Spaced repetition memory systems make memory a choice

Memory is normally something which happens by chance. Often, it feels a bit like the object of a helpless prayer: you might be reading a book, and think to yourself “oh boy, I’d better remember this.”

One fascinating consequence of using a Spaced repetition memory system is that they make memory a choice. Once you’ve adopted a memory practice, if you want to remember something, you can simply cause it to happen: just take a few moments to write a question about it. Over the next few weeks, you’ll encode it durably into long-term memory. Moreover, it’ll only take you a few minutes cumulatively: Spaced repetition memory systems are extremely efficient. So not only do these systems make memory a choice, but they make the choice very low-stakes: Deciding to remember something with a spaced repetition system is (aspirationally) a lightweight gesture.

This radically changes one’s relationship with memory! Core practices in knowledge work are often ad-hoc, and “remembering details” is a good example of a typically ad-hoc practice. But spaced repetition memory systems are an authentic Executable strategy for remembering specific details.

I often visualize this property embodied in a magic wand. When you feel an impulse of interest arise within you, you just point the magic wand at the object, and you’ll remember it effortlessly. It’s a tool which serves your intellectual excitement.

One of the important pieces here is that you can use the same “move” with basically anything: Spaced repetition memory systems offer a generalized medium and context for practice.

They’re not as great a strategy for solving People seem to forget most of what they read, and they mostly don’t notice, since it’s quite effortful to choose the details to remember and to write effective questions for an entire text. This is where the Mnemonic medium aspires to help.


Nielsen, M. (2018). Augmenting Long-term Memory. Retrieved from

Matuschak, A., & Nielsen, M. (2019). How can we develop transformative tools for thought? Retrieved December 2, 2019, from

Last updated 2023-07-13.