In January, I started using Anki, spaced repetition software, to study for an exam. My first impression was negative. "This is too easy," I thought. "This can't be helpful."
But as I read more about spaced repetition, my initial reaction reminded me of how people get sucked into HIIT training. HIIT is sorta-but-not-really hard and very gratifying in the short-term. So it's popular, even though it won't maximize genetic potential in the long-term.
Could "high-intensity learning" be equally ineffective?
Thankfully I found an article that explains why less really is more for the brain. (And from what I've seen, for the body too.)
What is "spacing" versus "massing?"
"Spacing" is studying less material more often over a longer time frame. "Massing" is studying more material less frequently in a shorter time frame.
The article, Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning, explains why spacing is more potent than massing. The former results in genuine learning and long-term retention; the latter, ineffective cramming.
But there's a funny quality to massing.
What It Says
Research shows that spaced repetition is much more effective than massing. But it remains unpopular because "the payoff is distant & counterintuitive [while] the cost of self-control [is] near & vivid." *
Across experiments, spacing was more effective than massing for 90% of the participants, yet after the first study session, 72% of the participants believed that massing had been more effective than spacing. *
Spacing creates a strong-but-inaccurate feeling of inefficiency. That feeling "may be one of the reasons that spacing is not the more popular strategy." *
In contrast, with massing there was evidence of laboring in vain. Exceeding approximately [two hours of practice] led to no increases in learning: We simply get burnt out. *
The literature on overlearning shows that massing seems beneficial (and even feels good) in the short-term, but the benefits disappear. * Spacing leads to the best learning, but it's the least liked. *
To me, "over-learning" sounds a lot like trying too hard. From what I've seen many times, it's a common error in training, and in my own life, in over-scheduling my day. It feels good at the time but never yields the desired result.
What It Means
1. Strong like bull, smart like tractor
Based on what spaced repetition research suggests, and reinforced by my experience as an athlete and coach, I think we have an effort bias.
For example, I worked with a client and increased her aerobic threshold speed by 18%. (That's a shit-ton. A professional would be excited about 2-3%.) But she kept complaining that she didn't feel tired; she could train more. Despite a lot of explaining, she refused to accept that more training wouldn't lead to more fitness. (The discussion became pointless, so I suggested she find another coach.)
I've never met an athlete—including myself in the early days—that hasn't been sucked into the mistaken temptation of more-training-means-more-fitness. The gratification that comes with profound fatigue is hard to resist. It feels so good to go to the limit and finish utterly spent. (PRO TIP: Save it for real races. Strava doesn't count.)
But it's short-sighted. Realizing your genetic maximum in fitness is like getting rich. (And, as spaced repetition research suggests, getting smart too.) Slow and consistent progress is better than frantic fits and starts.
2. So how be strong like bull, smart like scientist?
If feelings are more tempting than evidence, how do we avoid overvaluing the former? How do we guard against a gratification error?
a. Don't equate effort with progress.
If the effort doesn't correlate with progress, stop using it as a proxy. Dumb down that skin track to what's more efficient and let the bro-brahs sweat and gasp at the back of the pack.
b. Measure dose and response separately.
Find the dose that leads to the most significant response, not the most gratification. Like medication or supplements, the right dose is never the maximum.
And be aware that you might be measuring the wrong thing(s).
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."
― Richard Feynman via Farnam Street
c. If a pursuit is positive, think long-term and use spacing.
When an effort or experience is beneficial, be consistent and gradual. Slow down and smell the roses. Appreciate how sunlight changes in the late afternoon.
d. If an experience is harmful or unpleasant, get it done fast with massing.
We're better at handling acute stress than we are at tolerating chronic stress. Acute stress can result in strength; chronic stress will break something.
To lessen the long-term impact of a negative experience, rip the Band-Aid off (but only if it's your Band-Aid.)
e. If you're short on time, use massing.
And accept that you have, not a spacing problem, but a planning or patience problem. (Yes, I'm pointing at you, HIITsters.)