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Better number memorization

apr 2021 –– 3 min read

We often need to memorize numbers: phone numbers, credit card numbers, addresses, PINs, etc. –– both in a pinch and repeatedly over time.

You might not know of a simple trick to dramatically improve your ability to do this. The average person can memorize hundreds of digits, and recall them weeks later!

If you're not familiar with this technique, also known as the major system, keep reading.

If you're already familiar with it, skip ahead to the leet system for an improved method.

The major system

The major system [wiki] is a popular technique for memorizing numbers. The trick is that it's easier to memorize phonetic sounds, or visuals, than pure numbers.

For example, the number 858817 becomes fluffy dog. Much easier to remember!

To learn how to do this, there are two steps:

Number Letter(s) Mnemonic
0 S, Z empty space, zero
1 T, D 1, t, d all have a vertical line down
2 N n looks like a 2 on its side
3 M m looks like a 3 on its side
4 R four
5 L hold out your 5 fingers, thumb/index form an L
6 J, ch, sh j has a hook like a 6
7 K, G k looks like two 7's
8 F, V figure-8
9 P, B p and b look like flipped 9's

That's it! This simple trick can help you memorize any number sequence much faster, and can be learned in under a day.

Here's a link to a web app to learn the major system faster.

This exact technique is used by record-setting memory champions and, combined with memory palaces, can be used to memorize thousands of numbers for long periods of time.

The leet system

After using the major system for over a year, I still didn't find it quite intuitive or fast enough.

After experimenting with many different modifications, I landed on something that most closely matches "leetspeak" (aka 1337) [wiki], a familiar way of replacing letters with numbers among Internet users.

The premise is the same as the Major system. However, the numbers are replaced with the letters that look much more similar, so it doesn't take as much mental effort:

Number Letter Mnemonic
0 O
1 L
2 N n looks like a 2 on its side
3 M (or E) m looks like a 3 on its side
4 D (or A) D looks like a morphed 4
5 S
6 G
7 T
8 B
9 P p looks like a flipped 9

Almost all of the letters look identical to their corresponding number, with a few cases where the number is rotated or flipped.

You may want to replace the 3 with an E, 4 with an A, or other modifications that work best for you.

The main tradeoff vs. the Major system is the use of vowels. They add ambiguity when forming words. I only replace 0 with "o", so I don't find this causes too many problems.

Results

I measured about a 30% improvement in time to memorize/recall numbers with the leet system vs. the major system, with very little training (1.0s/digit to 0.7s/digit).

Overall, this system has been significantly easier for me to use in a pinch.


I'd recommend finding your own system, whether it's the major system, the leet system, or your own personal derivative, to help memorize numbers in everyday life. It's quite handy for such a small investment.

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