Self-programming through spaced repetition

by[deleted]8y25th May 201116 comments


Spaced repetition software is a flashcard memorization technology based on the spacing effect. Personally, I think of it as a way of engineering dispositions, a form of self-programming. More concretely, I find that spaced repetition is helpful for
  • internalizing knowledge 
  • compressing recent experiences 
  • conditioning specific future behaviors 
  • making analogies 
  • laying the groundwork for future insights 
  • confusion identification 
  • concept clarification 
  • reconciling models 
  • creating new representations 
  • creating examples 
Below I give some principles, tips, and examples that aim at helping you get the most out of SRS. This post is compact, and I think it will be helpful to re-read it periodically as you use SRS more.

  • SR strengthens connections between mental representations.

There a variety of ways this can happen, seeing as there is both a variety of mental representations and connections between them. For example, the two mental representations could be of a context and a behavior, and strengthening the connection would mean making the behavior more likely in that context. 

  • Mental representations precisely condition behavior.

The point of doing SR is to change behavior (whether mental or physical) and I think it helps to keep the chain of causality in mind. It gives me a framework to think about the different things SR does for me, and how those things are achieved.

  • SR establishes a personal language of thought.
Cards about situations or concepts give you a canonical handle/representation for thinking about them (like Eliezer's clever post titles). This can have positive effects (consistency of thought and building potential) as well as negative effects (potential ridigity of thought).

  • Be very specific when conditioning behaviors.

Make cards that follow the form "Do actionable_behavior_x in specific_situation_y under condition_z." This will limit confusion about whether you should execute the behavior and also make it more likely that you'll remember. For example, "If you're eating when not hungry, reflect on what you're suffering from."

  • Use one unit of meaning per card.

This is similar to Piotr Wozniak's minimum information principle, which is one of his 20 rules for formulating knowledge  (totally recommended). I almost entirely use cloze-deletion cards and I think it's easier to follow this advice with such cards. Cloze-deletion cards are made by deleting parts of a sentence (or an image). For example, starting with the sentence "A lost purpose is a subgoal that no longer serves its supergoal." I made the cards

"A [lost purpose] is a subgoal that no longer serves its supergoal."

"A lost purpose is a [subgoal] that no longer serves its supergoal."

"A lost purpose is a subgoal that [no longer serves] its supergoal."

"A lost purpose is a subgoal that no longer serves its [supergoal]."

where the part in brackets is blank on that card.

  • Discover your own SR style.
I find that a small number of cards that are carefully phrased and highly compressed work well for me. Others use larger numbers of cards with less information per card, and then internally organize and compress the information. Try making different kinds of cards and using other people's decks to figure out what works best for you. You can also vary how long you spend recalling and reflecting on each card during your session. I sometimes spend up to a minute reflecting on a card, during which I do some of the activities I listed above.

Examples - situational questions

Some of my cards are aimed at conditioning myself to ask questions in specific situations. Here's one card inspired by divia:

Front: When you become aware that you are making a social judgment what should you ask yourself?

Back: What need of mine does this reflect?

This card has greatly helped me identify my unfulfilled social needs and outstanding concerns about my own social behavior. At the same time it has helped me increase my ability to empathize with others, and capacity to meet their social needs. 

Here's another similar card:

Front: When you notice yourself pulling your hair what should you do?

Back: Reflect on what you were just thinking about.

Sometimes I run my fingers through my hair when I'm stressed out. I made this card in order to use this habit to become more aware of when I'm stressed, and what my sources of stress are. It has served that purpose fairly well.