Beating a trail - The value of repetition

I value effective memorization techniques. I don’t care for rote. I like memorizing a long list all at once. The techniques make my memories hold fast, quicker, for longer. However, by experience I found that without repetition, it doesn’t matter what technique I used–the memory won’t stick well.

I’m not one to memorize digits upon digits just because I can. There are many things I want to know, so I must be careful with my time to make sure the things I want to learn and remember, I do learn and remember. Not only do I want to remember them, but I want to use them. So, I tend to focus on memorizing things that I do not want to forget.

I love memorizing. But I hate reviewing. Reason? I always have too much to review. Therefore, I never feel like reviewing. It compounds: I memorize new material, review insufficiently, forget it, then spend all my time reviewing what I’ve memorized before. So, the art of memory felt counterproductive.

Finally I determined, do the bulk of the review up-front.

I learn Greek and Hebrew, and both languages are difficult because they are not native to me, and I learn the original Biblical versions, so there’s no conversational practice. Because of my own stage in the languages, I decided that when I learned material, I would repeat it no less than 100 times. Since I have a 35-minute drive to work, and I can find scattered other moments throughout the day, this is doable. I aim for 25 repetitions in one day. If I have a section of 25 verses, it may take only 4 days to review and embed if I do it right.

And what do you know, the passage holds fast in memory!

And the greater part? The Greek and Hebrew integrate into my long-term memory, and so when I move to another section to memorize it is not as difficult. The languages become naturalized. I find too that a quick on-the-fly translation into English comes rather naturally too.

So, beating down the path on one section makes future memorization much easier.

Repetition is the grooving of a path. You walk a trail, at first you leave no trace. After ten walks, you might leave a noticeable faded trail, which will reverse within a short time. But if you walk that trail multiple, multiple times, the trail could remain for years. Because you’ve walked it so many times, nothing new grows in the hardened soil, so maintenance of the trail itself will take little effort from now on.

Life rewards us mainly in one pattern: work now, reward later. Many successes comes as a matter of heavy front-loading. Years of education are needed before one is ready to be productive in society. Years of experience are needed before one becomes a successful business owner. Mastery is a matter of volume as well as quality of effort. So it is with retention. Mastery is simply accumulated memory.

So with things that you wish to remember, and to never forget.

But once you have a hardened path down, you now have a base for other paths. When you’ve beaten down one trail, you can form another, always taking the original as a given. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then another.

Don’t spurn repetition. It should be foundational for things you want to master. And the more basic the knowledge is, the more essential. All else you learn in a field will build on your skill in the basics. But if the basics are mastered, then future mastery will come quicker, and is more likely to stick. You are fastening in hard all the pegs for future memories.

Compound interest. A few small deposits up front will yield little interest. A few large deposits early enough will generate increasingly larger returns. That’s how returns work in investing. That’s how knowledge works as well. There is little excitement up front as you make your large deposits and then wait long and hard for growth to kick in; but kick in it will, and you will thank yourself for having been so patient.

Enjoy the beaten path!


Research has actually shown that reviewing shortly before forgetting forms a stronger neural connection than simply repeating over and over and over… you have to give yourself a chance to almost forget first. Check research to anything related to “spaced repetition”.



Quite true. It is not (as) effective for me to have done a round of repetition only once in a day. The results are better if I do a few rounds of review in a single day. So I might do ten repetitions on the way to work, and maybe another fifteen in scattered parts throughout the day. Even then, after about a week it’s good to repeat the memorized passages a few times. Give the path a few more good stomps.

And of course there are optimal times. Like you said, right when you are about to forget it. The way my day usually goes (work and family, many duties to attend to), I don’t always have time to review at the optimal moment to review.

My central point though is that the memory work will be wasted effort if you do not do rounds of recall. You end up with an enormous list of things to review, and you can’t review anything all that well because you never took the time to cement the memory in the first place. Thus you get frustrated, thus your review sessions are counterproductive, and you conclude that memory techniques don’t work. Such front-loading of review as we are talking about here is necessary if you want the memory to stick.

What you’ve added is how to do it effectively, and I agree with you.