Time is a metric of coercion

October 04, 2020

This is the main advantage of SuperMemo: you convert lots of disparate pieces of information into a solid model of reality that lives in your memory. All these pieces can be dispersed randomly in your collection like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; however, they fit into a coherent entirety that stays firmly intact in your mind. In other words, incremental reading is reductionist at the level of knowledge processing, but is holistic at the level of memories stored in your brain

From: http://super-memory.com/archive/help16/adv_read.htm

What Woz overlooks here is the cognitive effort beginners typically lack when studying with SM for the first time. The solid model of reality from disparate pieces is built only if it is your intention to build that in the first place. Vast majority of beginners are struggling with big picture in SuperMemo. I believe this stems from efficiency anxiety, uninteresting material or misunderstanding of SuperMemo’s tools.

People find SuperMemo because of the efficiency claims it gives. When they realize the power of incremental reading, it all seems highly efficient. You have extracts and you have clozes, you tackle small chunks of text with high speed. On the outside, the learning process turned to be highly efficient, while in the inside the speed of knowledge processing is still the same as it was when you were reading traditional books. It is easy to delude ourselves with flashing topics, interleaved items and text turning blue. Technology gives us power to be efficient but it also passivizes learning process if misused.

Especially new users tend to have “to be done with it” attitude inherited from school. In traditional way of studying, they are stuck with one chapter until they get it. In SuperMemo you can split the chapter up and be comfortable that it’s coming back to you. Then you are reviewing pieces from the chapter and make even more extracts and ‘be done with it’. Ultimately you have only sentences and you make clozes. There’s three iterations of rushing and being comfortable that somehow you will ‘get it’. The big picture wont emerge in this kind of ‘to be done with it’ process. The student needs to deliberately target knowledge, want to build the big picture, pick the proper pieces and let it sink. The ‘to be done with it’ SM’ing is common pitfall beginners do when they first use the software.

Knowledge is power by its applicability, not volume - Piotr Wozniak

> Ideally, in free learning, decoding failure (e.g. not comprehended word/concept) will signal the brain to “reject” the message and follow by a peek to a dictionary, Wikipedia, etc. People with bad habits from school will ignore this signal, will tolerate poorly comprehended words/ideas just to keep going with the book. Just to ‘be done with it’.

I believe easiest way to overcome this efficiency illusion is using knowledge accumulation as a benchmark instead of time and speed. Framework of adding & realizing value helped me tremendously on having sense of efficiency while keeping the focus on accumulation process. Your brain does not care how much time you spent on one topic, it cares only when the topic starts to lose its value. You will be more efficient if you have gained three solid pieces of useful knowledge vs 50 hazy ones today. Woz’s mentioned ‘solid model of a reality’ is what matters — 50 hazy memories won’t contribute to that but superficially.

In the past i wrote to Woz how i think it’s useless to try to optimize some negligible time spent on item creation when topics are where most of my time sinks in:

Most of my time sinks in reading and trying to comprehend articles and new information i’m learning. The reading part is where i lose efficiency and where the most of my time goes, not on creating items!

He simply answered:

which means you are investing in actual learning new things! Hopefully, you read materials that are well structured and you do not waste time due to sb else’s poor writing

I got hit by reality: learning new things takes time. Our image of learning speed is heavily distorted by different benchmarks we get from school or friends. Speed of knowledge accumulation is highly fluctuating; where one concept can take 5 minutes to learn, another can take 5 hours. It can take Michael Nielsen 1-2 hours to read a single scientific page, because of the highly abstract concepts. (this is mentioned in one of his blog posts for which i don’t have link right now).


In the image is a termite nest. Termites grab a mudball and place it initially on a random spot. They invest it with pheromones, which attracts other termites to stack their mudballs on top of this. I like to think about the accumulation of knowledge this way. New stuff you are learning are the new mudballs yet to be placed and your prior knowledge is the current nest. Only thing that matters is that the mudball gets placed, and it gets placed on top of the current stack. Reading hazily under time pressure and lacking semantics would be like throwing the mudballs quickly and missing the stack. Your nest cares only about the stacked mudballs, time is secondary.