On November 1, 2016, I asked myself the question: With only one month of practice, can I memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in less than two minutes (the threshold to be consider a grandmaster of memory)?

On November 24, 2016, after 22 hours of practice, I found out that the answer was yes.

During the month of November, I documented my entire learning process in a series of 30 daily blog posts, which are compiled here into a single narrative. In this article, you can relive my month of insights, frustrations, learning hacks, and triumphs, as I strive towards monthly mastery.

On November 1, I introduced my entire year-long accelerated learning project. If you are interested in learning about the project in it’s entirety, you can read more about it at the end of this article. Let’s continue to November 2.

This month’s challenge is to memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in less than two minutes, which means I have 2.3 seconds to memorize each of the 52 cards.

This seems aggressively fast. Perhaps, five minutes would have been a saner goal, especially since this is the first month of the project and I need to convince you that I’m not totally delusional.

However, two minutes is important. Two minutes is the threshold to become a Grand Master of Memory, which is a real thing and a title I would unapologetically be proud to earn.

In fact, there are only 149 GMs of memory in the world, while there are 1530 GMs of chess, which means, if I pull this off, I’ll be entering a very exclusive club (although, admittedly, not a heavily pursued club).

To qualify as a Grand Master of Memory, I technically must complete three memory feats at an official World Memory Championship (yes, that is a real thing too):

  1. Memorize 1o decks of cards in an hour
  2. Memorize 1000 random digits in an hour
  3. Memorize a deck of cards in less than two minutes

I didn’t think I could train for all of these in a month, nor do I plan to go to an official competition just yet. So, instead, from the comfort of my bedroom, I’m going to focus on Number 3, which, on the memory circuit, is called Speed Cards.

Speed Cards is the metric most often used to compare Memory Athletes, so it’s a good one to start with.

Plus, it makes for a better party trick. No one at a party is going to wait an hour for me to memorize 1000 random digits, but I might be able to keep their attention for two minutes. So, there’s that.

Assessing my current skill level

I already have some card memorization skills, which is why I thought I’d start with this challenge. Still, I have a long way to go.

In 11th grade, seven years ago, I completed an audio course by 2-time U.S. Memory Champion, Ron White, and as part of that training, I learned how to memorize cards. I barely practiced this skill, since I was using the techniques to memorize U.S. history and lists of Spanish words for school, but I definitely memorized a few decks of cards along the way as well. I’m not sure how fast I could do it, but it was definitely really slow.

Two years ago, during my senior year at Brown, I was curious to see if I could still successfully memorize a deck. During my first attempt, I was able to do it in about 45 minutes, where much of that time was spent trying to recall my system. After a few more attempts, I got it down to around 20 minutes, and I haven’t tried since.

So, 20 minutes is my starting time, and I’m hoping to end this month with a memorization time of 2 minutes or less. That’s an order of magnitude improvement, which feels like a lot.

To do this, I will need to rework my system, practice obsessively, and hope my brain will cope. It seems tough, but I’m oddly convinced that I will almost certainly succeed. My confidence level is at 90% right now.

I’m sure I’ll be less confident tomorrow, once I start really practicing.

Day 3 is all about refining my memory system, so I guess I should discuss it.

Here’s essentially how my system works: As I flip through a deck of cards, I convert each card into an image of a celebrity or family member (Steven Spielberg, Adam Sandler, Anne Hathaway, my mom, etc.). Then, I take those images of people and imagine them at different stops along a mental journey through the rooms of my childhood house. When it’s time to recall the deck, I mentally travel through my house, observing which celebrities or family members are at each point in the route, and then convert those people back into the cards they correspond to.

It sounds like a lot of work, but this is the way almost all memory systems are set up. So, let me explain…

In general, all memory systems are based on the fact that humans have amazing visual and spatial memories (due to our hunter-gatherer brains), and really sucky other types of memories. Which is why it’s easy to remember faces, but not names.

So, a good memory system aggressively attempts to encode boring kinds of information (like words, numbers, etc.) into highly visual images and then attaches those images to pre-determined structures in long-term memory. If you do this correctly, you essentially trick your brain into accepting new information directly into long-term storage, which is good news since the average short-term memory can only hold about seven pieces of information before exploding.

Once in long-term memory, recall is fairly straightforward: Take a mental trip to the spot in long-term memory, see what you’ve attached to it, and then decode the info back into its original, unmemorable form.

Memorizing a deck of cards works exactly in this way. First, encode the cards into visually memorable images (aka celebrities), and then, place the images inside a durable structure in long-term memory (aka places in my childhood home), which are visited during recall.

So, for example, Charlie Sheen on my desk, Bob Dylan on my windowsill, and Taylor Swift on my bookcase translate to the 3 of Spades, the 2 of Diamonds, and the 10 of Spades as the first, second, and third card in the memorized deck.

Encoding a deck of cards

I use a pretty basic phonetic scheme (based on initials) to convert cards into people. For example, the Ten of Spades = Taylor Swift, the Jack of Hearts= Jimi Hendrix, and so on. The whole system assigns a different letter to each card’s value and another letter for its suit.

Value → Letter Designations

  • Ace → A
  • 2 → B
  • 3 → C
  • 4 → D
  • 5 → E
  • 6 → S
  • 7 → G
  • 8 → H
  • 9 → N
  • 10 → T
  • Jack → J
  • Queen → Q
  • King → K

Notice that most numbers map to the corresponding letter in the alphabet, with a few exceptions like 6, 9, and 10.

Suit → Letter Designation

  • Spades → S
  • Clubs → C
  • Hearts → H
  • Diamonds → D

With this mapping in place, I can generate a pair of initials for any card. For example, The Queen of Club maps to QC. The Eight of Hearts maps to HH, and the Four of Diamonds maps to DD.

Finally, the last step is to decide which person I want to assign to each pair of initials. In the cases above, I would have Queen Cleopatra, Harry Houdini, and Danny DeVito.

For cards where I couldn’t think of someone easily, I somewhat arbitrarily assigned a family member or a friend. For example, the King of Diamonds is my dad (King Deutsch, I guess) and my mom is the Queen of Diamonds.

Yes, this seems like a lot of work, and it is, but once you complete the exercise and make all the associations, you won’t have to do it again.

If you want to make your own system, you don’t necessarily need to use my mnemonic mapping. You can come up with your own. If you want all the Diamonds to be Harry Potter characters and all the Hearts to be Game of Thrones characters, that works too. Whatever you can easily remember with a little practice.

With each card converted into something more visually memorable, it’s time to attach the visual images to locations in long-term memory.

Placing the images (creating a Mind Palace)

To remember the sequences of the cards/people, I imagine each person at a different location in a mental journey through my childhood home. This journey is the same every time, and the locations along the journey are explicitly numbered. So, for example, I can consistently name the 11th location in my journey (the refrigerator in the kitchen), which means, whatever I’ve stored there represents the 11th card in the deck.

Here’s the beginning of my journey:

  1. The desk in my bedroom
  2. The windowsill in my bedroom
  3. The bookcase in my bedroom
  4. The bed in my bedroom
  5. The closet in my bedroom
  6. The medicine cabinet in my bathroom
  7. The sink in my bathroom
  8. The closet in my bathroom
  9. The shower in my bathroom
  10. The toilet in my bathroom
  11. The refrigerator in the kitchen
  12. The desk in the kitchen
  13. The counter in the kitchen
  14. The table in the kitchen
  15. The sink in the kitchen

And so on…

Collectively, these places and the journey through them make up my Mind Palace (a concept popularized by the BBC’s Sherlock).

Once you create the journey through your Mind Palace, you have everything you need to start memorizing decks of cards.

Putting it together

As an example, let’s see how we can memorize the following five cards: The Ace of Hearts, The Four of Hearts, The Five of Diamonds, The Eight of Spades, and The Nine of Clubs.

I start off at place #1 in my Mind Palace, and imagine Anne Hathaway (the Ace of Hearts) sitting on the desk in my bedroom. Then, at place #2, I imagine David Hasselhoff (the Four of Hearts) standing on the windowsill. Next, at place #3, I imagine Ellen DeGeneres (the Five of Diamonds) climbing my bookcase. At place #4, I imagine Homer Simpson (the Eight of Spades) laying in my bed. Finally, at place #5, I imagine Nicolas Cage (the Nine of Clubs) standing in my closet.

Once I imagine the rest of the deck in this way, I mentally retrace my steps along my journey and am surprised at how clearly I can see Anne Hathaway on my desk, David Hasselhoff on my windowsill, and so on. The visual brain is an amazing thing.

And that’s how the trick is done. Pretty simple actually.

Upgrading my encoding system to memorize faster

The problem with the system I describe above is that it requires I create 52 images (one for each card) in 52 different places in my Mind Palace. This makes recall very straightforward, but it’s not very time-efficient.

If I want to memorize more quickly, I need to create less images in less places (since each image requires a little bit of imagining time).

To do this, I’m going to use a system call Place-Action-Object (PAO), which is an extension of the system I describe above. For every card, I not only assign a person, but I also assign an associated action and object.

So, for example, the Ten of Hearts corresponds to Tony Hawk (the person), skateboarding (the action), and a skateboard (the object).

With this system in place, I can memorize three cards at a time, combining the person from the first card, the action from the second card, and the object from the third card into a single image that I assign to a single location in my Mind Palace.

Imagine the first three cards of a deck are The Nine of Diamonds, The Ten of Hearts, and The Queen of Clubs. And I’ve already determined the PAO for each card:

  • The Nine of Diamonds → Person = Napoleon Dynamite
  • The Ten of Hearts → Person = Tony Hawk, so Action = Skateboarding
  • The Queen of Clubs → Person = Queen Cleopatra, so Object = an Egyptian pyramid

Thus, to memorize all three cards in one image, I imagine Napoleon Dynamite skateboarding down the side of an Egyptian pyramid on top of the desk in my bedroom.

Completing the deck in this way, I only need to memorize 18 images in 18 locations, instead of 52 images in 52 locations. This will make recall a bit harder, but will make memorization much faster, which is ultimately what I’m measuring.

Today’s training: Practicing PAO

For the rest of today, I’m going to practice recalling the person/action/object for each card.

Right now, I still need to convert each card to initials, determine the person, and then remember the associated action or object. I’m hoping with some practice, I can instantly recall the person, action, or object without any kind of conscious conversion process.

Tomorrow, I’ll do my first official time trial, and we’ll see where I’m at.

Yesterday, I introduced the Pers0n-Action-Object (PAO) memory system, which is the system that nearly every Grand Master of Memory uses when they compete. So, barring any major innovations while training, this is the system I’ll use to break the 2-minute mark.

As a quick refresher of PAO, every three cards in the deck are converted into a single image of a person applying an action to an object. The image is constructed by combining the person from the first card, the action from the second card, and the object from the third card. Once this image is created, it’s stored along a mental journey through my childhood house (called my Mind Palace), ready for recall.

Since I originally learned how to memorize cards only using the simplified system (in which each card is visualized as a person and memorized in its own location), I’ve spent the past three days developing my PAO system.

In particular, I’ve created actions and objects for all the cards. I’ve also started timing myself while completing a variety of tasks, in order to set baselines and help uncover areas that require the most focused training.

Seven timed experiments (before I try to memorize)

1. Flipping through the deck

I started off just by flipping through the deck as fast as I can, while making sure I consciously saw every card. This only took me 10.68 seconds, suggesting that there are no physical constraints on my sub-2-minute time.

This was not very surprising, but something I wanted to document.

2. Mentally reciting all the cards

Next, I flipped through the deck again as fast I as I can, but this time mentally speaking the name of every card. This took me 29.01 seconds.

This nearly 3x difference between seeing the cards and mentally reciting them is most likely due to my subvocalization of the card names (i.e. ‘The Four of Hearts’). Subvocalization is the process of “saying words in your head” and is the main reason people read slowly. Eliminating subvocalization is super important to the art of Speed Reading, and, I also suspect, to the art of Speed Cards.

I wanted to test out my Subvocalization Theory with the next two trials.

3. Mentally reciting all the people

This time I flipped through the deck, and instead of subvocalizing the card name, I subvocalized the name of the corresponding person. This took me 54.82 seconds, which unsurprisingly means that my mental mapping between cards and names isn’t yet instantaneous (or even close).

4. Mentally visualizing all the people

With this pass, I was ready to make a profound point.

My hope was to flip through the deck, only mentally visualizing the person, without subvocalizing their name, and demonstrate that this approach is indeed much faster (just like speed reading).

Sadly, I can’t make that point because it took me 1:01.83 minutes, 7 seconds longer than the previous pass. Basically, even though I was attempting not to, I still needed to subvocalize for most cards before I could actually visualize the person.

I suspect eliminating subvocalization is one of the most important pieces to my training. After all, my memory system only requires the visuals for recall, rendering subvocalization a useless crutch and a major waste of time.

Although subvocalization will boost my numbers earlier on (since it’s more comfortable now), it’s important that I force myself to forgo the temptation. Sure, I’ll be slower right now and won’t seem immediately as impressive, but that’s okay. At the end of the month, I’ll be happy that I had the discipline.

5. Mentally visualizing all the actions

Ugh. When flipping through the cards and trying to visualize all the associated actions (i.e. the A in PAO), it took me 1:59.70 minutes. Basically, twice as long as visualizing people.

This makes sense, since I’m still heavily relying on the person-association to determine the action, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be this bad.

I guess I need more practice.

6. Mentally visualizing all the objects

Same story as above. It took me 2:02.21 minutes to visualize all the objects, while flipping through the deck. Not great.

7. Mentally visualizing the person-action-object groups

Putting all the encoding pieces together, I flipped through the deck creating 3-card images in correspondence with PAO (but not yet placing these images in my Mind Palace).

This took me 2:16.51 minutes, which is actually fairly promising. Assuming that I can place these images in my Mind Palace while constructing them, I’m already basically at 2 minutes.

With that said, because I wasn’t constructing them in my Mind Palace, all the images I created during this pass were very weak and most likely unrecallable. So, my above assumption is questionable.

To test this assumption, I now attempt my first full memorization.

My first full memorization attempt

The Procedure

The official procedure for Speed Cards is a bit different than what you might expect. In competition, memory competitors start with two decks of cards: One deck is shuffled (to be memorized) and the other is in new-deck order.

When the timer starts, the memory competitor picks up the shuffled deck and memorizes it. When they finish, they place that deck down, stopping the first timer and starting the second timer. During this next period, the competitor has 5 minutes to reorder the second deck to match the order of the memorized deck.

Once the second deck is arranged, both decks are put side-by-side, and the cards of each deck are flipped over together. If all the cards match, the memorization was successful.

The memorization time is based on the time recorded during the first timer (i.e. during memorization), but if the 5 minutes runs out during the recall period, the memorization is unsuccessful.

This is the procedure I am going to use during my more formal practice sessions. Although, I’ll consider the challenge a success even if my recall time runs over five minutes.

My first attempt

Here’s a video of my first attempt, which I’ve trimmed down because the entire video is very long and very boring.

Shot on my computer’s webcam… maybe not the best decision

It took me 6:18:16 minutes to memorize the deck, which isn’t horrible. Already a major improvement on the 20-minute memorization I completed two years ago (the last attempt before this one).

Most of this improvement can be attributed to the change in memorization systems, from the simple system to PAO.

The 7:58:06 recall time isn’t quite as promising. I didn’t even realize this was going to be a problem (it needs to be less than 5 minutes in an official competition). However, I’m not explicitly measuring recall time as part of this challenge’s success criteria, so this performance is passable.

I’m also not super pleased that I mixed up two pairs of cards: The King of Heart & The Six of Clubs, and The Queen of Club & The Two of Hearts.

Nevertheless, my confidence level is still at 90%. I’m making solid progress.

In other words, I want to spend the minimum amount of time needed to successfully recall the 3-card image, and no more (let’s call this minimum amount of time needed MATN). The problem is that I am not sure where this minimum threshold is.

I attempted a memorization, where I tried to push faster, but after the first few card groups, I started to slow down again in fear of unsuccessful recall.

To address this problem, I’m going to introduce a metronome into my training.

Using a metronome

Based on my memorization from yesterday, I was memorizing each 3-card groups at a rate of 21.85 seconds, which equates to 2.75 groups per minute (GPM).

In order to reach a 2-minute memorization time, I need to get that sped up to 8.65 GPM.

My plan is to use a metronome to help push my speed forward, based on the following system:

  1. I set a metronome to a very slow speed like 3 beats per minute (BPM).
  2. With the metronome on, I start my memorization.
  3. Every time the metronome clicks, I need to move on to the next 3-card group (whether or not I feel done with the current group).
  4. Once I finish memorization, I attempt recall.
  5. If I’m successful, I will slightly increase the speed of the metronome, and memorize again.
  6. If I fail, I will keep the metronome at its current speed, and try again.

This method will allow me to assess my current MATN, force me to maintain my MATN throughout the memorization, and help me push my speed forward (decreasing my MATN).

My metronome training schedule

I have 25 more days to complete this challenge, but want to aim for completion around Day 25 (i.e. in 20 days).

So, with that in mind, here are my Groups Per Minute benchmarks over the next 25 days.

  • Day 5: 3 GPM
  • Day 10: 5 GPM
  • Day 15: 7 GPM
  • Day 20: 8 GPM
  • Day 25: 8.65 GPM (2 minutes exactly)
  • Day 30: 9 GPM

I’ll use these benchmarks to monitor my progress moving forward.

Confidence level unwavering, at 90%.

Today, I’m going to talk about the apps and gear I use while memorizing…

Pulse: The Metronome App

For the past couple days, I’ve been using Pulse for my metronome training.

In particular, if I want to memorize at a rate of 5 groups per minute, I’ll set the metronome to 5 groups x 4 beats per minute= 20 beats per minute. On every downbeat (higher pitched click), I switch to the next 3-card group.

I need to eventually reach around 36 BPM (for a two-minute memorization), which seems slow when not memorizing cards, and very fast when I am.

White Noise+: The “Noise Cancelling” App

Since I’m doing most of my training on Caltrain (the Bay Area commuter train) on my way to and from work, I’ve been using the White Noise+ app in an attempt to block out any auditory distractions.

During my morning commute, most other commuters are pretty quiet, so focusing is easy. On the way home, the train is much noisier, requiring that I blast white noise and rain sounds into my ears.

52Cards: The “Card Memorization” app

Surprisingly, there’s actually an app specifically designed for memorizing cards. Sadly, though, you can only view one card at a time, making it not so great for my purposes.

Mostly, I used this app during Days 1–4 to practice my PAO system.

Bose FreeStyle earbuds

I’ve had these somewhat-noise-cancelling Bose earbuds for a few years now. It looks like Bose has stopped making them, but they do a pretty good job cancelling out noise when the white noise is turned up.

“Memorization Glasses”

A few weeks before I began Month to Master, I read Moonwalking with Einstein, New York Times bestseller and the most popular book on memory.

In the book, Joshua Foer, the author and aspiring memory champion, describes how he created Memory Goggles to improve his concentration. Basically, his goggles were completely opaque with the exception of a smallish hole, through which he would view the cards.

These seemed like a little much for my purposes right now, so I opted for Memory Glasses, which are designed to block out peripheral distractions.

And by “designed”, I mean “I taped a few cards to lensless 3D movie glasses”.

Occasionally, if I’m distracted, I’ll wear these on Caltrain. Not sure what people think, but they help, so…

I’m having a problem…

For the past week, I’ve been very confident that I would complete this month’s challenge. Now, I’m not so sure.

I tried to memorize three decks today, and I honestly couldn’t remember any of the cards in any of the decks. Actually, the problem isn’t that I couldn’t remember, the problem is that I remember everything.

Every deck I’ve memorized in the past week has left visual traces in my Mind Palace. As a result, during recall, as I mentally travel through my childhood home (i.e. my Mind Palace), at every location, I see a dozen different images. I have no clue which is the image I just memorized and which are the images I previously memorized.

In other cases, the noise of all the images combine, creating this unrecognizable cloud of visual traces.

In either case, I’m completely crippled right now.

I don’t have time to forget

Most memory competitors stop practicing a week or two before competitions, in order to ensure that all the images inside their Mind Palaces have completely faded, preventing any confusion or problems.

Unfortunately, I only have three weeks left to break the 2-minute mark, and so, I can’t wait around until my Mind Palace has cleared.

Instead, I must create many more Mind Palaces, which will let me spread my practice out, giving each Mind Palace more time to clear between memorization sessions.

I’m not sure if this will work, but it’s the only idea I have right now, so if it doesn’t, I’m not sure what I’ll do. My confidence level is now around 65%.

Tomorrow, I’ll hopefully be able to conclude if this approach works.

Yesterday, I panicked. I couldn’t remember anything because my Mind Palace had gotten so full with images.

Today, in an attempt to alleviate the problem, I created four new Mind Palaces: One based on my apartment in San Francisco, one based on other parts of the apartment building, one based on my grandparent’s house, and one based on my cousin’s house.

I expected that this was going to be challenging, but it was actually quite easy, and only took around 30 minutes. It turns out that my mind knows a lot of places quite well, only requiring that I mentally walk through them a few times to solidify the journey as a usable Mind Palace.

Excitingly, while using these new Mind Palaces to memorize cards, I had no problems with recall (although memorization took a little bit longer). My first Mind Palace is still unusable right now, but I should have enough long-term structures setup to practice until my first Mind Palace decides to cooperate.

Confidence level back up to 85%.

I probably should have played out the drama for a few more days (for the sake of the narrative), but I feel pretty confident today, so too bad for the dramatic arc.

I’ve been practicing with the metronome on very slow speeds, as part of my gradual progression towards a sub-2-minute time.

However, out of curiosity today, I decided I would crank the metronome all the way up to 36 BPM (faster than a 2-minute memorization), and see how I fared.

Interestingly, there were many 3-card groups that I had no problem memorizing, and a handful of others that I struggled to encode when the time pressure was on.

Working with the metronome at this faster pace, I was able to uncover some of the weaknesses in my system that I just didn’t notice at the slower speeds.

For example, the Four of Spade gets encoded as baseball player Darryl Strawberry, whose baseball card I had as a kid, but whose face isn’t visually burned into my brain. At the faster speeds, I’m having trouble quickly conjuring up an image of Darryl Strawberry, so I just changed his person image to Derek Jeter, who I can visualize much more quickly.

Similarly, I found that I was having trouble recalling Cameron Diaz, so I changed her person image to Princess Fiona from Shrek, which I’ve found to be much more visually memorable.

In some cases, I found at the higher speeds, certain actions and objects weren’t easily encoded or recalled. For example, Jimi Hendrix’s (the Jack of Hearts) object is an electric guitar, while Eric Clapton’s (the Five of Clubs) is an acoustic guitar. At higher speeds, I didn’t seem to have time to encode the differences between these guitars, so I opted to change Eric Clapton’s object to something completely different.

In this way, I updated about 15% of my PAO system to be more easily encoded or recalled at speeds closer to two minutes.

I really should have optimized my system like this even earlier (probably two days ago), but I was dealing with the Mind Palace crisis then. Still, I’m happy I did this now, rather than in a week or two.

Tomorrow, I’ll see how this newly-optimized system fares.

Things are starting to repeat…

It’s been 1.5 weeks since I started practicing memorizing cards, and for the first time today, I’m starting to see and leverage patterns. In particular, during my memorization attempts, there are 3-card groups that I realize I’ve seen before, and so, I can much more quickly encode these cards.

Most of these patterns, though, are in the action-object pairs, which I’m starting to recognize and reuse more fluently (applying an action-object pair to a new person is fairly easy and fast; creating a brand new action-object pair takes a lot more mental processing).

Although, I only see a few of these repeated groups during a particular memorization attempt, I still feel like I’ve had a breakthrough today. Even if this breakthrough isn’t necessarily affecting my times significantly now, I realize that, if I continue practicing in this way, I will become way more fluent, which hopefully means compounding gains in my speed.

And yet, things will probably never repeat…

Even though, at the microlevel, I’m starting to notice repeating clusters of cards, I know that I will likely never memorize the same deck twice.

In fact, there are 52! (i.e. 52 x 51 x 50 x 49 … x 3 x 2 x 1) different ways that a deck of cards can be arranged. 52! is on the order of magnitude of 10⁶⁷.

10⁶⁷ is hard to understand, so let me make it a bit more tangible: Imagine there are 100 trillion people, who each have 100 trillion decks of cards. Ever second, all 100 trillion people shuffle each of their 100 trillion decks of cards 100 trillion times. Now, imagine they do this every second, starting from the beginning of the universe and continuing until right now in 2016. Then, repeat this entire process 200,000 more times.

That’s how long it would take for all those people to complete 10⁶⁷ shuffles.

So, basically, every time you use a deck of cards, it’s almost certainly the first (and likely last) time any deck has been in that order since the history of forever.

Anyway, the point is that, although I’m seeing patterns, they will always be very tiny patterns. And, every time I memorize a deck of cards, it’s probably the first and last time anyone will memorize that exact order.

Pretty cool to think about.

Based on my plan from Day 5, I should be able to memorize a deck of cards successfully at a rate of 5 groups per minute, which equates to 20 BPM on the metronome, or a 3:30 memorization time, which is nearly twice as fast as my memorization attempt from Day 4.

While this was a reasonable plan, I’ve sort of abandoned it. Instead, I’ve been practicing at faster metronome speeds (24–28 BPM), with worse recall. The hope is to remove the metronome in a few days, and still maintain the faster pace (but with better recall).

My hypothesis is that the metronome itself is very distracting, forcing me to use way more energy than I need during memorization. As a result, once I remove the metronome, my recall will improve.

Not sure if this is true, but I’ll find out in the next few days.

In the meantime, here’s my practice log from yesterday…

Yesterday’s practice log:

Attempt 1:

52 cards. Metronome at 20 BPM. 5 GPM = 3:30 memorization.

Recalled 49 /52 cards correctly. Recall from single deck

Attempt 2:

26 cards. Metronome at 24 BPM. 6 GPM.

Recalled 22 /26 cards correctly. Recall from single deck

Attempt 3:

52 cards. Metronome at 24 BPM. 6 GPM = 3-minute memorization.

Recalled 29 /52 cards correctly. Recall from single deck

Attempt 4:

52 cards. Metronome at 24 BPM. 6 GPM = 3-minute memorization.

Recalled 35/52 cards correctly. Recall from single deck

Attempt 5:

52 cards. Metronome at 24 BPM. 6 GPM = 3-minute memorization.

Recalled 39/52 cards correctly. Recall from single deck

Attempt 6:

52 cards. Metronome at 24 BPM. 6 GPM = 3-minute memorization.

Recalled 48/52 cards correctly. Recall from single deck

Attempt 7:

52 cards. Metronome at 28 BPM. 7 GPM = 2:30-minute memorization.

Recalled 40/52 cards correctly. Recall from single deck

I stopped using the metronome today, which has removed a lot of my memorization stress. I can now memorize without constant chirping in my ears.

Yesterday, I hypothesized that, without the metronome, I would perform noticeably better during recall. This turns out to be half true.

When practicing with only half the deck (26 cards), I can easily complete my memorization in 1–1:15 minutes, with perfect recall. Memorizing two half decks in a row, I’m getting times around 2:15–2:30, which would suggest I should be able to memorize a complete deck in around that time.

However, when I try to memorize the full deck at that speed, I can’t seem to remember anything.

I’m going to play around with my recall strategy tonight, and see if that helps.

Yesterday, I stopped using the metronome while memorizing, and the results have been decently promising.

When only memorizing 26 cards (half the deck), I’m basically already performing at Grand Master level. However, when I attempt to recall all 52 cards, I’m really struggling.

For 52 cards, by the time I get to the end of my memorization, the beginning of the deck has faded in my mind. Then, during recall, by the time I fight my way through the beginning of the deck, enough time has passed where the latter half of the deck has also faded.

As a result, I basically don’t remember any of the cards.

My new strategy

To address this problem, I’ve decided to start recalling the deck in reverse order. This way, I’ll be able to easily recall the second half of the deck before it fades. Then, when I get to the first half of the deck, I’ll have already eliminated 50% of the deck, so ‘first half recall’ becomes a much more contained problem.

Additionally, I’ve found that if I can remember the first card of the deck, then everything else falls into place. With that said, for some reason, I seem to always forget the first card.

So, with my new strategy, at the end of memorization, I will quickly look at the first card before attempting recall.

Once I start recall, I’ll immediately pull out the first card, put it aside, and then get started on the second half of the deck. When I’m ready for the first half, I’ll take a look at card #1, and hopefully that will provide enough momentum to get the other mental dominos to fall.

Later today, on video, I’ll attempt using this new strategy. However it goes, I’ll share the video tomorrow.

Yesterday, after reworking my recall strategy, I filmed a memorization attempt, and successfully memorized the entire deck in 2:34 — only 34 seconds off my target time. I made no mistakes during recall.

I have 16 days to shave those remaining 34 seconds off my time, which I’m feeling pretty confident about (although each second is becoming harder and harder to eliminate).

Here’s the video in it’s entirety. It’s pretty long, so here are some important times: I start memorizing at 0:24, finish memorizing (and start recalling) at 2:59, finish recalling (and start checking) at 11:38.

Over the past few days, I’ve been practicing a lot (including Sunday’s excitingly successful memorization on video), and my brain is starting to get tired again. So, I’m taking the day off today.

Memorizing cards requires rest days

In the beginning of Month to Master, I categorized this challenge as intellectual, while categorizing other challenges as creative (Draw a photorealistic self-portrait) or physical (Complete 50 consecutive pull-ups).

However, this challenge is surprisingly behaving a lot more like a physical challenge, where I can tire my body out and perform worse if I don’t take breaks.

The hard part about this challenge, unlike explicitly physical challenges, is I don’t know when my memorization muscles are sore.

If I perform badly, is that because I’m not making good progress, or because I’m just tired? There’s no way for me to really know the answer, which makes this challenge frustratingly difficult, at times.

Nevertheless, I’m forcing myself to take a day off today, in hopes that a well-rested brain will perform much better tomorrow.

I hate taking the day off, but am optimistic that it will help.

I started doing something a bit counterintuitive this week: In an attempt to find more practice time, I started staying later at work.

Let me explain…

Not all practice time is created equal. Some practice time, like that on a noisy train, isn’t as productive as practice time in my quiet apartment, which I consider optimal practice time (OPT).

My hope is to find as much OPT as possible during each day.

I’ve essentially maxed out my OPT in my current schedule, so I’m now looking for ways that I can convert my not-so-optimal practice time into OPT.

To do this, I’ve decided to stay longer at work, and take a later train home.

Changing trains

During my morning commute on Caltrain (the Bay Area commuter train), the train has two stories, where the second story offers single-file seats. In other words, during my commutes to work, I can sit in my own area, blocked off from everyone else by the seat in front me, the railing on my right side, and the window on my left. I’m completely undistractable.

On my normal commute home, the train has a different design, where all the seats are arranged facing each other in clusters of four. The result is a lot of people sitting down and standing up, a lot of people talking on the phone or to their neighbor, and ultimately a lot of distractions.

This makes it hard to remain focused, rendering my evening training sessions as less than optimal (and, often times, I just won’t practice).

The solution

If I stay at work 20 minutes longer, I can get on a train like the one I take in the morning, which means I can sit in one of the single seats, and enjoy fully optimal practice time.

Since, my train ride is around 60 minutes or so, I’m sacrificing 20 minutes of OPT at home, for 60 minutes of OPT on the train. This seems like a good deal.

Anyway, by reworking my commute, I’m getting more practice time and getting more work done. A good, yet counterintuitive, outcome.

I tried something new today, and it made huge difference.

Previously, I was visualizing 3-card PAO groups sitting on top of locations in my Mind Palace. For example, if the location was the glass desk in my room, and the cards were the 2s, KH, 9C, I would image Ben Stiller swinging a tennis rack on fire and place that image on top of my desk.

That worked okay, but today, I realize that, if I can make the PAO image interact with the environment, it becomes way easier to recall.

So now, I would imagine Ben Stiller swinging a fiery tennis rack, hitting the glass desk, shattering it, and everything on the desk bursting into flames.

During recall, when I mentally return to the desk, even if I can’t remember any of the PAO images, I can probably remember that the desk is shattered and on fire. Trying to figure why the desk is shattered and on fire, I would eventually remember Ben Still and his flaming racket.

This approach, of course, requires that I spend more time visualizing the scene. So, to compensate, I spend less time focusing on the PAO images, and more time visualizing how the PAO images will affect the location in which they’re being stored.

In this way, my memorization time has stay virtually the same, but my recall is improved greatly.

Today, I’m flying from San Francisco to New York to spend Thanksgiving with my family. I’m hoping to get some serious practice done during the 6 hour flight.

Once I get to New York, I’m staying there until November 27, which means most of the rest of this challenge will be completed at my parent’s house.

This will make things a little bit trickier. Firstly, being in NY means that I won’t be able to follow my commute-based practice routine. Additionally, over the next week, I have lots of plans to see my extended family (who all live on the East Coast), limiting the time I’ll have to practice in general.

Nevertheless, these aren’t excuses or complaints. In fact, they are quite the opposite…

My hope with this project is to demonstrate that I can continue living my normal life (with a full-time job, and travel, and other commitments), and still manage to complete the M2M challenge each month.

This Thanksgiving detour is no different.

Yesterday, before my flight to New York, I filmed another memorization session. During my final attempt (video below), I clocked in at the heartbreaking time of 2:02 — two seconds short of my target time.

I’m happy with the performance, but was pained when I checked the clock.

Memorization starts at 0:35. Memorization finishes and recall starts at 2:37. Recall finishes and checking starts at 9:27.

Yesterday, I shared a video where I memorized a deck of cards in 2:02 (two seconds short of my target time).

Today, I thought I’d answer a few question I received about the video.

Yesterday’s video

Why are you breathing so heavily in the beginning?

For the first 30 seconds of the video, I shuffle the deck while taking a few very big deep breaths. This isn’t for dramatic effect.

Instead, I’m trying to calm myself down, so I can memorize with a clear head (I completed another, slightly less successful memorization just before this video started). I didn’t even realize I was taking such heavy breaths until I watched the video back.

For the last 10 seconds of this getting in the zone period (i.e. from 0:20–0:30), I sit there, staring blankly at the table. During this time, I’m mentally traveling through the Mind Palace I plan to use, making sure it’s clear in my mind.

In this video, I actually tried two Mind Palaces before I decided on the second.

Why were you going so slow at the end? You could have definitely broken two minutes!

At 1:55 into my memorization, I only have four cards left to memorize. Since I typically practice with one-deck recall (where I recall the cards out of the same deck in which I memorized them, from first to last), to encode these four cards, I memorized one 3-card PAO group and then one card on its own in my Mind Palace.

However, in this case, I could have easily taken those five seconds to look at the cards, just commit them to short-term memory, and then immediately pull them out of the blue recall deck before I forgot.

Instead, I took the two extra seconds to save them to long-term memory, forcing me to just miss my target time.

It’s pretty clear why I made this mistake:

  1. I wasn’t using a timer. Instead, I was memorizing as fast as I could and planned to add the digital timer in post. So, I didn’t realize how close I was. Otherwise, I would have used the short-term memory trick.
  2. I started thinking about the time. When I got to the last four cards, I started wondering how much time had elapsed. This is very bad. As soon as I start thinking about something other than the cards themselves, I’m in trouble. In this case, I started thinking about the time, temporarily getting distracted from memorization, and forgetting about my short-term memory trick (instead, falling back into my well-practiced habit).

What’s going through your mind during recall?

I’ll write about my recall thought-process in a longer post another day, but I do want to point out one interesting thing that happened during this particular session.

At 8:53 in the video, I only have three cards left to recall (before reassembling the deck). When I get to these three cards, I can’t seem to figure out how they go together.

I realize that I actually made a mistake during memorization. I memorized the first PAO group as Adam Sandler throwing (like a baseball pitch) eggs out of the window, instead of Adam Sandler hitting (also like a baseball pitch) eggs out of the window with a baseball bat.

That’s what I get for having two baseball related actions.

Anyway, at this point in the video, I realize I made a mistake memorizing the second card, and correct the mistake, leading to the perfect recall.

Something weird is happening to my brain.

Yesterday, I saw someone in a wheelchair, and instantly, without conscious thought, the Eight of Diamonds popped into my head. (The Eight of Diamonds has the PAO object of a wheelchair)

Today, my sister was telling a story about tap dancing, and the Queen of Diamonds popped into my head, again without conscious thought. (The Queen of Diamonds has the PAO action of tap dancing)

Over the past week, other unintentional associations have also filled my brain. I guess, even when I’m not in card mode, my brain still wants to make associations between real-life things and cards.

Pretty weird.

As I wire up my brain to make these associations, I wonder what other associations I’m unwiring. Hope it’s nothing important…

I thought I was going to complete November’s challenge today. Especially after memorizing the deck in 1:50.

Instead, I switched two cards, correctly recalling 50 out of the 52.

Memorization starts at 0:22. Memorization finishes and recall starts at 2:12. Recall finishes and checking starts at 10:25.

Where things went wrong

I memorized everything correctly, and then leveled myself during recall.

I was stuck wondering if the fourth image was David Copperfield waving the American flag upside down or David Copperfield upside down waving the American flag. The first option isn’t something I’d ever actually memorize, but somehow I convinced myself that, in this case, while memorizing, I decided to make an exception. I was wrong.

I’ll get it next time.

I was a bit worried about traveling to New York, interrupting my normal practice routine and changing my environment.

But, as it turns out, this environment is much better suited to memorizing cards anyway.

No more white noise

Without the constant background noise of traffic and sirens (which is unavoidable in San Francisco), I can sit in the basement of my parent’s house, in complete silence, without white noise in my ears, and memorize cards very comfortable.

In yesterday’s video memorization, you’ll notice that I’m not using my normal Bose headphones. It’s just me and a deck of cards.

I thought I was used to the ambient groan of white noise and rain sounds while memorizing, but, at some level, it was definitely distracting.

When I get back to San Francisco, I’m going to buy some earplugs and maybe a pair of construction earmuffs.

Any day now…

With my brain happily memorizing without any distractions, I should complete this challenge any day now. My confidence level is at 99%.

Last night, I successfully completed November’s challenge.

I memorized a shuffled deck of cards in 1:47 (13 seconds faster than my target time and fast enough to qualify as a Grand Master of Memory).

Memorization starts at 0:25. Memorization finishes and recall starts at 2:12. Recall finishes and checking starts at 8:11.

Yesterday, I announced that I successfully completed November’s challenge, which is exciting, but doesn’t mean I’m done memorizing cards.

In fact, even though I’ve eclipsed Grand Master speed, I’m still quite far away from the world record time set by Alex Mullen, a medical student at the University of Mississippi. Alex memorized a deck of cards, during the USA Memory Championship, in 18.653 seconds. It took him about two years of practice to get to this speed.

I’m hoping that if I continue practicing a few minutes every day, I can dramatically drop my time, and get closer to this pace.

Over the next few days, I’m going to work out my long-term practice plan and interim milestones.

18 seconds seems impossible, but so did 2 minutes, so we’ll see what happens…

The most common question I received about November’s Speed Cards challenge is “Why?”, which is a good question, considering Speed Cards really doesn’t have any practical application outside of a memory competition.

Hopefully, I can explain why I was drawn to the oddly-niche pursuit of memory grandmastership by revealing something about where I come from (a.k.a. something about my family and my upbringing).

Over this Thanksgiving weekend, my extended family (16 of us) decided it would be fun to take a trapezing lesson. Because, you know…why not?

Here’s one of my attempts. Not the most graceful…

And this basically sums up everything you need to know about my upbringing.

Put in perspective, Speed Cards is starting to look like a pretty useful skill…

I just got back to San Francisco after a week with my family in New York.

While in New York, many family members asked me to demonstrate my newly cultivated powers and memorize a deck of cards in front of them. In other words, I was asked to perform Speed Cards as a party trick.

I was happy to comply, but I quickly found out that, even as a pseudo grandmaster, I’m still not quite ready for live performances.

Two problems with live performances

Firstly, up until this point, I’ve practiced memorizing cards in a controlled and quiet setting, which is a luxury I quickly lost during my live performances. In many cases, I would try to memorize while also holding minor conversations, or, at a minimum, grunting responses to basic questions about the trick.

Unsurprisingly, this was distracting and usually made for horrible recall.

The second problem is that two minutes feels like a long time to wait. Even though I perform this feat faster than most everyone else on Earth, as a party trick, Speed Cards still feels not so fast. As a result, impatience builds and conversation begins, leading to the first problem.

An idea for better performances

Clearly, the best solution for improving my performance is improving my memorization and recall speeds. In other words, if I could memorize as fast as Alex Mullen, and tear through the whole deck in under 20 seconds, I would have no problems. Obviously.

But, since I still memorize about 6x slower than the world record, I temporarily need a better way to perform Speed Cards as a trick.

My idea is called Speed Card racing. Here’s how it works:

  1. Get a deck of cards
  2. Ask someone in the audience to shuffle it
  3. Ask the shuffler to cut the deck into two equal piles of 26 cards
  4. Ask the shuffler to hand you one of the piles
  5. Tell the shuffler “Okay, we are going to race”
  6. The shuffler is first confused, but then most likely complies
  7. You both start memorizing one half of the deck
  8. 45 seconds later, you say “Done”
  9. The shuffler say “Oh. I’ve only memorized the first five cards…”
  10. You recall your 26 cards
  11. The demonstration is complete and everyone is thoroughly impressed

I like this routine for a few reasons. Firstly, I only have to memorize half of the deck, and rather than this being a disappointment of the performance, it’s justified quite nicely by the racing premise. Secondly, because we are racing, the audience (especially if it’s only one person) is occupied with their own half of the deck, so the 45 seconds goes by much more quickly. Finally, because the audience is also trying to memorize cards, they are quiet, which lets me do my thing as practiced.

Another thing I’ve realize is that people are much more impressed with the recall part of the trick (versus the memorization) in many cases. So, if you’ve been following along this month, and can memorize a deck of cards in (let’s say) 10 minutes, then… pre-memorize a deck of cards and just recall that already-memorized deck when asked to perform. This is basically just as impressive (sadly) to almost everyone who is watching.

Conclusion: Don’t practice Speed Cards if your singular goal is to impress people (unless you plan to devote many months to reach world record speeds). If you do want to impress people as a side benefit, you should probably race or pre-memorize.

The month of November is nearly done, and I’m curious how much time I actually spent becoming a pseudo memory grandmaster.

Going through my practice logs, here’s what I found:

Weekdays

On a normal Monday-Friday, I spent 1.5 hours practicing, divided into three 30 minute chunks over my morning commute, my evening commute, and my in-apartment nighttime session.

Two of the Fridays, I worked from home (i.e. no commute) and practiced around 45 minutes on those days.

Weekends

On Saturdays and Sundays, I would practice for about 45 minutes each day.

Special days

Once I was in New York for Thanksgiving, I was only practicing around 30 minutes per day.

During the month, I also took four days off (with two of those being in New York).

Doing the math

(11 normal weekdays * 1.5 hours) + (2 WFH Fridays * 0.75 hours) + (3 normal weekend days * 0.75 hours) + (4 days in New York * 0.5 hours) = 22.25 total hours

This is less than I expected.

Sure, 22.25 hours is still a significant amount of time, but it really isn’t that crazy of a commitment. It’s the same amount of time necessary to listen to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as an audiobook. Or, the same amount of time necessary to binge watch two seasons of Game of Thrones. Or, the same amount of time necessary to fly roundtrip from San Francisco to New York twice.

Evenly distributed over the month, it’s like I spent 45 minutes every day practicing. My guess is that everyone reading this post has at least 45 minutes of relaxing time every day (for the next 30 days) that they can instead use to pursuit mastery.

Just something to think about…

I completed November’s challenge five days ago, and without a concrete goal looming over my head, it’s a lot harder to motivate practicing.

After all, memorizing cards requires significant brainpower and focus, both of which are limited resources now being applied to my next challenges.

So, the only way I will continue to improve as a memory grandmaster is to set another ambitious goal: By March 1, I will memorize a deck of cards in less than 1 minute.

In other words, I’m giving myself three months to cut my Speed Cards time in half. I think this is doable, even though I’ll probably only have around 10 minute per day to practice.

If I don’t set this kind of goal, my card memorization muscles will atrophy, and all of November’s progress will be erased. At a minimum, I want to sustain my current skills.

So, there it is. With a new public goal and a new definition of success, I regain the accountability to keep up my training.

Now, I just need to figure out when I’ll actually have the time to practice…

I was originally inspired to begin the Month to Master project after reading the book The Happiness of Pursuit, in which the author, Chris Guillebeau, recounts his 10-year pursuit to visit every country in the world. Through his story, and the stories of many other fascinating pursuits, Chris shares how these kinds of quests can shape and bring purpose to the quester’s life.

While I didn’t feel like I was lacking purpose in my life, after reading the book, I was certainly inspired to embark on a quest of my own. In fact, I’ve been dreaming about starting a project like Month to Master for the past couple of years, but was convinced that I could only complete this kind of project “once I had more time”, whether that meant starting a lifestyle business, quitting my job, retiring some day, etc.

Reading this book changed my mind. Instead of waiting for some unknown moment in the future, I decided I was just going to start the project immediately and make it work.

I’m glad I did.

With an overarching pursuit, the past 30 days have been oddly meaningful. I guess there’s something that just feels so good about committing to a goal and aggressively progressing.

But it goes beyond that. Once I had the momentum from my challenge, I also started picking up momentum in other areas of my life: I started working out harder, accomplishing noticeably more at work, and spending higher quality time with my family, friends, and girlfriend.

It’s been seriously great.

And it’s all because I spent 45 minutes each day memorizing a few decks of cards. Who would have guessed…

This post is part of my year-long accelerated learning project, Month to Master.

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