Memory jar

Imagine you spend hours learning a new skill only to forget it days later. Unfortunately, that’s highly likely thanks to the way our brains are wired. Forgetting what you’ve learned doesn’t just waste time (as you have to relearn lost skills). It can also reduce your confidence, cause costly mistakes, and lead to missed career opportunities. 

But it doesn’t have to be like that. There are many ways to remember your learning. Particularly because we’re hardwired to remember details that are vital to our survival (like dangerous routes home, foods to avoid, people, and things that are important in our lives). We also tend to remember things that trigger strong emotions like fear, relief, and surprise. 

It’s also worth mentioning the forgetting curve. This concept, developed by Hermann Ebbinghaus through many memory experiments, found that memories weaken over time. When we learn something new, we quickly forget it. And that translates to 90% of new skills forgotten within a month. By understanding how our brains learn and forget information, we can devise some ‘hacks’ to remember new skills. 

Hack 1: Reinforce Your Learning With Work

Ebbinghaus found that the steepest fall in retaining new knowledge happens in the hours and days immediately after. We need to review and reinforce our learning within hours of taking a course, reading a book, or watching a webinar. The easiest way to do this is by embedding our newly learned skills and knowledge into day-to-day work. If, for example, a marketer takes a data analysis course, to reinforce their skills they may then begin to help colleagues design data dashboards and reports. 

Aligning your learning with work can also be achieved through stretch assignments, secondments, and volunteering. It’s worth discussing such opportunities with your manager, to see how he or she can support your learning with relevant tasks and projects. Of course, if your manager doesn’t know what you’re learning (or have just learned), it will be hard to point you toward opportunities to practice your skills. 

Ebbinghaus also found that it’s easier to remember things that have meaning. In his experiments, he memorized nonsense syllables and attempted to recite them later. This, in itself, set him up for failure. If your knowledge isn’t usable, your brain won’t see the value in retaining it. Conversely, this also means that if you listen to a talk that you don’t really understand, you’ll forget it faster than a topic you find really interesting. 

Hack 2: Consider How You’re Learning

The content and presentation of your learning also impacts recall. Similar to how you’ll remember more interesting topics, if your seminar or course is presented in a format that suits your learning style, you’ll retain it for longer. You’ll also be more likely to remember something that’s organized logically and clearly. Compare a compelling, well-executed TED Talk, for example, versus a hastily scribbled to-do list.

Hack 3: Teach Others

Another way to reinforce your learning is through teaching others your new skill. This has the added benefit of passing on knowledge to your peers. In turn, this can raise the bar in your organization and stop you from becoming the only person on your team who knows how to do XYZ. 

Peer-to-peer learning is becoming increasingly popular. A majority (55%) of workers are more likely to turn to peer-to-peer learning instead of a formal corporate L&D program when they need to learn a new skill. Some organizations are formalizing peer-led learning into their L&D strategies. Siemens, for example, has an online knowledge sharing and coaching tool to encourage employees to share their learning. Uber Freight uses breakout rooms where members can share their thoughts and knowledge with their peers.

Mentoring is another avenue to explore. This can help your build and practice ‘power’ skills such as communication, leadership, relationship-building, and coaching. Such skills are often acquired through practical experience instead of sitting in a classroom. 

You may also want to consider teaching outside of your organization, either in your wider industry, setting yourself up as a thought leader, or in schools and colleges. It’s no secret that crucial employability skills are lacking in many graduates today. Learning a skill that’s relevant to your work, and then passing it on to a student, can help to bridge the skills gap between employers and academia. 

Hack 4: Keep Building (Your Skills and Career)

In today’s working environment, to stagnate is to quickly become outdated. You need to be continuously learning to remain ahead of changes, opportunities, and challenges. And if you’re consistently building on your new skills, you’re unlikely to forget them. This may mean taking another course or qualification or building complementary skills. 

Retaining new knowledge can also be achieved through career growth, whether that’s stepping up to new challenges like managing a project or team, or through promotion, or a lateral job move into another department. By linking your learning with your career prospects, you also make it vital to your daily life — your job satisfaction, lifestyle, finances, family’s wellbeing, and so forth. This encourages your brain to remember your new knowledge. 

Hack 5: Don’t Stress and Do Sleep

In his memory experiments, Ebbinghaus found that physiological factors like stress and sleep play a major role in how well you remember information. We all remember spending nights before exams cramming in as much information as possible. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t a great way to remember things.

When learning new skills, it’s worth taking your time, not stressing about it, and getting at least eight hours of sleep. Research has found that sleep is essential for sorting and storing your memories effectively. If you want your new skills to become part of your long-term memory, you’re going to have to catch some z’s. 

As Important As Learning Itself

Remembering what you’ve learned is as important as the act of learning. After all, most of us learn new skills in order to get better at our jobs, get ahead in our careers, and build our value and employability. Using these hacks, you can ensure your learning isn’t wasted. You can make sure that your skills are useful in your daily work, that your peers and community benefit from your learning, and that your career continues to grow.