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How I learned the NATO Phonetic Alphabet

Did it ever happen to you that during a phone call you had to spell something? An airline code, an email, an invoice number, etc. At those situations, I always regretted not having learned the NATO phonetic alphabet.

NATO Phonetic Alphabet

Flash forward to September 2019: I found myself in a talk about learning and memory techniques during the Automattic Grand Meetup. It picked my interest so I decided to investigate a bit and signed up for the Learning how to Learn MOOC.

In this post I’m sharing how I’ve applied my new gained knowledge to learn something useful that I had put off for a long time. I also hope to interest you in the topic of learning how to learn.

1 – Deal with procrastination

The main reason I had postponed learning the NATO Phonetic Alphabet is that I thought I had a bad memory and it’ll be a lot of work — I procrastinated. Procrastination is a mechanism our brain uses to cope with challenging feelings induced by certain tasks: perhaps we believe we can’t do something, maybe it’s boring, makes us feel anxious, etc. Essentially, procrastination is not about time-management, but about emotion-management.

To deal with procrastination means to deal with and rewire our emotions about the task. Doesn’t sound easy, right? The good thing is that there are a few practical things we can do:

  • Time-box short periods of focus, break and reward. Time 20 minutes during which you’ll exclusively focus on the task at hand and do whatever you can: no pressure in the output, just focus on doing anything. Then, give yourself a break and a reward — exercise a little, eat some chocolate, surf the web, whatever works for you. Do not forget about the reward! It’s a crucial part of rewiring your feelings about the task. Finally, repeat the process a couple of times more.
  • Focus on the process, not the product. Planning and have small wins/rewards is an important part of dealing with procrastination. Things like writing down the next tasks you’ll work on at the end of your day or cross-off the ones you’ve done help you focus on the steps. By focusing on the process, not the final goal, it’s easy to control our feelings of discomfort.

For me, the first focused session was about familiarizing myself with the NATO Phonetic Alphabet: essentially, I surfed the web and read about it. Then, I stopped and gave myself a reward. My second session was about how would one go about memorizing all the 26 symbols (see next tip). Break and reward. I spent the third session developing the system I had researched. Again, break and reward. By the fourth session, I was ready to start memorizing.

2 – Tap the visual and spatial memory

Through many thousands of years, our brain has evolved to be amazingly good at remembering places, visual things, as well as anything that involves the senses. When dealing with abstract concepts it’s useful to encode them into memory leveraging those abilities. For someone who hadn’t consciously done this before and feels that has an average memory, this is easier said than done.

If we look around us, though, there are multiple real-life examples we can draw inspiration from:

I hadn’t done it before, so I spent my second focused session thinking about how would I put in practice the things I had learned. I also reviewed what others did for inspiration: the NATO publishes a guide that links images to the words, some people create a song, etc. Of all the things that I found, the approach suggested by Nelson Dellis -4th time winner of the USA memory championship- was the most appealing to me: he creates an image by merging the letter and the word associated with it.

For example, for the pair A-Alpha he pictures sprouts of Alfalfa coming out of the A letter; for the pair P-papa he pictures a cartoon of his dad with the shape of the P; for the pair U-uniform he pictures the U being a basket where you’d store uniforms; and so on. I highly recommend the video if you’re interested in the mechanics of this.

After I knew the system I wanted to use, I decided it was time for a break (and a reward!). After a while I came back energized to create my own — actually, my unconscious brain already had already suggested some ideas (see next tip). Being my first time ever doing this kind of thing, it took around an hour to come up with my own memorable images for each one of the 26 letter-word pairs.

3 – Focus, rest, and recall

Now that I had a system in place, the next step was memorizing. I went through the phonetic list stopping a few seconds in each of the images I had created. After a few rounds, I stoped and did other things. Then I tried recalling them from memory: I didn’t get all of them but I did get many. I repeated the pattern (focus, rest, and recall) a couple of times during the day. The days after I mostly did recall using the Anki app where I had stored the pairs previously.

It turns out this strategy works a lot better than just going through the list over and over until you are exhausted. There are a number of things at play here:

  • Switching between focus and rest states helps your brain digest the information, so to speak. In the focus mode, you’re able to direct your thoughts to a problem. Although you can’t command your diffuse unconscious brain to work on the things you want, you can prime it to do it — aka make suggestions. How? For example, by taking a break after a focused session (go for a little walk, take a one-second nap like Dali or Einstein, do the home chores, etc.).
  • Space the repetition. Once you reach the point of almost no errors, repeating has diminishing returns — it’s just not effective and creates illusions of competence. To store something in long-term memory, you have to modify the forgetting curve instead. How? Spaced repetition. Instead of cramming a 2h session repeating the same material over and over, do smaller sessions spaced through several days. Useful ways to be deliberate about practicing is scheduling your review and study sessions in a calendar, use flashcards to keep track of progress, etc.
  • Recall from memory. Long-term memory is a storage mechanism that prioritizes which memories are consolidated and which ones aren’t that important. By recalling the information, we’re strenghthening the path to retrieve it later. In many ways the mechanism is very similar to paving a cowpath: a memory is strong when it was used a lot during different intervals. Recalling and testing yourself are the most effective techniques you can use to reinforce what you want to learn. Also teaching it to someone else, which is a good technique to uncover the holes in your understanding.

Coda

Although the tips I suggested here are universal, how do you apply them to a specific situation varies from problem to problem.

Take memorization techniques, for example: PAO, Major System, Mnemonics, Memory Palace, etc. Some are useful to convert concepts into images, others to link or inter-connect different ideas. It takes time to know which technique is more adequate to a specific problem. That intuition is only built with practice.

Other essential functions of learning that I didn’t use in this process were understanding and chunking. I had a list of 26 symbols that matched a letter in the alphabet and they didn’t have any other meaning; I also didn’t have any pre-requisite knowledge, so to speak. If I was trying to understand a mathematical formula or how a web-browser works, chunking would have been essential. The process is similar to putting together a puzzle and involves compressing the information, learning to deconstruct the concept you’re trying to understand, reason by analogy, transform the concept to a different mode/language (from a formula to a graph, from graph to simple words), etc. It’s a messy process.

The topic of Learning How to Learn is fascinating. There is so many practical things you can do to improve and some of them are so counterintuitive. It’s also a fun way to challenge the pre-conceptions about yourself and indulging a bit of goofyness while you work hard to grok something.

If this post picked your interest, I recommend checking the Learning How to Learn MOOC and/or the book is based from, A mind for numbers. They are comprehensive and contain extensive documentation and research, while keeping things actionable.

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