A plan for learning especially when you have (almost) no free time

I wrote this emergency plan for myself in preparation for prolonged periods of little/no free time, and I figured other people might benefit from this, so, after some adjustments, here it is.
It also would be great if you could add any thoughts you might have about the plan and the general subject.

Assumption: you have all the time you need to do your job well and to take good care of yourself (sleep, eat, exercise, interpersonal interactions, other personal needs) and of your personal responsibilities (family, bureaucracy, whatever), but no other time for any hobby or small side thing.

(These are some scenarios I have in mind when this might occur)

You have a normal job and some other major thing going on, like: a side job, a long and tiring commute, someone in your care that requires continuous attention (like a baby or a disabled relative), some medical condition, some other activity that has to take all your free time (like volunteering, an agonistic sport, where you can’t cut down the hours). These are your priority, but you may find yourself in need of some extra knowledge - to improve your career, to better care for your loved ones/yourself/others, for some other practical purpose, or really just because you crave some more understanding/knowledge or extra mental activity. So…

Question: what is the best way to go about learning things in this context?

Here is my idea of what could help.

If you are not yet in the no-free-time period, you can prepare in advance:

  • Make a list of your routine idle moments (when you can more actively think, memorize, or read) and movement moments (when you can be listening to a podcast/audiobook/lecture, or even think a little bit too)
  • Prepare palaces:
    • Make a list of all the memory palaces from places you already visited, with all their locations
    • Prepare a list of the kinds of memory palaces that you could easily build in a minute
    • Have ready a bunch of materials for making handheld memory devices which you can build one piece at a time in your idle moments.
    • Prepare a few palaces for only temporary storage
  • Prepare for what you want to learn:
    • Make a list of the things you want to learn most (books, lectures, lists of names, etc)
    • Make characters/images of the main concepts/things in the subjects you’re interested in (ex: countries, elements, authors, laws of physics, body systems), either building on what you already know about them or just on the name, and place them in their palace (so later when you will learn new things you’ll just have to attach the new knowledge there where it belongs)
  • Prepare a calendar on which you can write a couple lines per day (physical or virtual, whichever is easiest to access)
  • Do now as if you already were in the no-free-time period, and note any adjustment you can make to improve the process (of course if you have a lot of extra time now you can learn more and in different ways, but keep things separate: the stuff you learn for your no-free-time testing should be different from the stuff you work on in the real free time you still have now.)

If you are in the no-free-time period:

  • In case you had no preparation time and skipped the previous part, now what you really need is: a calendar, a quick way to make palaces, a book/audiobook, and some moments in your day during which you can do the activities below
  • During the movement moments:
    • Listen to stuff you want to learn from. (Remember that you can go slower or pause.)
  • Either during idle moments or during movement moments (depends on preference and context):
    • Recognize the main points you want to remember (Main points = whatever the lecturer thinks are the main points + things you could use in real life + things you might help others with + your personal epiphanies from the lecture. Leave out everything else)
    • Convert them to some good memorable image/story.
    • Put them in their palace (If their palace is not ready yet, put them in a temporary one and later today transfer them to the final one.)
  • During the idle moments:
    • Write in the calendar a title for what you read/listened to today and where you stored it
    • Look up on the calendar what you learned yesterday and where you stored it, and review it
    • Also do this for the day it was one week ago, one month ago, three months ago, one year ago, and then once a year forever (adjust times as needed)
    • Mark the thing you reviewed so you know you’ve done that. If you reviewed something from a year ago, write it again on the current day marking it for yearly review.
    • If you skipped the review yesterday, do it for yesterday too (and any day you might have skipped)
    • Prepare your next palace (build it or, if pre-made, just go through its locations so it’s ready for use)
    • Read if you have extra time
    • If you forgot something, that’s fine, think why might that be, fix the reason for the future if possible, and move on.

Here are more details in case they’re useful:

Special cases when time doesn't exactly fit the plan
  • If you don’t actually have enough time to take reasonable care of your job/self/responsibilities → you should focus on how you can improve the situation
  • If you tend to fall behind in reviews but have time for listening → review while re-listening (maybe at double speed)
  • If you don’t have time for reviews and feel rushed → take a break - just listen for some time to something interesting you don’t care to memorize, don’t worry, and review anything missing once you have time. Get back to the routine only once you feel it’s okay.
  • If this is way too much for your actual spare moments → just memorize lists of things/facts, one bit of information at a time (like: one item every three days), but still use some places for storing and a calendar for reviews.
    • Favor things that you might encounter in real life so later you can build on them spontaneously. Ex: if you talk about music with your friends, memorize all the titles of Verdi’s operas; if you hear about sports from your colleagues, memorize all Champions League winners; if you like thinking about philosophy, memorize a list of philosophers.
Other small adjustments
  • You can reuse the same palace, attaching new things on things that are already there, but at some point it will get overcrowded. Experiment with what level of crowdedness you feel comfortable with.
  • You never listen to chapters/lectures beginning-to-end, but usually start from somewhere in one lecture and end up somewhere else in another lecture. That’s okay, just write down what is the chapter once you finish it (so it’s easier for later reviews), but don’t wait too long for reviewing the first part even if you didn’t finish it.
  • When you review something after one year, it’s probably a good idea to make things more compact at this point, like, if you learned the chemical elements over a month’s period, now after the first year, instead of writing entries like “chem el 11-18: frozen section at closest supermarket” on each day, you just write “periodic table: closest supermarket and park” on one of those days.
  • Learning something one day practically means that you are committing for some time in the next few days to review it, but your actual spare moments vary a lot over different days. So maybe if you have some extra spare moments one day you can just do something else, just to be kind and avoid overwhelming your future self.
Examples of idle moments
  • At work: waiting for someone’s answer that’s blocking your immediate task, waiting for something to process/compile/load/start, during breaks (if you work at a desk you must get up and look away one minute every 20-30 minutes anyway, and take a much longer break every few hours).
  • At home: waiting for the microwave, waiting on the phone
  • Other: when on a line, waiting anywhere safe, commuting
Examples of movement moments
  • At work: whenever the task is more manual and less mental (carrying light boxes, driving, etc)
  • At home: doing laundry, cooking, cleaning, exercising
  • Other: daily walk/run, commuting
More on palaces
  • Palaces already experienced:
    • Non-spatial: songs, real stories, fictional stories
    • Spatial: houses, public buildings, walks, video-games, objects
  • Palaces you could build in a minute:
    • Artworks: paintings, statues
      • Example: Monna Lisa: veil, eye, nose, mouth, neck, dress, drape, sleeve, hands, chair, wall, road, rocks, water, sky.
      • Just the quick act of identifying the places will make them easy to remember. You can go more or less in detail whatever is easiest for you.
      • Make your books on art easily accessible, make a list of sites that have varied artworks
    • Ads or pictures on magazines might work too.
  • Palaces to physically build: lukasa, bracelet
    • Keep next to your desk a bunch of stones, cardboard pieces, glue, beads, objects, strings, markers
  • Palaces for temporary storage:
    • Hands, body, pegs
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Beautiful! Preparation and predetermination are the open secret to most success.

I’m curious:

Why do you categorize songs as non-spatial? How do you experience them mentally that excludes their inherently spatial nature?

Interesting plan. I hope many people find it useful.

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Thank you!

That sounds interesting, in what way can a song be considered spatial?

The way I use the palaces that I classified as spatial is that I go through them mentally as if moving in space: whether I only imagine the locations as a concept or I actually see something of them in my mind, I always have the feeling that somehow I’m moving through space.

For stories and songs, I consider them sequences of pegs, like people use the alphabet. They are just an abstract sequence of detached scenes or objects that I remember, and I would go through them not as if in space but just one by one as they are ordered.
I should probably note that I would use songs the same way as I would use poetry, that is, using only lyrics and not the music (I don’t know how to build associations between sound alone and other things if not with rote repetition).

For example, if I want to use the following lyrics:
“Emerald thoughts flow through my consciousness
Drawn to curses left behind
Test of will the threshold to one’s faith
Starts a fire in the mind”
Then I will assign an image per line: emeralds, cornicello (for curses), cross (for faith), fire.
So when I need to remember a sequence of words, like: crash, sunrise, essay, plant.
Then I will imagine, one at a time and unrelated to each other: some emeralds crashing, a hot cornicello rising instead of the sun, a cross used as if it were a pen, a fire that produces plants instead of burning them.
So when later I’ll need the information, I will separately think about each line, which will bring up its object, which will bring up the word I need. And all this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with space to me.

Thank you! I hope so!

Excellent and thought-provoking plan… I think for any plan to work it needs to be workable when you have almost no free time, so this is an ideal approach. Some things I’d like to hear more of your thoughts about:

1) Distinguishing between permanent and temporary memory palaces.
I have one temporary palace for a specific purpose, but the rest of mine are all permanent, and all sequential – fourteen of my past residences. I’ve made them the permanent ones because they form a single sequence, but I’m wondering if you have further thoughts on which places are better for one use or the other.

2) Choosing material for memorization.
I’m torn between the idea of loci as an always temporary step on the way to permanent memorization and the idea of loci as a permanent dwelling place for the reminders of the things I want to have available to me at all times. But if some of the loci are really permanent, what your thoughts on deciding what to put in them?

3) Avoiding pileups and confusion.
You describe a spaced-repetition approach that involves using a calendar system to manage the periodicity of reviews. I don’t think I could use it as described because a) it would become too difficult to figure out what to repeat on a given day, and b) given my tendency to defer things, there would quickly be a pile-up of all the “today” things in combination with the deferred things… You’ve described some adjustments that seem very helpful (compacting references over time, reducing the flow of new information, reviewing during “listening” time), but I’m wondering if you have come across any additional ways to manage the complexity of the repetitions and avoid pileups from deferred study…

Mostly, though, just writing to say thanks very much for the thought-provoking post!

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Thank you @misterbarky!

And very interesting questions!

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I think it depends on the uses you have for it: there are temporary things one needs to retrieve quickly but has time to store well (ex: speeches), others that one needs to store quickly but has more time to retrieve later (ex: main points in a meeting), and others that have no rush in either storage or retrieval (ex: shopping list). And then it depends on what places you can most easily access in your mind for either retrieval or storage.
Oh and if you get multiple temporary palaces, I think it’s a good idea to dedicate each of them to specific kinds of uses, so that, for example, you don’t mistakenly bring up your shopping list when you’re about to give a short speech (both temporary but very different contexts).

For quick storage, I always use my hands (if I need more, then I can extend with arms and the rest).
At some point I was prepared to use a lot more spots on my hand (front and back, all joints, spaces, veins and lines) but whenever I’m in a hurry I always end up using only the fingers. I think it would be similar with any other palace, that one would end up using only the loci that can be accessed very quickly in this case.
I feel like the hands are particularly good for this because (a) they are impossible to forget and are always immediately there; and (b) to store things there, I can mostly use the feeling of touch, which doesn’t interfere much when I’m talking with someone - while if I had to imagine something visually, that might take away my attention from someone’s face or gestures (or the path ahead if I’m walking).
I also find that to imagine more complex scenes (which is more likely to happen when I’m not in a hurry), it is easier to use a locus in a room, where the scene has more variety around it to interact with, and has reasons to be or not be there - all very useful details for remembering more long term.

For learning, ideally I’d prefer to skip the passage of memorizing in the temporary space, because if later I have to transfer things to their permanent location, then I might as well do it right away without the extra step. The only catch here is that if the memorization has to be fast then it’s easier to do it in a well-known palace rather than one I’ve never used, so I have to balance those two considerations depending on context.

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In general:

  • For achieving permanent memorization, my understanding is that it is impossible without review: if the review comes in the form of some sort of re-elaboration/repetition/application of the knowledge through life, then it’s much better and the loci can be freed, otherwise you just need to have some place from which you can retrieve it and review it.
  • When you put it that way - like: right now I’m committing this locus to be filled with this information forever - well, that does feel quite daunting… That’s why I like the idea of using things like lukasas and paintings: because there are so many and they are spaces I didn’t have before so I’m not afraid to waste them!
  • For deciding what to put in them, if you have time for chunking (aggregating information), then you can use less space, and I tend to like that option better also because this way I’d start with a better understanding of things already. If you don’t have much time, or are given information only little by little, then you just have to use more space. But even then, if you keep the memorizing and reviewing, then concepts will spontaneously come together in the end and you won’t lose precious connections anyway - i.e., you learned A a month ago and now you’re learning B, during which you came across A’ which is connected to A: if you have not already forgotten A, you’ll recognize they are connected even if they are stored in different places. And actually, you could decide to store A’ together with A now and maybe set a reminder in the current locus to look over there for A’.
  • For major subjects you are interested in, I like the idea of having a palace that holds their main principles/concepts/branches/objects (you need to know what they are in advance). So whenever you learn a little something about them you can attach the new information there, without the need of a new locus, aggregating information as you learn it, and with a more meaningful storage place for it. I just started this one, we’ll see how it goes.

My experience:

  • In school I used to make great schemas and summaries that had all the knowledge connected in the right way so I would need to remember the least amount of things possible and everything else would follow with reasoning. This worked well in college, but now I usually start out making great schemas for the first few chapters and then end up reading/listening through the rest just for understanding, without any attempt at retaining anything.
  • So, since I feel like I have more space than time now - plus precious memory abilities previously unknown to me - my plan is to do the exact opposite: chapter by chapter, just memorize a few main things in some place, putting them together whenever possible but not wasting time on that, and that’s it. The most important connections will come together on their own if I just make the effort of not forgetting everything. Leaving out all other details feels forced and wrong to me, but I get around this feeling by thinking that I would forget them anyway so I might as well embrace reality and use it to my favor.
  • At some point I did have some time though and for example I read a book, made a quick-ish good throwaway schema with the most important information for each chapter, then used it to connect the chapters that I could connect most easily, and to make a mind map of each of the five big main concepts I was left with. Then I stored each map in a single location within a pub I had been to recently (I only went there once ever. I did take some quick pictures around, but that’s not necessary). Each locus doesn’t contain just an image, but a whole little story with a bunch of details which remind me of all the interconnected concepts. This is really nice to have but definitely takes a lot more time than if I just had used a lot more space.

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I started a bit more than a year ago to keep a review schedule and realized it was the main thing I was missing to not completely forget things (and this is before I was able to comfortably use memory techniques!). I had to pause everything a few months ago so I grabbed the occasion to optimize it for me within the new plan.

These are things I considered when re-thinking it:

  • I used to write the whole finished book/course at once in the calendar, instead of going by chapter as is my plan now. After finishing it, I had to schematize/map/review it all first, because by then I would forget about good parts of the beginning and middle sections (even if it took me just a couple weeks to finish). That’s an option to keep in mind if you prefer it (making things compact from the start), and it works well, but it’s only easy for books while it’s hard for audiobooks (it’s better if you are provided with a written outline/summary/guidebook of the audiolectures, but still for me it’s not at all the same). Another option that could work for both cases is to write down what you want to remember at the end of every chapter, then put it all together once you finished so you can review everything at once. If I do this I’ll end up overthinking and either spontaneously start (and never finish) my wonderful time-sinking schemas, or write down too much (and might never go back to review it), so my tentative solution now is to memorize directly without writing, which should keep things going. But I don’t see a reason why that option shouldn’t work for some other people.
  • I often shifted the review day, even by a very long time, but it always turned out fine anyway. I tried to review just in my mind first and then checked with what was written: I never missed major things, and for the smaller things that I forgot, I either accepted that they weren’t that important to me, or tried to remember them for the next time (which usually worked). But the larger the amount of things to review at once, the more likely I was to delay the review, so this is something to consider against compacting things too much at the beginning.
  • I used the doubling time (1 day, 2 days, 4 days, etc), which has more total reviews and I think a more complex algorithm to follow (I had my own version where I’d just write down when is the next review day for each item - still not straightforward). If you do 1 day, 1 week etc, assuming your agenda has one page (or two pages) per week, then you just need to keep five bookmarks that will change page all together at the end of the week. I approximate 1 month ~ 4 weeks, 3 months ~ 13 weeks, and 1 year ~ 52 weeks, so you always have to review things you learned the same day of the week. So it’s easier to keep track of it, and if you are usually busier/freer one specific day of the week, then that one day will normally have lighter/heavier reviews too.

As a general tip, I think I will try to say to myself everyday: “look, if you weren’t doing this, you wouldn’t remember anything anyway, so you might as well just review this little thing today, even if you don’t do it well at all, and then if you actually have time you can also do it tomorrow, or maybe not, and no one cares, ok?!” I think that should work for me.
I guess I’ll have to write some update in a few years!

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Wanted to thank you for the thorough reply, and let you know I’m digesting it at leisure before responding :slight_smile:

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