Memorizing a shuffled deck of cards

October 21, 2020

Hey friends!

This week’s newsletter ties into a blog post I am writing. After reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work, I realized that I cannot concentrate on single tasks very well. Over the years, I have trained my brain to crave distractions. With Twitter, Slack, and email only a keyboard shortcut away, I interrupt my own flow all the time. Every quick glance takes me out of what I’m doing and slows me down. I’d much rather focus on one thing and get it done before looking for the next distraction.

Cal outlines an exercise through which we can undo that damage and re-learn how to focus. Self-control is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. It’s like with sports. Telling yourself to not open Slack is like putting on your running shoes. That itself won’t make you a good runner. You need to practice running, or in our case concentrating.

Over the last few days, I have worked on memorizing shuffled decks of 32 playing cards. What sounds impossible at first is surprisingly straightforward. This process has two steps: building a memory palace and associating each card with a person. We are better at remembering stories than we are at memorizing plain information. This technique turns a shuffled deck into a story.

To build a memory palace, mentally map out a place you know very well, like your home. Imagine walking through it, placing checkpoints along the way. You enter through the main door (1) and place your shoes on the floor mat (2). You hang your coat on the coat rack (3) and turn on the light switch (4). Continue through your memory palace until you have 32 of those checkpoints.

Once you know your memory palace by heart, continue with the deck of cards. Look at each card and think of a person it can represent. The King of Diamonds could be Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world. The Queen of Hearts could be your mother. Do that for all cards and repeat your associations until you know them well.

You can then combine these two steps. Shuffle the deck and look at the first card. Place that card’s avatar at the first checkpoint in your memory palace. If you drew the King of Diamonds, imagine Jeff Bezos walking into your apartment. Continue drawing cards, having their avatars continue along your palace’s checkpoints.

After all 32 cards, you have a story of their 32 avatars doing something along the 32 checkpoints in order. Go through the story a few times until you can picture it really well. Without looking at the cards, recite the story. For each person along the way, name the card they represent. With a little practice, you could memorize any shuffled deck of cards in less than five minutes like this.

This exercise will get your brain used to concentrating on a single task. To memorize more pieces of data, extend your memory palace. To memorize digits of PI, associate people with numbers instead of playing cards. My hope is that this exercise helps me focus both faster and more efficiently. Plus, it sounds like a neat party trick.

– Dom

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