How To Use Mnemonics And Where Everyone Else Goes Wrong

By Jamie McSloy / August 2, 2017
how to use mnemonics and why people fail at it

What Are Mnemonics?

Mnemonics are little coded systems for remembering stuff. When I went to school, we were given this little mnemonic to remember the colours of the rainbow:

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.

In this example, the first letter of each word corresponds to the first letter of each colour of the rainbow:

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.

Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet.

People create all sorts of mnemonic devices ranging from the simple and smart to the ludicrously complex.

At its core, the idea of using mnemonics is a good one, and the devices you create can be used to shorten your learning curve.

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Unsurprisingly, there are gurus who’ll sell you $500 systems and totally miss the point. There are also weirdos on the internet who spend days arguing over the made up complexities of what should be something simple.

Let’s set the record straight.

Why Use Mnemonics And Where Do People Go Wrong?

Mnemonics are a short cut.

Don’t take the long way around to get to the short cut.

This is what most people who get into mnemonics do. They come up with all sorts of crazy ideas and systems without actually testing to see if they work. Sometimes I read about these techniques and I’m convinced that people do this as a form of productive procrastination.

Look, learning is going to be difficult. Learning something new means stepping out of your comfort zone, and stepping out of your comfort zone requires being uncomfortable. There’s no way around that. If you’re spending hours coming up with some clever little acronym to learn a single fact which you could just remember, then you’ve wasted time.

In language learning specifically, people do this all the time, and it’s beyond stupid. I read a book by a guy who is popular in the language learning community where he used some dumb example like:

If you want to learn the word for fish, break it up into its syllables and then think of a mnemonic to learn it.

In so and so language, it sounds a bit like “rusty tiger.” So imagine a rusty tiger eating a fish and you’ll know the word!

If you want to add it into a sentence like, “I like to eat fish” then just add up all the mnemonics. You can learn the sentence easily by just simply imagining a man riding a rusty tiger through a swimming pool whilst chasing a green lemur!”

Simply amazing!

More like simply retarded. A lot of examples like that appear everywhere, and they’re definitely taking a long way around to get to a short cut. Oh, and to add more pain, they won’t work.

Why Mnemonics FAIL

Our brains don’t handle separate pieces of data very well. That’s for reasons well above my pay grade, but we learn by connecting our current body of knowledge to the new information. To flip that around, you are better off learning new information by forming a network of new information as opposed to learning things in isolation. Bonus points for giving yourself a reason for learning the information.

If I told you to memorise every world capital city, you’d find it pretty tough mentally.

If I told you that I’d give you ten dollars for every one you could name, then you’d find it a lot easier to memorise them.

Now, if you had a map and I gave you a round-the-world trip so you could see each city and connect the name to your experience, you’d find it easy to learn them all.

Connections matter.

When someone tells you to remember the mnemonic “rusty tiger eating a fish” you’ve still got something totally arbitrary but you also have to remember more of it. It’s better to just learn the word for “fish.”

How to Make Mnemonics Work

Remember, the key rule with any of this is that it’s your brain and it needs to connect to new knowledge.

Mnemonic devices which are meaningful to you are important because essentially you’re using your mental images to recall information.

If you need to remember a girl’s phone number (who does that any more) then you could probably go online and see someone has put together an “ultimate number memory quiz” where they’ve got a historical figure to correspond to every digit and they all sit at a table or something stupid.

Don’t be stupid.

Let’s assume the number is 01234 155 187.

(That’s a random number, by the way, don’t ring it.)

Now, those numbers might mean nothing to you. If so, find a connection and create one.

But if they mean something to you, then use that.

For instance, 01234 is easy. You don’t need a mnemonic at all for that bit.

Split the three numbers into dates if that helps. 15/5 or 18/7.

Or some other combination until you get to something that makes sense.

Do Not Make It More Complicated, Make It Simpler.

In the above, I’ve made the mnemonic simpler according to my tastes – I’d forget the first bit because it’s easy, and then find two dates.

Essentially though, with whatever mnemonic you use, you should treat it like a coded message that you can only express simply.

That means more data in a more concentrated space.

In the example above, we’ve gone from eleven numbers to three data pieces.

To create successful mnemonics, imagine you’re a spy. You need to send a contact coded information on a small piece of paper that’s inconspicuous to everyone else.

What do you do?

Let’s say, “The drop off point for the money is at 31 Oxford Street. Be there at 7.30pm.”

The first thing you’ll do is cut out the extraneous information.

“Drop off £ 31 Oxford 19.30”

“Drop £ 31 Oxford 19.30”

I mean, the easiest thing to do here with a mnemonic is have an image of a guy (and bear with me if you’ve never been to Oxford) standing outside the Bodleian library with a clock hanging from it with the time and a briefcase.

Obviously a terrible cipher, but good mnemonic.

You’ve broken down the information into a single image. If you connected the material to something you know (you might think of something different to represent a drop off, money, clock, Oxford, etc.) then this would stick.

One final thing: Mnemonics work best as short term memory devices for the most part. Use them and mentally rehearse them until the information you want is natural.

In Summary

Most people make a terrible error when they create mnemonics: They make them more complicated and lose sight of what they’re supposed to be doing.

That is making information easier to remember.

To avoid this:

  1. Pick imagery and devices that will trigger your No complex system, just simple evocative imagery.
  2. Always decrease the amount of stuff you’re memorising by chunking up the information and condensing it.

That should get you started with learning about mnemonics.


  • Jakub says:

    Did spend a year+ learning mnemonics back in… 2014-15.

    They can be incredibly powerful for remembering random information – cards, random numbers, etc.

    Simple system is PAO – person, action, object. Each card or pair of numbers (or even 3 numbers!) is a PAO. So 123456 is 12 (P) – 34(A) – 56(O), a specific person doing a specific action to a specific object. You put that pairs/cards/triplets into one image, and place it mentally inside a location that you know.

    With practice, can get extremely fast.
    Useful for random numbers, impressing friends/strangers, and trivia.

    A BIT useful for studying – can organize topics by category (Ie; that high school you go to is where you store all the info/trivia on physics, and that hallway is the X branch of physics, and that room is all the stuff you learned from Stephen Hawking).

    With practice, studying does get quicker. Can review the information quickly to remember it and strengthen the memories. The images are naturally bizarre, which helps them stay in your memory. And if it’s well organized, you naturally ‘pop’ into that place in your ‘memory palace’ when you try to remember it.

    Other than that – agree completely. Don’t overcomplicate simple stuff.


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