain a rest. Or sleep!

If you’re trying to cram a bunch of information in your brain, any stress or anxiety you have can make it harder to remember everything. Try chunking your work — if you don’t have to have everything memorized by tomorrow morning, break it up into more manageable pieces. Even a 15 minute quiet break can allow your brain to relax and process.

Even better, if you can sleep shortly after your study session, your brain does most of its information filtering and processing when you’re asleep, which means the information you just learned will be at the top of the list to get worked on.

Apply what you’ve learned in real life.

If you’re trying to teach yourself how to do something, mix it up between studying and working hands on. Read a chapter from your book, then try applying the concept. Putting theory into action gives it context and relevance that makes sense, and when things make sense they’re easier to remember.

Use systems to make recall easy.

I am a big fan of acronyms to help remember key information; it might be silly but “Every Good Boy Does Fine” still helps me remember my piano scales from 20 years ago. If you need to remember key details, systems like acronyms and matching concepts to things you already know can work wonders.

Make it interesting.

It might seem obvious, but we’re way more likely to remember information we learn about things we like. Not only does it excite our brains to hear something new-but-familiar, but it’s easier to remember things we already know something about.

If the topic you’re studying seems super boring to you, try to find a way to make it interesting. How does this apply to something you already know? What would get someone excited about this topic? Can you feel excited about that thing?

Realize that remembering brand new stuff is hard, so give it time.

The more brand new something is to your brain, the less likely you are to remember it. So keep that in mind. If you’re trying to remember or learn something that’s not very familiar, try a number of approaching. Give yourself lots of breaks. Write down tons of notes a revisit them, re-word them, and keep making them better until you know you could explain this new idea to someone else correctly without help.


How to confidently apply a new skill

I love learning new things. But trying those new things out in front of others? That can be a little scary, especially when you’re not sure you’ll remember exactly how to do it.

Refresh your knowledge right before you take action.

The more often you review material from a course or conference, the better you’ll remember it. I am always surprised by the realizations and aha moments I’ll have reading over something for the third or fourth time. Even if you don’t have any brand new learnings, though, reviewing your notes can help keep the key points be at the top of your mind when you’re applying your new skill. There’s no shame in refreshing your knowledge; in fact, the better prepared you are, the better you’ll do, which will help the knowledge stick even more through accurate practice.

Set a mission or a quota.

It usually helps to try a new skill in small doses if you can, and setting a mission or quota can help you make sure you practice the skill enough to make it stick. So for example, if you took a course on how to make a great first impression and you have been practicing how to introduce yourself memorable way, set a goal at your next networking event to introduce yourself to 5 people. That way, putting your new habit into practice will be at the front of your mind, which means you’ll be more likely to recall the best things to do, since you won’t be trying to think of them all on the spot.


How to remember names, dates, and all those important details

One of the best things you can do to build strong relationships with people is to remember the things that are important to them. This means details like spouse’s name, kids’ names, weekend plans, important dates like birthdays or big goal milestones, and more. It can be a lot of data to remember, especially if you have a big team, but it is possible.

Write it down and reference it often.

When you’re in 1:1 meetings with people, write down these key details. As long as you’re already got your notebook out to write down the other important things they say, why not make this part of it? Then put it somewhere you’ll remember. KateM and I both use Evernote for this. When you know you’re meeting with this person again the future, scan your notes for the key information so it’s fresh on your mind when you’re talking.

Set calendar appointments for key dates.

If someone is finishing a big project or completing a big goal, make calendar appointments to check in with them. A correctly timed birthday note or “congratulations” email can mean so much to people. It shows you were really listening when they told you, and that you made the time to remember them and reach out. Isn’t it nice when other people remember you were working on something big and offer you encouragement or congratulations? You can spread the same positivity and kindness too.

The key with this information is checking it often so it’s at the top of your mind. Since this isn’t something you’ll be expected to necessarily recite someday, you don’t need to commit a ton of energy to making sure it’s always in your mind. Instead, keep it somewhere easy to access so you have it when you need it.

How do you remember the important information in your world? What do you want to learn that you’ve been struggling to apply?

Tags: growth, information, Learning, Strategy, thinking,

4 Responses to “How to be smarter and retain more of the information you consume”

  1. Martin (Chaim)

    This is so dead-on.
    Really integrating new knowledge into your mind can be a laborious process. Your ideas struck a chord with me; I’ve had some of these ideas on my own, but you’ve definitely expanded that process for me.

    Especially for systematic learners, this kind of information consumption can be exhilarating but challenging. We want to completely process a piece of information, to fit it into the puzzle that includes every other piece of information we’ve ever learned — and sometimes this doesn’t jive with the rest of the world, especially when you’re expected to quickly spit back out the new information
    To us, we haven’t even finished learning it!

    • Kate Stull

      I can totally relate! Context is so important for me to understand things too, so I have definitely felt like I am falling behind while I’m still trying to sort all the puzzle pieces of new information into their specific spot in my mind. :)

      My best advice for this, if you’re working with a team, is to communicate that as much as possible to the people around you so their expectations are clear. Most people are willing to provide context and lots of examples, if they know it will be helpful to you — they just have to know that’s what makes things make sense for you. And if you can’t communicate with the teacher (if you’re at a big conference, say) then I find taking lots of notes and blocking off time later that day to think, “Okay, what does this really mean” can help speed it up.

      Thanks for your note! :)

  2. astrid vermeer

    Thank you for this post. This is exactly one of those areas I am struggling with. Fortunately, the majority of the tips and solutions you’re providing have been successfully applied by me in the past.

    I still haven’t cracked how to deal with being called on the spot. That is one area I would want to improve over time.

    • Kate Stull

      I’m so glad the post was helpful! :) I suck at being called on the spot, but one thing I do to help is to remind myself to go slow. If you remember you can take time to think — or even as a clarifying question, which almost always helps — then you can kind of compose yourself, think through some ideas, and come up with one valuable thing to say. I also try to always study the topic at hand before I go somewhere that I might be expected to speak up, just in case, so I can have 1-2 things fresh on my mind. Hope that helps. :)