Become a Better Learner (Part 2): Why we forget important information & How to *actually* remember

READ TIME: 5 minutes

Something terribly embarrassing happened to me a few months ago and, naturally, I need to tell you about it.

I was at my local post office mailing a birthday present in a large box. The postman asked for my street address, which I rattled off instinctively. Then he asked for my zip code, and I completely blanked.

I’ve lived in the same house for 2 whole years with the same zip code, but I just couldn’t remember. I sheepishly pulled out my phone to look it up, and the gentleman said, “Ma’am, I just need your personal zip code.”

Red-faced, I tried to recover by clumsily responding, “Oh, it’s just we’re moving and I want to give you my new zip code…”, which was clearly a fib since I already recited my street address.

It was a mess. I was embarrassed. But worse, I was seriously worried about my memory loss. I went home and did some research — purposely avoiding WebMD lest I be diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer — and found out that I’m fine, but my brain could clearly use a break.


“Is my brain broken?”

In my previous post, I gave science-backed tips for remembering what you read. I did a disservice by not clarifying that forgetting information is a positive function of a properly working brain. If you forget information, you’re not only normal but healthy.

Why you forget info

The brain, when functioning properly, forgets up to 98% of the information learned within one month. (Source: Will Thalheimer, How Much Do People Forget?)

Just imagine if you remembered everything you ever observed. Processing all of that information and sorting it in your mental filing cabinet would take so much energy, you might literally see steam coming out of your ears. You wouldn’t be able to sleep. And you wouldn’t be able to focus on what ACTUALLY matters to you as an individual.

So, I think we should all thank our brains for their intrinsic ability to forget.


Moving right along…

Why you forget important info

If you forget important things — like your home zip code for the past 2 years — you may be overloading your brain with extraneous information. As the world-renowned neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf says:

“Quantity [of information] without quality can actually damage the brain. Quantity plus quality engages the brain in a different way, producing…healthy effective changes.”


The brain is like a car. A car requires fuel to get you to a destination. Similarly, the brain requires information to help you reach a conclusion. A car doesn’t run better if you fill up the gas tank and then bathe the car in fuel, yet that’s what we’re doing to our brains increasingly in this digital era we live in. You bathe your brain in too much information when you require that it observes & remembers all kinds of things that aren’t truly important to your life. This looks like:

  • Googling everything you can’t remember

  • Scrolling social media, news websites, etc.

  • Reading without focusing

The alternative to information baths

There’s a mentally healthy way to live in today’s times without becoming a tinfoil hat wearing cavewoman.

We have to allow our brains to naturally discard what doesn’t matter and intentionally focus on what does. We need to budget mental bandwidth for pondering and wondering.

The 3 Most Effective Tools to Build your Memory

1. Sleep

Arianna Huffington, co-founder of HuffPost, wrote a book titled The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night At A Time. The woman runs a BILLION DOLLAR company. If she’s advocating a revolution of how we view & value sleep, we ought to pay attention. In her book she writes:

“One of the most important recent findings is that sleep is essentially like bringing in the overnight cleaning crew to clear the toxic waste proteins that accumulate between brain cells during the day.”

Arianna Huffington

Sleep allows the brain to clear out the waste, so we have new space to learn.

Research is unclear about whether sleep is required for the transfer of short-term memories into long-term memories, but what’s clear is that proper sleep (7-9 hours per night) is necessary for overall brain function, which makes memories readily accessible.

Are you getting 8 hours of sleep per night?


2. Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is a proven learning technique you probably used during grade school. I could butcher the explanation but instead let’s learn from James Gupta, writing for The Guardian, in which he says:

“A simple way to do spaced repetition is to use flashcards organised into a box. Set up a schedule for when you will review the cards in each of the sections in your box. If you answer a card correctly, you put it into a section that you will revisit less frequently in the future, whereas if you get the answer wrong, you move the card into a section scheduled for frequent visits.”

James Gupta, Spaced repetition: a hack to make your brain store information

I’m practicing spaced repetition with vocabulary words this year. Since January, I’ve memorized 140 new words with a 93% accuracy rate. It works!

3. Testing Your Memory

The final factor in building your memory is to test what you remember before looking up the answer. As explained by Dr. Art Markman in Psychology Today:

“Ideally, you start with some learning experience. Perhaps you go to a lecture or read an article. Then, rather than just looking over the material again some time later, actually give yourself a test. Ask yourself questions about the material you are learning and try to formulate your own answer. When you are tested on that material again later, your performance will be better than if you just looked the material over again and thought about it.”

Art Markman, PhD, Test Yourself to Learn Better

Let’s try this out right now. What’s the last book or news article you read? What was the main point? If you remember, you learned it. If you don’t, go back to the book or website to relearn it.

Remember, the goal is to learn quality over quantity. Once quality of learning is fine-tuned, the proper quantity will follow suit.

“Quantity [of information] without quality can actually damage the brain.  Quantity plus quality engages the brain in a different way, producing…healthy effective changes.”  Dr. Caroline Leaf, Think, Learn, Succeed

cheers to forgetting!

After reading this information, I hope you’re more relaxed about that time you forgot your own zip code... (Hopefully that wasn’t just me.) Give yourself grace to forget the majority of what you observe, because obviously it doesn’t matter. And for the things that DO MATTER, you can remember them better through proper sleep, spaced repetition, and testing your memory.

Cheers to forgetting what doesn’t matter & holding on to what does!

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Written with love,

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