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If It’s Important, Learn It Repeatedly

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A little more than a year ago, a friend took me for lunch in downtown Toronto, and we talked mostly about what we’d been reading. Immediately afterward she marched me to a nearby bookstore and insisted I buy Cal Newport’s Deep Work.

She was the second person that week to describe it to me as potentially life-changing, so I bought it with great enthusiasm. Later that day, I sat reading it in a tea shop for two hours, riveted by the possibilities of working in the uncompromising, undistracted way Newport described.

I’ve had that feeling many times while reading non-fiction books—the “hot lightbulb effect” of being aware you’re reading the right ideas at the right moment in your life. I’d stopped in Toronto on the way home from an inspiring chautauqua experience in Ecuador. The trip that had culminated in an unforgettably moving group discussion, during which each of us declared heartfelt resolutions about how we wanted to live the rest of our lives. I was determined to return to work with unprecedented focus and clarity, and now I’d found the perfect guide to doing exactly that.

The window to act on a timely idea is very small. The heat of inspiration only lasts a few days, or even hours, and if it runs out before you’ve formed and implemented a plan, you’re essentially back at the status quo. 

By the time I finished the book, the clarity was mostly gone. I still had a general sense how I wanted to change things, but the practical details were now cloudy and jumbled. I tried a few things but in the end I more or less carried on as before.

I’m sure the Germans or the Japanese have a word that means, precisely, “Life-changing ideas that do not change our lives because we only read about them once, agree enthusiastically, and then forget them before we act on them.”

If not, we could use one. How many times has your mind been set ablaze by a profound truth from a book, podcast, article, or a speech, only for the idea to fade before you could do anything with it? How many millions of people read Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People eight or ten or twenty-five years ago, agreed with it wholeheartedly, and never became highly effective in any of those ways?

Alain de Botton, in another wonderful book I read and immediately forgot, identified the problem, or at least a major part of it: when we only learn something once, we don’t really learn it—at least not well enough for it to change us much. It may inspire momentarily, but then becomes quickly overrun by the decades of habits and conditioning that preceded it.

In his Religion For Atheists, he identifies a number of things religious institutions have always done very well, and which our secular education systems have consistently failed at. When it comes to teaching important ideas, religion makes extremely effective use of repetition. If an idea is important, they teach it again and again.

From his article based on this aspect of the book:

For them, it was absurd to imagine ever learning anything if you went through it only once. The whole basis of religious education rested upon repetition. Five times a day as a Muslim, one was to rehearse the central tenets of Islam; seven times a day as a Christian Benedictine monk, one was to revisit the lessons of scripture. As an orthodox Jew, 300 days a year were marked out for commemoration and ritual repetition of ideas in the Torah, while as a Zen priest, one would be inducted to sit cross-legged and meditate up to twelve times between daybreak and nightfall.

Setting aside any reservations about what they teach, religious systems have long emphasized what the secular world tends to overlook: if it’s important, it warrants learning repeatedly.

“By contrast,” de Botton writes, “modern education adheres to an implicitly bucket-like theory of the mind: one pours in the contents and, bar accidents, they’ll stay there pretty much across a lifetime. That’s why we’ll think nothing of earnestly declaring a book a favourite—and deigning to read it only once.”

Bringing a truth to mind repeatedly gives it an enduring, three-dimensional existence in your head, by reaching you in every mood and every context, in every season, both at times when you’re enthusiastic about it, and when you’re tired of hearing it.

If you’ve ever read a book a second time, you may have noticed that it’s an entirely different experience from the first time. It doesn’t feel redundant or repetitive. Instead, it feels like gaps are being filled in. Different details strike you as important. The points you do remember now have the benefit of context, and much of it seems entirely new.

I’m sure I’ve said to many people that Deep Work “had a major influence on me.” It did, but that influence didn’t quite extend to my behavior, just to my ideals. The ideas weren’t in my mind frequently enough.

It is extremely important to my ideals. The dense, undistracted, boundaries-first working style described in the book is exactly how I want to operate. So in my case it warrants a second read, and a third read, perhaps many more, as I implement its increasingly familiar ideas. This level of repetition wouldn’t cost much—if, say, every ten books, I reread this one instead of starting a new book—and it would undoubtedly change my life.

That’s just me though. For you, the “great idea that got away” might be in a different vein entirely. You may have taken a simple living course that felt perfect for you, but didn’t change your lifestyle. Maybe you loved Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way, but never made it past Week Two. Or perhaps it was a spiritual text after all—the Tao Te Ching, the Dhammapada, the Gospels.

Not every idea is truly important, but if it is, go back to it. Get to know it. Fill in the gaps. If it’s worth learning, it’s worth learning repeatedly.


Photograph by Ben White

Learn to quiet the mind

A few times a year I offer a straightforward 30-day mindfulness course called Camp Calm. The idea is to develop a modest but consistent meditation practice and a few mindful living habits, at a gentle pace of about ten minutes a day. You don’t need any prior skills or experience, and it can fit virtually any schedule.

We’re gearing up for a new season. Registration is open NOW. I hope you’ll consider joining us. [How it works]

Matthias January 24, 2018 at 12:48 am

I’m sure the Germans or the Japanese have a word that means, precisely, “Life-changing ideas that do not change our lives because we only read about them once, agree enthusiastically, and then forget them before we act on them.”

No, we haven´t… ;) Hm, maybe ‘Eintagsfliege’?

Great article though!

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 8:41 am

Hehe… Google translates it as “mayfly,” which is not bad. The insect known as mayflies where I live proliferate in large numbers, gather on warm or shiny objects and quickly die.

DiscoveredJoys January 24, 2018 at 2:26 am

A good article. I guess repetition (like learning the times tables in school all those years ago) build new ‘grooves’ in the brain. You are brainwashing yourself. So I think it is *really* important that you only read repeatedly books that you are totally in agreement with.

I still remember the times tables… but not quite as fluidly as I learned them more than 50 years ago. Perhaps I should refresh them… so if you see some old boy wandering down the street muttering the 7 times table, it’s me.

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 8:43 am

I don’t know much about the brain but repetition is definitely doing something happening on the level of neural connections. I sure know my times tables inside and out!

John January 24, 2018 at 2:56 am

Great reminder! I needed that repetition. :-)

Another way to get the needed repetition is to take good notes. Although, I don’t always do it, I’m much more likely to re-read my notes, then to reread a book.

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 8:43 am

I will post this article every week until you all get it!

Sandra January 26, 2018 at 5:51 am

That is SO funny and so right on! Do it, David. Apparently we all need that.

Ali January 26, 2018 at 6:52 am

Thank you David! It is a good and useful article for who wants to get it.

Jan January 24, 2018 at 3:15 am

Zen teachers often say that the teachings are like a finger pointing at the moon. The finger is useful because of what it points us toward, not as an object of study for its own sake. The Buddha told Ananda, “You still listen to the Dharma (teachings, practices) with the conditioned mind, and so the teachings becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.”

Thank you David for your great teachings … your way with words has really helped me experience more and more bright moons! Particularly your recent ‘Depth Year’ post. I didn’t have to learn anything because .. I ‘heard’ you on the ‘first read’ and the change happened automatically. It resonated with my truth! Love and warm wishes, Jan

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 8:47 am

One thing Buddhism points out is that this conditioning doesn’t only happen on the level of conscious memory or conceptual learning. For example, with meditation we can condition the mind to respond differently to present-moment phenomena (becoming aware of it rather than reacting to it). But it’s not a matter of simply remembering to do it differently, the mind is trained to do it reflexively.

Joy January 24, 2018 at 3:41 am

This is exactly what I’ve been thinking lately – however I’ve read so many profound and potentially life-changing books that I want to re-read, and I have a wishlist a mile long of other profound and potentially life-changing books that I want to read for the first time… where does one find the time? I am single-handedly keeping my local library in business paying all my overdue fines!

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 8:48 am

I think the dirty secret is that there isn’t enough time. We’re not going to get to all those books and projects, and the time is probably better spent really exploring a limited number rather than briefly touching on as many as possible.

Andre January 24, 2018 at 9:16 am

I read most of my books on a Kindle, highlighting and annotating as I go along. As I get close to finishing each book I always ask myself, “When will I need to revisit this?” Sometimes I expect it to be in a week, sometimes in three months. What’s important is to explicitly ask the question and make the appointment to revisit the material.

The Kindle has a tool to email the highlights to yourself (or to others) as a PDF; I can also just read the highlights directly on the device or computer. But instead of rereading 300 pages, I’m only reading, say, six or eight pages.

Most books are overwritten to begin with, probably to satisfy the commercial requirement for a book to be thick enough to stand up on a shelf in a bookstore and look substantive. Reading the highlights let you reinforce the passages that actually matter.

Karine January 27, 2018 at 9:02 am

Excellent point Andre! It is true that many books seem to be overwritten. I often highlights parts or copy other parts in a separate file to read them after. But I never realize that books could be overfilled, but it makes total sense. Thanks for the insight.

Julie January 24, 2018 at 4:26 am

Great article David, I love reading your work :-)
There is so much repetition out there in the field of self-help, often authors are saying pretty much the same thing with slightly different language. I’ve found that going “back to basics” and reading one or two favourite authors again and again is much more therapeutic than reading the latest new kid on the block.
Also, I’m loving re-reading my favourite novels and you are right, new levels of experience every time! It’s partly a coming home and a delving into greater depths. I love my re-reading to coincide with the passage of the seasons too e.g. I read “The Secret Garden” every spring. Fiction has so much to offer, and plenty of “aha” moments, with much more subtlety and beauty and a lovely antidote to the plethora of “how to live your life” books.

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 8:49 am

de Botton’s comment about reading our “favorite” books only once really tripped something off for me. And it’s true — whenever I read a novel again it’s a whole new experience and almost always better than the first time.

Drew @ FIIntrovert.com January 24, 2018 at 4:47 am

This is a great reminder that not only is it okay to have to reread and relisten to ideas in order to internalize and execute, but necessary. Interesting that we allow advertisers to tell us the same simple messages thousands of times to change our consumption behavior but we believe we can master difficult and transformative concepts AND change our behavior by reading a book once. Great post as always.

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 8:52 am

Advertising is definitely a major factor in our penchant for engaging superficially with many ideas rather than deeply with an important few. So much of a consumer economy depends on many people frequently succumbing to the novelty impulse.

Priscilla Bettis January 24, 2018 at 4:54 am

Thanks for your thoughts on Deep Work. I like Deep Work, and I’m learning to set better work boundaries, but I like Make It Stick by Peter Brown better. The latter is a good read simply because it’s interesting to learn how the brain works, whether or not you’re interested in another self-help book.

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 8:55 am

Thanks. I’ll see where the DW ideas go, and look to other books if I want some supplementation afterward.

Alina January 24, 2018 at 6:18 am

Its very interesting and extremely ironic how I often have these fleeting ‘Eintagsfliege’ (danke Matthias!) thoughts and moments whilst reading your articles. In between flashes of inspiration and challenged thoughts, I’m consistently making mental notes that I should come back to certain blogs at relevant points in my life. I think it’s time you wrote a book!

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 8:55 am

I think you’re right!

Ron January 25, 2018 at 4:24 pm

I second that David [it’s time you wrote a book!].

nerdhub January 24, 2018 at 6:21 am

I haven’t read ‘Deep Work’ but it sounds like just the book I need to procrastinate with… followed by ‘Make it Stick’… thanks Priscilla

Ashley January 24, 2018 at 6:31 am

I’m currently reading Deep Work for the second time, so reading your article just gave ME that feeling that I’m reading the right thing at the right time. The best part about reading anything multiple times is that you begin to be able to recall the information at any time, anywhere. You don’t have to work hard remembering, or go find the book itself, or worst of all, brush it off and think, I’ll look that up later! And then forget all about it. The information is ingrained in your mind now, so it’s much easier to apply it in the moment when you need it.

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 8:58 am

Hah! Great timing. And well put — I remember from my studying days that I didn’t really know something until I could explain it to someone else, and reading through something once generally doesn’t get us there. How many times have you tried to explain a wonderful idea you just read about and realized you’re struggling to make sense to the other person?

Noora Syed January 24, 2018 at 6:41 am

David, there is something I sure want to do repeatedly, thank God for somehow making me find your work. Keep on the amazing and meaningful work, thanks for this kind of work.

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 8:59 am

Thank you!

randy h January 24, 2018 at 6:54 am

Great article David! Like John, I tend to re-read my notes or highlights more so than the entire book. I’ll have to agree with Alina, like I told you years ago, it’s time you wrote a book!

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 8:59 am

I’m finally getting around to it

El Explorador January 24, 2018 at 8:03 am

Another good riff on the subject is the idea of letting ideas mature; thinking of concepts as things that need to take root and develop in the fertile soil of the mind over time, in concert with further learnings and fertilized by the context of life and experience. Over time, an idea that has no immediately perceptible effect can be seen to have powerfully shaped your perception. The way all mental input is filtered through the mass of concepts that form our “selves” necessarily implies that any idea that manages to lodge itself in our heads will forever shape us as it integrates with all our other modes of thinking. I appreciate the idea of repetition, and in a particularly well-formed idea it may indeed bear carrying out, but personally feel that as one grows it is the multitude of ideas we absorb that allow us to most clearly define our own median path, the closest we can achieve to our ideals.

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 9:03 am

Over time, an idea that has no immediately perceptible effect can be seen to have powerfully shaped your perception.

I’m not sure what you mean exactly but it sounds interesting. Can you elaborate?

I have become a believer in the idea of the mental “backburner” effect — leaving ideas aside for a while to let them connect on their own. I have no idea if there’s a neurological basis for believing that but it seems to be true.

Maryalene January 27, 2018 at 8:01 am

I think this is so true. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered I shouldn’t be disappointed if that lightbulb moment doesn’t spur the immediate life-changing effect I want. Sometimes those ideas need to percolate for a while before I can see how to implement the ideas in my life. Other times, I find I need to hit a different life season and then suddenly everything just falls into place. Sometimes you’re not ready implement big changes, but it’s good to have that information in the back of your brain, ready to be used when the moment’s right.

Eugenio Perea January 24, 2018 at 8:22 am

This might be a bit obvious to some, but I was immediately reminded of spaced repetition learning: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaced_repetition

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 9:05 am

Ah, this is the mechanism behind a lot of “vocabulary acquisition” methods for learning languages. You have three piles of flash cards — one you review frequently (more than once a day), one you review once a day, and once you review once a week or so. When you can recall one word’s meaning several times in a row no delay, you move it to the next pile. There are apps that do this automatically.

Stubblejumpers Cafe January 24, 2018 at 8:30 am

This entry ties in perfectly with my take on going deeper, not wider. I had never related it to my reading material before, but it’s a great insight. “You one smart boy.” -Kate

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 9:06 am

It is another way of doing deeper, yes, and it’s directly related. I’m reading only books I already own this year, and rereading ones that I know were important and valuable but which I haven’t fully internalized yet.

Jessica January 24, 2018 at 8:45 am

This is really great, and is something that I’ve been struggling with for years. I read a lot wonderful information but none of it seems to stick, which is really disheartening. I’ve been wanting to find a way to learn better, to really absorb information I take in. The idea of repetition has come up a couple of times, and this post really showcases that. I want to know more about this – thanks for bringing it to our attention

David Cain January 24, 2018 at 9:07 am

There are probably a lot of places to apply this that I haven’t thought of, but one place to start is with books. We all have those books that we knew were important when we read them but we never quite made us of the ideas.

Michael Rehak January 24, 2018 at 9:10 am

I do a version of this myself using my Google calendar reminders. Along side reminders that I have a meeting later or that something is about to expire that needs to be renewed, I also have monthly (or so, depending) reminders like “Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?” (Stephen Batchelor) or “The greatest obstacle to having a meaningful life is the sense one has too much life left.” (de Botton).

But there are plenty of ideas and books I’ve come across that are worthy of repetition, but that I lose because, as you’ve discussed previously, I get drawn to their novelty. Two books that come to mind for me are Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness and Erling Kagge’s Silence: In the Age of Noise.

One thing that draws me to this blog is that you’re always good at articulating vague thoughts I’ve had, and translating a feeling or intention into an actionable plan. Really good stuff, as always.

Carol January 24, 2018 at 9:30 am

This is timely for me, as I’ve spent the past month or so reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up over and over. I’d read it at least twice before, but all I remembered was “arrange folded clothes vertically in drawer.” (Which I’d done for about two weeks, then reverted to the old way of doing things.) I’ve felt a little silly spending so much time with the book, but at the same time I feel as though I’m internalizing it in a way that I hadn’t before, and that internalization is helping me achieve my number one priority for 2018: to get my home in order. As always, you’ve described the value of this approach in a way that I never would have thought of on my own.

TheHappyPhilosopher January 24, 2018 at 9:37 am

I love this David. I heard a wise man once say, instead of looking constantly for new boos to read, just reread the classics. There is some truth to this. There are a few books I have read multiple times and they get better with each read.

Jennifer January 24, 2018 at 9:49 am

I want to disagree. Though it might not be disagreement; it might be packaging the idea in different words.

(* I don’t like your packaging of this idea, if we have the same one.)

Ideas are like untested computer code, worthless until proven otherwise.

That feeling of ‘aha’ and inspiration, is your mind being a salesman. Its an internal commercial which is telling you if you just had this your life would be like the beautiful happy actors who are smiling on the TV.

It might, it might not. It could improve things, but maybe not as much as the ideal-land your imagination paints.

When you buy a tool, and put it on the self and just look at it periodically and tell yourself its awesome. Whats the point? As in the physical world, as in the mind.

I think ‘coming back’ to the idea is using it. Using it in different situations. Learn when it breaks. Learn its limitations. Put it in a tool-box in your mind and take it out to do stuff with.

A smudged dented dirty hammer had far more worth than one still on the store shelf. Even though they are the same thing.

Does that make any sense?

David Cain January 26, 2018 at 8:54 am

I don’t think we disagree — obviously we need to do a bit of thinking to determine whether the idea really is worth investing time in.

Erika Kretzmer January 24, 2018 at 10:05 am

I don’t remember which surgeon told me the phrase, “learn one, do one, teach one”. Absorbing information, putting it into practice, then explaining it to others is an effective and rapid pattern of learning.

It is also part of the reason that teaching hospitals have slightly lower success rate when residents start in July.

Rae January 24, 2018 at 10:44 am

Your articles timing is very meaningful to me. I read The Celestine Prophecy many years ago and felt that it was my aha moment. I think I re-read it and then went on with life, probably moved and didn’t have a copy anymore. So a year ago or so I found the book sitting on top of a bag of trash. Picked it up and put it in my bookshelf. Then I awoke from a dream a couple of days ago where I was carrying a stack of books and guess what book was on top! Well, I took the hint and am once again moved by the insights being revealed to me.

Kevin January 24, 2018 at 10:51 am

Thank you David. When ever I read your articles, they make me ponder through the day. I have a calm day usually that day. I started practicing kind mindfulness with purpose and intention.
I have made it my mission not to hurt anybody verbally, in writing even when they are being aggressively rude. It will be 1 year this spring. I have not had an argument with bad feelings and it feels great. It leads to a happy day everyday for me. yes every day and I am not making it up.
Thanks a bunch

David Cain January 25, 2018 at 4:32 pm

Well done. I can’t think of a more noble achievement. Imagine if everybody did that!

Heather J January 24, 2018 at 1:04 pm

This is great, David – Deep Work is currently sitting on my nightstand, waiting to be re-read with a handful of other books. I just can’t seem to stop myself from reading new ones! I think this ties in beautifully to your Deep Year concept.

CF January 24, 2018 at 1:10 pm

Thanks for this, I feared I was the only one who reads something that I feel inspired to implement only to forget it hours later. There’s so much good stuff out there, the trick is choosing those things that have the greatest impact and repeating the lesson. Another way to ‘go deep’. Great writing, you’re on a roll.

Mairead January 24, 2018 at 1:57 pm

Great article. One of the books I’ve found most illuminating had been The artists way-because it forces you to revisit the same ideas, in slightly different ways every week over a longish period. There’ve been plenty of others I’ve read but never really implemented once the book was finished-Theres often this false sense that reading the book is enough! I’ve also found though that it often takes a few different approaches at an idea before you hit on the language that makes sense for you. Sort of like when you practice a yoga pose in various classes and then one day a new teacher talks you into the pose in a different way and it all clicks into place!

David Cain January 25, 2018 at 4:31 pm

I have a copy of the artist’s way on my shelf but never properly “did” it, and now that I think of it, part of the reason is that I want to do it “properly”, as though I only get one chance at it. But I can do it forever and get something new every time.

Mairead January 27, 2018 at 6:09 pm

It was only on my second attempt that I managed to complete the artists way-I bent the rules a little ( not so much morning pages as ‘whenever I got the chance pages’ and I didn’t always make the artist date.. but I decided not to get hung up on doing it perfectly.

Calen January 28, 2018 at 11:01 pm


I have the similar experiences with a lot of things. I’ve taken to calling them “toxic preconditions.”

It’s like, when you decide that something is worth doing, you very rapidly form a mental image of what it would be like to do it “right,” and then decide if you can’t find the time to do it right, you might as well put it off until the appropriate time.

The number of things I’ve put off because I’m waiting for an imaginary ideal scenario to happen before I start is staggering. The “right conditions” are a lie – anything worth doing is worth doing small, and poorly, and awkwardly until you become better at it.

The advice that worked for me came from another book/blog (Mini-Habits, by Stephen Guise). Basically, figure out what you want to do (say, be a writer), then figure out the most ridiculously small unit of forward motion you can make towards that goal (say, write a single sentence) and then do that every day, with the understanding that youre allowed to do more if you feel like it. As a rule of thumb, you almost always feel like doing more. The way to get over the paralysis associated with wanting to do it perfect is to commit to doing it imperfect.

I don’t imagine that this advice really applies to your reading and applying “The Artists Way” – I’m pretty sure that its not the kind of thing you find daunting, or that you find yourself “stuck” on. But your mention of it brought to mind my fight with procrastination and delay due to “toxic preconditions,” and the many opportunities I’ve missed as a result, and I thought I’d share in case you or someone else found it useful.

Evelyn January 24, 2018 at 4:41 pm

Games can also have this ritual aspect. You can play the same game over and over, noticing new choices and experiencing it with different level of skill each time through.

We rarely notice those opportunities in our daily lives, or if we do, we often think of them as trivial. (No one but Buddhists thinks washing the dishes is a deeply meaningful activity, full of the opportunity to gain refined skill.) This quality of attention is, I suspect, what is meant by Beginners Mind.

Thank you again, David.

Andrea Sharb January 24, 2018 at 9:02 pm

This is exactly why I am retaking a course in mindfulness based strengths practices that I took less than a year ago. The course was amazing, but fast paced and I knew upon completion that there was so much more to take from it than I was able to extract the first time through. Some might see this as wasting my money. To the contrary, I think I’d be wasting my money if I didn’t come away with the understanding and mastery I desire. This opportunity to go deeper is also why I enjoy teaching courses. Every time I prep to teach a course, even the ones that I’ve developed from scratch and have taught numerous times, I learn more about the subject. Great post!

Johan January 24, 2018 at 9:44 pm

I just realized there are 2 or 3 blogs that I repeatedly re-read old articles. I even have a word document named “Raptitude Notes” that I keep interesting comments written in the articles. I should now take this approach with books (I actually have never re-read a book!). I’m reading “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright and I already know I want to read it again and again. Wright writes about mindful meditation very similar to you David!

Johanna Mitchell January 25, 2018 at 2:39 am

I also found Deep Work perfect reading for my context (late stage PhD student)! I’ve managed to stick to turning my phone/email off for ‘deep’ morning sessions & breaking up my day into chunks with an extended lunch break to do exercise has helped heaps. The other great bit was having a specific finish time to give rest to the brain. Maybe another read in a month or so when the enthusiasm for productivity has died down will be warranted. Thanks for the thought!

Linda Weber January 25, 2018 at 5:02 pm

I agree whole-heartedly with your ideas presented in this essay. I just wanted to add that in my personal experience, I also have to be READY to embrace the idea. I can be inspired to do something, and be that person who promptly forgets about it because I am not personally at the point of readiness to act on the idea.

I always enjoy reading your essays…thank you.

Quinn Kerscher January 25, 2018 at 5:31 pm

Time to read this article repeatedly, because I know I’ll have to learn repeatedly to learn repeatedly.

Abhijeet Kumar January 25, 2018 at 11:04 pm

” For you, the “great idea that got away” might be in a different vein entirely. ”

Yes, this has been fairly true recently. I remember these little things I learned. When I first learned them, I was joking about it. And now it is a life savior.

I learned this spiritual practice called Latihan (which honestly cannot be taught). Back then it was just something easy and fun. But recently, I used it to good effect when I felt completely trapped by commitments. Everything else was taking me in circles.

Frau Mahlzahn January 25, 2018 at 11:26 pm

Well, I think, it’s not just a single word we Germans have for a situation like this, but rather it’s a proverb: “Der Wunsch war Vater des Gedankens.” The wish was the father of the thought…


That One Guy January 26, 2018 at 3:41 am

Wow! So many great comments. Thanks for this article. It resonated with me. I have been reading about the mind and how it works recently. I too feel that repetition is very important. My father said that to me repeatedly. I didn’t listen because I just wanted to get through school. Now that I’m older I see the wisdom in it. Maybe I have more patience. I think you’re right and we have to be mindful of the ideas we want to learn versus ideas we simply want to talk about in the near future. Thanks again. I’m putting this on Twitter.

Dave Denison January 26, 2018 at 4:05 am

I had to take the Dr. Covey course on Seven Habits years ago, and didnt care for it. It seemed to define effectiveness in terms of following the habits. None of the ideas seemed new to me. I felt like I had encountered all of his precepts, but in writings by a slew of authors of what I call literature. I could recall similar focuses in Shakespeare, Montaigne, Solzenitzen, T.E. Lawrence, Barbara Tuchman, Fernand Braudel, de Cervantes, etc. Coveys expression of them somehow seemed too distilled. I have reread portions of the above authors, but not Covey.

Chelu Martin January 26, 2018 at 4:29 am

This article worth reading it repeatedly at least once in a month, :)

Joshua laferriete January 26, 2018 at 4:31 am

We are what we repeatedly do, therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit

Aristotle paraphrased by Williams Durant

rachel January 26, 2018 at 5:07 am

Yes! (Perhaps you could send us this post again occasionally)

ed penny January 26, 2018 at 5:59 am

I don’t want to comment on this until i have read it at least three more times.

AntiShill January 26, 2018 at 12:53 pm

Can someone tell me, in this modern hyper-competitive environment, which business will actually allow people the time to repetitively train to get good at specific task? Anything that get done repetitively, gets automated. They don’t want people to learn by repetition, they want people who are savants, even autistic savants will do, as long as they magically know the solution to the problem. And then they dispose of the people once it is past that hurdle.

Eric Marshall January 26, 2018 at 4:01 pm


I agree with your repetition concepts. I often feel that the liberal educators experiments to create free thinking students have deprived millions of a solid foundation. Perhaps that’s why spell check was invented? While I attended a private school in the first grade, circa 1959, when we arrived in the morning everyone sat down and began copying 100 words from the blackboard. That got you quieted down and in the traces. Worked on your penmanship too. The words changed every month so you repeated them 20+ times. Dispite phonics which came later, these words are the ones I can spell with authority. There is something permanent that happens in the brain out around 20 to 25 repetitions. I’ve seen it in music too. Want to learn chord changes? You will acquire the muscle memory much quicker when you count 25 slow careful repetitions in a row (it will feel like 100 and you won’t complete that many unless you count them). Another component of reinforcement I’ve experienced is lessons learned in a high state of adrenaline. Every conversation with a Marine revolves around to “The Corps”. It was the most exciting stressful time of their lives and they remember every minute of it for this lifetime! Want to remember your left from your right? Some people struggle with that all their lives….a literature professor I had would find out that you didn’t know your left from right….you were commanded to the front of the room where you were humiliated and made to hold some heavy tome at arms reach in your right hand until your arm failed in exhaustion. You were timed. The adrenaline of being in the spot light and the pain of lactic acid overload committed to deep memory which hand was your “Right Hand”! Modern kinder gentler methods wouldn’t allow such a self esteem assault. But its amazing how many more young people suffer from indecision. Yep, 6×6=36.

Lenon January 27, 2018 at 12:31 pm


Ms ZiYou January 28, 2018 at 2:48 pm

This really resonates with me as well, my memory fades and approaching material for a second or third reading with more knowledge always provides more insight and sometimes even a different reading.

Kaila Searl January 29, 2018 at 4:45 pm

This can work negatively, as well. If you are constantly telling yourself you aren’t beautiful enough, successful enough, or happy enough – it can become so firmly entrenched in who you are you can’t unlearn it. I listened to a talk once that equated it to walking a path. If you are always walking down the same path, that path will become well worn, and the others will grow over, and pretty soon this is the only way you know how to go. Walking in the overgrown paths is hard work.

Dmitriy Khripkov January 29, 2018 at 9:58 pm

When I stumble upon an article that really speaks to me — as in, stops my heart and makes me feel “oh my god this is what the purpose of my life is how could I have forgotten / wasted all this time reading news feeds??” — I save the link and use the Boomerang extension for gmail to arrange to have it Emailed to me in 6 months.

So far only two or three articles have made the cut, as few things are worth scheduling a time to think about them months in advance. But it’s important to have some way of coordinating with your future self, or else we can wander so far off track that we forget who our past “self” aspired to be.

I think our ancestors discovered this method already when they invented holidays. Independence Day is the one day every year we make certain think solemnly about and be grateful that we live in such a great country, Valentine’s Day is set aside to do the same for our lover, etc.

Pipsterate February 1, 2018 at 2:06 am

I entirely agree with this post, and furthermore, I will probably never read it again or implement any of it in my life.

Eric Keys February 2, 2018 at 9:38 am

When I have read books for a second or third time, I have discovered exactly what you said. Also, if enough time has passed, you can discover that who you are as a person has grown and changed slightly; the parts of the book that used to irk you now are not so irrititable anymore, and you understand different characters or ideas in a new light. Rereading books, especially books that impacted you the first read, is one of the many methods of introspective growth.

سمپاشی February 3, 2018 at 10:11 am

I agree with you

KG February 3, 2018 at 2:31 pm

Yes, repetition really works!!

Vanessa February 5, 2018 at 8:33 am

There IS this saying in German: “Einmal ist keinmal” meaning once is not at all. Not that I know German but a German friend explained that it means doing something just once doesn’t count. I heard this saying years ago and it has always struck me as being so hardcore!

On the other hand your article also reminded me of a Japanese saying “Ichi-go, ichi-e” (一期一会) which a Japanese friend explained as one time, one opportunity. He said that when you meet someone, this meeting will only happen once in your life, this time will not come again. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to connect so bring all your energy and commitment to it. Translated another way, this meeting is precious because it won’t happen again.

A bit off the subject maybe but they just came to mind. Thank you for another insightful and thought-provoking article. I do re-read them! And a lot of your wisdom has noticeably improved my life.

the bristol therapist February 9, 2018 at 7:31 am

This is certainly something I’ve had to (repeatedly!) discover in therapy, both as client and therapist. It’s not enough to make a breakthrough or have an insight once. Without the reinforcement of repetition, it doesn’t properly bed in.

Esther February 12, 2018 at 7:29 am

I wholeheartedly agree with you. As a former teacher, I know about the importance of repetition to form (study) habits, to actually learn something and act upon those things you’ve learnt.

On a more general level, every now then, it’s a good idea to revisit books, ideas, and to continue learning. The thing is that sometimes those ideas affect and influence us in ways we aren’t always aware of.

Thanks for the article, David. I loved it.

Bryan February 13, 2018 at 6:20 am

So true. I am impelled to start a book club because of that. Learn something, teach others and discuss it.

We can also start a book highlight on the webpage. #dereksiversstyle

Patrick Wagner February 13, 2018 at 8:35 am

Amazing article! I think many of us identify with the problem of reading something inspiring and then forgetting about it faster than we’d like to.

“How many times has your mind been set ablaze by a profound truth from a book, podcast, article, or a speech, only for the idea to fade before you could do anything with it?”

We created an app which exactly addresses this problem. Amongst many other features, it serves you to save the key takeaways of your favorite books and helps you repeating them in specific intervalls.

Check it out at https://mindzip.net/en

Abdulwahab February 14, 2018 at 11:38 pm

I totally agree with the concept of repletion , reinforcement is beneficial with no doubt
my only concern here is that , being able to overcome your boredom of repeating what you’ve already read is something need to be cured isn’t it ?

I remember one of the Islamic role that may help here is that, “spend more time with the people who sharing the same interest of the subject you want to reinforce” ….they might increase your level of interest to read the book again and again through keep chatting about it considering different perspective which bring joy rather than boredom

Thanks David , I relay admire your way of thinking bro.

Abhijit Biswas February 16, 2018 at 10:15 am

I completely agree with you David…!! People tend to forget quickly before they are able to learn…!! We learn and relearn…!! THat is so important..!! Repetition does work…!! Superb… Thank You. Abhijit

Esmaeel February 17, 2018 at 1:49 pm

There is a famous Persian proverb that says
“کار نیکو کردن از پر کردن است”, means that to do something perfectly you should do it more and more. In the other word; practice makes perfect filling.

Cathryn February 17, 2018 at 8:01 pm

This reminded me of math in middle school and high school. The teacher would usually assign a small subset of the problems at the end of each concept/section as homework. As a complete math nerd, I consistantly attempted all the problems. I found that the repetition and slight variations from one problem to the next helped fully reveal each concept. Not only did this repetition build a strong foundation for the more advanced concepts, it gave one the opportunity to see and appreciate the beauty of mathematics.

Tim February 19, 2018 at 8:04 am

A friend would say, “Repetition is the key to teaching the unwilling the unwanted truth.”

Thanks for the post.

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