A brain with arms lifting weights
Photo by Saul Albert

In Deep Work, Cal Newport uses a small section of the book to talk about methods we can use to improve our focus.

One of his suggestions is to learn from memory experts, people like Ron White who held the USA record for the fastest to memorize a deck of cards for a few years.

Being able to memorize a deck of cards seems like a super-human feat, but it turns out it’s actually quite easy. (Doing it at the speed of Ron White is a different story.)

All you need is two decks of cards.

Here’s how I learned to memorize a deck of cards over the weekend using Ron’s 2 step method as he explained over in The Art of Manliness.

Step #1: Make a mental map

The first step is to think of a place you know by heart. Somewhere where you can close your eyes and see yourself walking through it.

For me this place is my house.

The next step is to choose five rooms in the place you chose. See yourself walking through your chosen place and pick out five rooms that come up sequentially in your path.

For me, I walk into my house and there’s a foyer (Room #1) that leads into the kitchen (Room #2). From the kitchen I walk into the dining room (Room #3) and then I go up the stairs into my bathroom (Room #4). From my bathroom I head into my bedroom (Room #5).

The final step is to pick 10 items in each of these rooms.

For example, I stand facing the kitchen and I see a:

  1. Fridge
  2. Blender
  3. Toaster oven
  4. Knife rack
  5. Microwave
  6. Oven
  7. Paper towel rack
  8. Child proof cabinet with aspirin and old phone chargers
  9. Miniature shopping cart with bananas
  10. Drawer with placemats
Typical modular kitchen
Note: This is not my kitchen

4 things to keep in mind:

  1. Choose a direction, either clockwise or counter-clockwise, and pick items in this order throughout each room. I use counter-clockwise as that is what Ron recommends, but I don’t think it makes much of a difference.
  2. Don’t repeat items between rooms. If you choose a window or a closet in one room, don’t choose either of those again in another room.
  3. Choose ‘substantial’ items. Don’t use the TV remote, use the TV. Large items over small.
  4. Pick either up-down or down-up. I use up-down. The microwave in the kitchen is right on top of the oven, since I use up-down I know that the microwave comes first. This might or might not come into play depending on how the items you chose are arranged.

Once you’re done, you should have a list of five rooms with 10 items in each room for a total of 50 items.

The final step is to add two more items either in a new room or two distinct features of your place. I use the fence and the pool in the backyard.

You should now be able to ‘walk’ through your mental map and see the 52 items in order. Since this is a place you know well, there shouldn’t be much memorizing here.

Step #2: Create an association for every card

Now you need to associate each card with a person or thing. There’s a lot of leeway here and the more ‘personal’ you make your associations the easier they’ll be to remember.

One thing I do that helps is to associate each suit with a theme.

Hearts is love, diamonds is sports (diamonds conjures associations of wealth and sports stars are wealthy), clubs is entertainment (because of going out to clubs), and spades is historical figures (no great reason for this one).

Here are some my card associations:

  • My dad is the King of Hearts
  • My mom is the Queen of Heart
  • My sister is the 7 of Hearts because her birthday is in July
  • Michael Jackson is the King of Clubs because MJ was the King of Pop
  • Jack Nicholson is the Jack of Clubs
  • Brad Pitt is the 7 of Clubs because he was in the movie Se7en
  • Lebron James is the King of Diamonds because one of his nicknames is King James
  • Serena Williams is the Queen of Diamonds because she is the best female tennis player of all time
  • Tom Brady is the 7 of Diamonds because he scores touchdowns which are worth seven points
  • The queen of England is the Queen of Spades
  • Marcus Aurelius is the 5 of Spades because he was the last of the Five Good Emperors
  • Obama is the 4 of Spades because he was president number 44

Another thing that helps me is to associate specific numbers with themes as well.

For example, the 10 brings up thoughts of a ‘perfect 10’, people who stand out because of their looks, abilities, etc.

So combining this with the theme of each suit (Hearts - Love, Spades - Historical Figures, Clubs - Entertainment, Diamonds - Sports), the:

  • 10 of Hearts is my girlfriend
  • 10 of Spades is Leonardo da Vinci
  • 10 of Clubs is Elvis
  • 10 of Diamonds is Lionel Messi
Elvis Presley dancing in Jailhouse Rock
Imagine Elvis gyrating all over your kitchen...

Now go through a deck of cards and practice naming the person/thing that goes with each card. Keep doing this until you can quickly name the associated person/thing.

The more personal you make your associations the easier they’ll be to remember.

As you practice this, take notice if there are particular cards that you consistently struggle with. You might need to pick a better association for that card.

Combine the mental map and the images

Now all that’s left is to combine the mental map with the card associations.

Grab a shuffled deck of cards, start a stopwatch, and start flipping cards over one by one.

If the first card you pick up is the King of Clubs and your first item in your first room is a couch, then imagine Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk all over your couch.

If the next card is the 4 of Spades and your second item in your first room is a table, then imagine Obama standing on the table, giving a rousing speech, and saying “Let me be clear”.

Go through the rest of the cards in the deck and stop the stopwatch when you’re done.

You should now be able to “walk” through your mental map and see Michael Jackson moonwalking on your couch, Obama giving a speech on your table, etc.

Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk

Grab a second deck of cards and as you walk through the mental map put this second deck in the same order as the first.

Write down your time and try to do a bit better each time.

I’m currently able to do it in just under 10 minutes. I’m aiming to be under 5 minutes in a few month’s time.

For reference, the current world record is 13.96 seconds. That’s 4 cards per second.

It basically took me as long to divide 52 by 13 as it took this guy to remember the whole deck of cards. Yowza.