Using spaced repetition to make the most out of blog posts and books

December 20, 2020

Spaced repetition (SR) is still an early field of collective experimentation. People have been coming up with many ideas on what to use SR for: trivia like the capitals of the world, foreign vocabulary, their domain of expertise… What I almost never see discussed is the use of SR for content like blog posts and non-fiction books. We’re reading them to induce long-term change in our behavior or thinking capabilities, yet these sources of knowledge seemingly don’t trigger the SR reflex as much or at all.

Why? Because blog posts and books are mostly not about raw facts, which are the easiest way to get started with SR. Yet I’ve personally found a lot of value in using SR for the ideas, arguments and concepts I find in my readings. A few (overlapping) subcategories with examples from my collection:

1. Concepts (examples). Some writings give a crystal-clear name to some idea that was complex or vague, and the idea now becomes a tool in a cognitive toolkit. These concepts are essential for thinking. You’ll think better if you have chunked vague ideas into things with names, and these names are even more essential if you want to discuss things with others, or share these vague ideas. In section 9 of his Nonfiction Writing Advice, Scott Alexander writes that some of the more important things a blog can do is to put names on such vague ideas. Scott called these “concept handles”, after previously calling them “crystallized patterns”. He says:

If you figure out something interesting and very briefly cram it into somebody else’s head, don’t waste that! Give it a nice concept-handle so that they’ll remember it and be able to use it to solve other problems!

And I say: don’t waste that! Put the concept-handle into your SR collection to avoid the risk of forgetting about it forever, and so you can easily share it with friends or refer back to the original post later on!

These concepts may come with examples (or you may make up your own), which are often also worth remembering.

2. Arguments, ideas (examples). After all, why should we forget them?

3. Summaries (examples). I like these a lot, and they’re often appropriate for blog posts. This is the kind of SR card whose formulation (writing a personal summary) requires putting in some effort, but is very valuable.

A few thoughts on the above usage of SR:

Thanks to JS Denain and Léo Grinsztajn for reading drafts of this.