How To Remember Better

by Stephen Mills on May 5, 2009


Here are some tips on how to remember what you read and learn better.  These are based upon current brain science.

20 Minute Sessions

Your hippocampus will fill up after about 20 minutes and needs a break to organize and store the information.  So every 20 minutes take a 5 minute break.  During your break, move your body and relax your mind.  You may be able to go up to 40 minutes in a session, but after that learning and recall go into the toilet.  If you stretch your session to 40 minutes, take a 10 minute break.

The 10 Minute Spike

Your recall improves during the first 10 minutes after reading something.  In other words, if you took a test on what you read immediately after 20 minutes of reading, your recall would be worse than if you waited 10 minutes and then took the same test.  Recall peaks around 10 minutes following the end of a learning or reading session.  You can make use of this fact by attempting to recall the information with a technique like recall trees which is described below.  So for example, you to read for 20 minutes, take a 10 minute break, and then create a recall tree or otherwise review the material.  Review the material after you attempt to recall from memory so you can fill in what you missed.  This process will help maximize your long-term recall ability.

Before You Go to Bed, As Soon As You Wake Up

The two very best times to learn something for subsequent recall are immediately before going to sleep and immediately after waking up.  These peak periods last 20 to 30 minutes.  A good approach is to spend 20 minutes learning right before bed, then wait 10 minutes and recall and review it.  Go to sleep immediately following the recall and review.  Alternatively you might just read something you want to remember for 30 minutes right before going to sleep.  Be sure you get 7 to 9 hours of sleep for maximum mental performance every day!  Sleep is absolutely key to the organization and consolidation of memory.

The Beginning and the End

You remember the beginning and the end of a learning session much better than the middle.  So bunch the most important facts at the beginning and the end of the session.  There is a significant dip in the recall of information from the middle of your learning session.

Learn to Understand Not to Remember

This is key.  When you are trying to learn something, focus on understanding and not remembering.  Understanding creates associations with existing knowledge and makes for much more powerful recall.  Learning to understand makes your brain wake up and get excited.  It becomes an active participant rather than a bored recipient.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Recall and review the information in the following intervals for maximum long-term recall:

  • 10 minutes
  • 24 hours
  • 1 week
  • 1 month
  • 6 months

If you do this consistently, you will remember magnitudes more information than you would have otherwise remembered.

Use a Recall Tree

This is a powerful memory technique.  After you learn something or read something you want to remember, recall it organized in a recall tree with keywords.  Focus on keywords and not narration.  Draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper and draw a series of branches off of this main line.  Expand each branch into the appropriate number of smaller branches, just like a branching tree.  You draw a new sub-branch for each idea that derives from the main branch.  You end up with a branching tree with each branch containing a key word or very short phrase written on it.   It’s very much like a mind map.  It’s an organized way of recalling and grouping the information.

Once you have done this from memory, review the information and fill in your recall tree with ideas or groupings that you missed during recall.  The recall tree will be a powerful method of quickly reviewing and recalling the information in your later repetitions.  Try to reproduce it from memory 24 hours later.

Recall and organization is far more powerful than just rote repetition.  Let’s say you have two hours to learn some written material.  If you spend 30 minutes reading it and 90 minutes recalling and filling in the gaps by reviewing, you will learn and recall far more than just 120 minutes of reading and rereading.

Create Associations With Existing Knowledge

This may be the most important one of all and it is closely tied with the learning to understand tip above.  If you can relate new information to something you already know, you will improve your ability to recall it by many magnitudes.  That existing knowledge is permanent and easily recalled.  If you associate new knowledge to it, the new knowledge is organized and recalled much easier.  You have a pre-existing path directly to it.  As just one illustration, try to come up with personal exmples of how something you are learning applies in your own life.  If you can think of an example where this happened to you or makes sense of some experience you have had, you will be creating an association with something you already know.  Always try to relate new information to existing knowledge that is already in an easy recall path.  You will end up with a memory on steroids!

Visualize and Imagine

Paint, in your mind, vivid pictures of what you are learning.  The more exaggerated you make them the better.  Use bright and deep colors.  Imagine texture and get all of your senses involved.  Try to touch, taste, smell, and hear in addition to seeing.  Create a mental movie that puts the information into a story if you can.  Your brain loves stories and works in pictures.  Humans are story tellers by nature and thus we have a natural ability to remember and understand information in story form.

Variety is Key

When you repeat, try to create variations on the angle you are taking to the information.  Repeating the exact same thing over and over is not the most optimum way to learn.  Your brain gets easily bored with repetition and will quickly shut down.  Further, when you take a slightly different angle, you are creating multiple paths and associations to the same concept.

You can study written text for example by reading it.  Then you can recall it and organize it into a recall tree or mind map.  Next you can think of multiple examples of how you can relate this to your personal experience.  The more and greater variety of examples you can come up with the better.  If you have no personal experience that can be applied, try to imagine how you might relate it to something in the future or how it applies to someone else that you know.

You can explain the material or teach it to someone else.   Teaching is an extremely powerful way to learn something.  You can draw a picture.  You can read it out loud.  This creates a vocal and auditory dimension to your learning experience.  You can write out key concepts by hand.  All of these techniques reinforce the material in slightly different ways.

The same thing applies to learning and remembering physical activity.  Think about bike riding.  If you learned to ride a bike on a circular track and that’s all you ever did, you would actually not be a very good bike rider on or off the track.  It is much better to ride your bike in as many varied environments and terrain as you can.  Strangely enough this will improve your ability to ride your bike around the track.  You brain creates many more connections and can draw on a lot more brain power to provide optimal performance on the track, if it has experience off the track in other environments.

Emotions Make Memories Better

Emotions, especially positive ones, release chemicals in your brain that make your memories stronger, easier to recall, and longer lasting.  Some negative emotions such as sadness also make strong memories.  Adrenaline associated with good or bad emotions strengthens memories.

To enhance you learning and memory, generate a positive emotional state just prior to learning something new.  Doug Bench calls this “Triggering a Thunderstorm” of emotion.  I love the way that sounds.  I suggest loving-kindness or mindful meditation.  Laughing is an excellent way to improve your brain function.  Do whatever you want to generate positive emotions.  The more intense and visual the better.

What do you think?  Leave a comment below. Get Free Updates to The Rat Race Trap by Email here or via a reader in the top left sidebar.  I would love to have you on board.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills May 5, 2009 at 9:43 pm

Hi Stephen,

You know, the recall tree reminds me of a mind map. Perhaps this explains why a mind map makes it so easy to fully grasp complex concepts. As far as time and focus goes, I knew I needed more breaks, now I understand why. Excellent post.


Lea May 6, 2009 at 12:25 am

I never knew this. I was surprised to read about 20 minutes before bed being a peak time. For me that was when I felt rather brain dense. Interesting information. Thank you for sharing 🙂


Roger | A Content Life May 6, 2009 at 7:11 am


Wow! This is another great post. Twittered and Stumbled.

I also sent it to my son who attends college and is studying for finals now!


Vin | May 6, 2009 at 8:19 am

Great tips! I especially like “Learn to Understand Not to Remember.” I don’t have the greatest memory but notice that I remember things much better when it’s based on an understanding of a concept rather than a simple fact.

I also noticed that my memory improved significantly after improving my diet.


Tracy May 6, 2009 at 8:28 am

I had no idea about the 10 minute strike. Interesting stuff.


Annette Colby, PhD May 6, 2009 at 8:47 am

Hi Stephen,

Another great article!

When I was earning my degrees, I quickly realized the truth of the old adage about breakfast being the most important meal of the day. In addition, eating while studying, and eating before an exam was helpful to boost memory retention and memory recall.

Many studies have found that children who eat breakfast have better scores in mental performance compared with those who did not. Additonal studies suggest this is also true for seniors.

On waking in the morning, the body has been without fuel for many hours. Breakfast provides the fuel that the body needs for a myriad of tasks, including those that rely on memory.


Dragos Roua May 6, 2009 at 11:59 am

Fantastic and very useful. I felt again like I was in my twenties when I was studying for my degree. I wish I knew all you’ve outlined here at that time, it would have been a huge time saver. I remember that I have to learn at least 2-3 books in 2-3 days for each exam and I had like 15 exams in one session.

Once again, very good stuff, thanks for making it public 🙂


Debby Bruck May 9, 2009 at 7:28 pm

Stephen ~ thanks for following me on twitter. That’s how I meet the most amazing and interesting people. I check out what each person has to offer before I follow back. In your case, everyone is all STARS and THUMBS UP.

I have also Stumbled this article. As we age we need to utilize these techniques to increase our brain power and memory. I’ll check back again to see what else you have to share with us.

in health,


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