Lack of standalone applicability as the primary cause of formulation difficulty

October 12, 2020

Note: This article uses topics (in SuperMemo) as a unit of information (for ease of communication). It also assumes mastery of the 20 rules (this article is not about difficulty with those basics).

I think it all comes down to this: Items are difficult to make if a topic lacks standalone applicability, or if you lack clarity about its applicability.

This would explain many observations I’ve had, such as:

  • It’s hard to make items from generalizations. This makes sense because Unearned generalizations are less applicable
  • It’s hard to make items from conversations. Given the free-form, off-the-cuff nature of conversations, they are typically generalization-heavy (see the first bullet point for the continued chain of reasoning). The same applies to podcasts.
  • It is hard to make items from things you have no interest in (if it were applicable, it would probably be interesting)
  • It is hard to make items from things you don’t understand (if you don’t understand something, how do you know its areas of applicability?)

    • Conversely, it is usually straightforward to make items from things you already understand very well
  • It is easy to make items from your own writing (it’s your writing, so it probably contains clear articulations of how/why/where/when you think the underlying information is applicable. Or perhaps you wouldn’t have been able to write it if it were not clear in your mind.)

Why the inclusion of “standalone”? Because many topics are only useful if you think beyond the words within them. Put another way: The source of the value is not completely within the topic. It lacks standalone applicability. It gains applicability only when combined with an unwritten quantity (thinking). There are two problems:

  1. Learn drive says “interesting.” Conscious mind may not yet know why (applicability unknown). Figuring out the applicability is even more difficult if the underlying material itself is not well understood.
  2. It is one thing to have a thought in your mind. It is another thing to express it articulately (i.e., put it into the topic, thus giving it standalone applicability).

What is the utility of this realization? It reveals an executable strategy for resolving item woes. Consider why, how, when, where, or if the information is applicable. Understand its implications. Import supplementary material. Find where it fits in your overall knowledge. Think, and write down those thoughts. Make your internal associations explicit. Then it will be easy to make items.