You want to make lasting changes in your life. You’re tired of trying to make a change only to revert back to your old ways. You’ve come to the right place. I will share a secret with you: When you can learn — really learn something — you’ll be able to make serious changes, and make them last.
A lot of research has been done to discover the fastest, most efficient and longest-lasting way to learn something (at the end of the article you’ll find links to the research), and the key is spaced repetition. If you want to make lasting changes in your life, you need to understand how spaced repetition works.
When you first learn something — either a personal insight or something you read, or you hear someone say something and you think, “If I could remember that, it would change my life” — if you were never exposed to that insight or piece of information again and never recalled it, it would disappear from your memory (or be so difficult to remember it might as well have disappeared). This is the source of our failure to make lasting changes.
For you to integrate an insight into your life, you have to remember it long enough and often enough to make it stick. But if you’ve ever tried to make lasting changes with conventional methods like posting something on your refrigerator or bathroom mirror, you know it doesn’t work. The question is, “Why?”
The answer is simple: Once you’ve seen something several times and your mind knows what it is, you stop noticing it. So it stops reminding you. So you forget it, and if you forget an insight, it has no possibility of helping you make any lasting changes.
You must be exposed to your insights in a way that makes you notice them repeatedly. I’m going to describe five tools I have used to do just that. These are the power tools for making lasting changes: postables, a timeline, audio recordings, Resnooze, and real life. Let’s take them one at a time:
1. Postables. This is a system my wife and I have developed over a period of 25 years. We didn’t mean to develop it; it developed almost by itself, driven by our desire to make lasting changes and our frustration at having to “get” insights repeatedly.
You know what I mean? You get an insight, you know it’s going to change your life, and then a year later, you get an insight and realize you’ve had it before and nothing ever came of it.
Out of this frustration, we put a corkboard in the bathroom and began posting our insights on it. It is an excellent place because we do several things in the bathroom that require no attention. Brushing our teeth, for example. Having useful insights to read made it less boring and didn’t take up any time. We were there brushing our teeth or toweling off after a shower anyway.
But of course, after a very short time, we stopped seeing what was on the corkboard. The mind gets used to something within a few days and then it might as well be a blank wall.
We solved this problem by rotating the insights. I started a file I eventually came to call “postables” and we began to put each insight on a standard sized piece of paper, and then put it in the postables file. Then every day or so, I would pull a couple from the front of the file and post them, and take the two on the board and put them at the back of the file.
In our quest to make lasting changes, this was a breakthrough. It worked so well, we started using it a lot, and the file grew to be enormous, which meant the distance between our exposure to any particular insight began to expand. And it expanded too much — by the time we saw an insight for the second time, we had already forgotten it.
We had discovered by simple practical application what the pioneers in learning research also discovered: There is an ideal distance between exposures. If you’re exposed too often, your mind goes numb and you don’t learn. Your mind knows it just read that yesterday, and it gives the insight no attention.
But if you’re not exposed often enough, you have forgotten the insight and basically have to learn it all over again.
The analogy I have used that seems to really capture the problem is to imagine making a path across a grass-covered meadow. You walk across the meadow on the first day, tramping down the grass slightly. If you looked back immediately after you walked across, you would be able to see your path. But just barely.
If you came back the next day, you wouldn't be able to see your path any more. The grass you tramped down has popped back up.
But let’s say on the first day you went back over your new path several times while it was still visible. The next day you can still see the path a little, and if you do it a few more times, you can probably skip a day and come back and still see the path, and so on. The time in between repetitions can keep increasing with each repetition.
This is analogous to how learning occurs in our minds. Lasting changes can come about IF you can learn and remember your insights. And you remember them best if you employ spaced repetition.
So I changed the way I used our postables file. When I took a new insight off the corkboard, instead of putting it at the back of the file, I put it where it would be posted again only a day or so later. The next time I filed that insight, I put it a little deeper in the stack. And as it became familiar, I put it even deeper, etc.
I didn’t know until recently that scientists had discovered a very precise algorithm for optimal learning, and it looks just like what we figured out from trial and error. You need to space your exposure to an insight closely at first, and farther and farther apart the more exposure you get.
Of the five methods, using spaced repetition with postables is the most powerful (read more about it here). But the other four should not be discounted. They have their uses, and some are easier and might suit you better.
2. Timeline. If you go to an office supply store, you will find file dividers for the days of the month, the months of the year, and future years. You can use a set of these to help you make lasting changes in your life by devoting a file drawer to it. Put the days toward in front, months after that, and years in the back, up to five years in the future.
Once you’ve got it set up, the factor that makes it work is forming the habit of looking at that day’s folder — whatever day it is — every single day without fail. Do this by putting a reminder somewhere in your way so you’ll always see it first thing in the morning.
I always check my email first thing in the morning, so I put my reminder right over the button that turns on my computer. As soon as I push the button, I check my timeline. Today is the 7th, so this morning I pulled out the folder for the 7th, emptied its contents, and put the 7th at the back of the numbers, so the next one in line, right up front, is tomorrow, the 8th.
You can use the timeline to remember personal insights in the same way you can use postables, but with a timeline you can be very precise with your spacing. A new insight you’ve only seen once might go into tomorrow’s file after you read it. Tomorrow, you can decide whether it should go into the next day, or skip a day. You decide by how familiar it feels or by how consistently you’re using the insight in your life.
3. Audio recordings. This is one of my favorite ways to learn. I get bored easily, so I don’t like to drive or wash dishes or stretch (or anything else mindless or repetitive) without listening to something. I record my insights onto a digital recorder and put them on my iPod. I also buy audio books.
People have often commented, “How do you remember that stuff?” We might be talking about something and I will tell them about a study, and I’ll explain it with very specific details — numbers, dates, names, etc. When it happens once, nobody really notices. But when someone has known me for awhile, they will almost always remark that it seems impossible that I remember things so well.
But my memory is not remarkable. It’s just that I have heard that particular piece of information maybe ten times. Without even trying, the information has become very well-established in my memory. Read more about this method here.
4. Real life. Another way to remember an insight is to arrange your environment so it forces you to use or express the insight.
For example, you decide you don’t want to eat sugar any more, so you go through your house and throw away all the stuff with sugar in it. When you go to eat something and you reach for something sweet, you come up empty-handed. You’ve just used real life as a tool to remember.
That’s five tools for making lasting changes in your life. These tools, combined with the principle of gradually increasing the time between exposures to any particular insight or piece of information, can make your insights really stick, and prevent them from fading away.
In all the research I mentioned earlier about learning, this was shown to be one of the few laws of learning: Short spaces between exposures at first — increasing the time gradually between exposures — causes the most learning, the greatest retention, and is the most efficient and permanent way to learn something.
Use this knowledge to make lasting changes in your life. Employ one or more of the five tools and you will notice a dramatic improvement in your ability to learn.
In the past you may have had ten insights for every one that actually had an impact on the way you lived your life. Not any more. You’ll go ten for ten every time.
You have just gotten some new ideas. Will they make any difference to you? Will they change your life? Or will you go on and forget all about it? It depends on how soon you expose yourself to them again. The power is in your hands.
Learn more about the science behind spaced repetition: Spaced repetition in the practice of learning.
And this article has a great graph of the learning principle: Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.