Spaced repetition systems (SRS) have become a pretty standard feature with a lot of studying apps these days. It’s pretty simple – you set someone up to review what they learned at just the right timing so that they don’t forget. Forget forgetting. Even for someone who has never heard of SRS, it’s straightforward. Cramming = bad; studying over time = good.
This is all great. But surprisingly this is not the main reason why I think SRS apps are ridiculously overpowered. It comes down to two principles which I think elevate it to something truly special.
1. Zero Barriers
Before you actually start studying something, your brain goes through a number of phases.
- Not thinking about studying
- Wanting to study
- Getting ready to study
- Actually studying
That’s a lot to do, every single time you study. When you are studying, it may feel good and make you happy (though definitely not always the case). But getting from not studying to studying is surprisingly hard, especially when there are things like Netflix in this world.
There are a bunch of micro-barriers that require crossing before you actually can begin. These micro barriers might only take a few seconds each. Maybe you need to start up a computer, or an app. Or log into your account. Or sit down at a desk. Or open a textbook. But a one second barrier is still a barrier. You unconsciously calculate the steps in your head.
Mentally, the more things you know you have to do to accomplish your goal, the less likely you are to do it. For example, if you had sit down at a desk every time you wanted to read a book, as opposed to being able to read while lying in bed or on a couch, that tiny little barrier might prevent you from reading more.
Each extra second that it takes to get to studying is a chance you won’t. And micro-barriers have their own sub-micro-barriers. Let’s say you are eating lunch and you decide afterwards you are going to use a physical textbook and continue from Chapter 4 where you left off. You have to:
- Remember where your textbook is
- Move to the room/area where your textbook is
- Pick up your textbook
- Move to the area where you want to study
- Sit down
- Find/take out a pencil
- Open up the book to the page you last left off
- Start studying
Now picture an SRS app. You:
- Open up the app (there is a high chance that wherever you are, your mobile device is already with you)
- Start studying
It’s this two-step minimum requirement that is going to make you study. You know you can do this anywhere, anytime, with minimal effort, and maximum reward.
While any study app can be accessed quickly, there are often many steps till the actual study start. With an SRS app, you know what is going to happen the second you open it. This is why the 2-minute method works. Not only is access instant, but there is no minimum required time to make any progress. If you review one card, you’ve made progress. No expectations – no extra effort.
Getting to fluency is not about how much you can study in one session. It’s about how many study sessions you can have over the upcoming days, weeks, months, and years. That’s where the magic happens.
Continued in part 2: Randomness breeds Creativity
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.