Use These Simple Strategies to Retain Everything You Read

Use These Simple Strategies to Retain Everything You Read

One of the benefits of reading is that it allows you to master the best of what other people have already figured out. Of course, this is only true if you can remember and apply the lessons and insights from what you read.

Reading is a way to discover new ideas. The question is, how do we do that well?

This essay outlines how to get the most out of your reading. Whether it’s a book, article, or academic paper — it doesn’t matter. The goal is to use our time efficiently.

In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.

Charlie Munger

Quit Books

My philosophy with reading is simple: Skim a lot of books. Read a few. Immediately re-read the best ones twice.

Good writing is effortless reading. Bad writing, on the other hand, feels like a chore. Good writing is felt instantly. Not only is it packed with ideas and insight, it has a certain momentum that compels you to keep reading.

Quitting a book is not as easy as it seems. We’ve been taught our whole lives to finish what we start and that anchor prevents us from moving forward. A book we are no longer interested in often sits on our nightstand, serving as a visual reminder of what we need to finish before starting something new.

When it comes to reading, you don’t need to finish what you start. You can quit. Once you realize that you can quit without guilt, everything changes.

Reading a great book twice is better than reading ten average ones. All the time you spend reading something bad comes at the expense of reading something good.

Skim a lot of books. Read a few. Immediately re-read the best ones twice.

Levels of Reading

Reading the words is the easy part. We learned how to do this in elementary school. But reading the words is not enough if you want to retain and apply what you learn.

The first lesson of reading comprehension is that not everything needs to be read the same way. Tailoring how you read to what you read saves you time and increases retention.

Some books deserve a skim, while others deserve your undivided attention.

How much effort you put in relates to what you’re reading, why you’re reading it, and how interested you are.

How to Read a Book explores four approaches to reading (from easiest to hardest).

  1. Reading to Entertain — The level of reading taught in our elementary schools.
  2. Reading to Inform — A superficial read. You skim, dive in and out, get a feel for the book, and get the gist of things.
  3. Reading to Understand— The real workhorse of reading. This is a thorough reading where you chew on things and digest them.
  4. Reading to Master  —  If you just read one book on a topic, odds are you have a lot of blind spots in your knowledge. Synoptical reading is reading various books and articles on the same topic, finding and evaluating the contradictions, and forming an opinion.

Reading takes effort. Choosing where and how to apply that effort makes the difference.

Choose Books Worth Reading

The most important thing when it comes to reading is selecting great inputs.

Just as it’s harder to make healthy choices if your house is full of junk food, it’s difficult to get great insights from bad writing.

If you’re like most people, you’ll naturally be drawn to newer writing. New books, for example, are full of sex appeal, marketing, and … empty promises. While a few new books might prove valuable, most will be forgotten quickly after you finish them.

One way to filter books is through time.

Time filters out what works from what doesn’t. And there is no need to waste time on books that don’t last. Time sorts the books worth reading deeply from the ones that should be skimmed or ignored. Most of what you need from new books (skill development, recipes, etc.) can be found quickly and easily online.

Reading time is limited and should be directed at the knowledge that accumulates and compounds rather than something that quickly perishes. One surprising benefit to reading books that stand the test of time is that I’ve stopped reading the news.

Read old books. Read the best ones twice.

Think about it this way:if you read an old book and hit on insights that still resonate as true, you know they’ve been true for a long time, and they will continue to be true in the future.

Reading Speed

Reading speed is a vanity metric.

In the real world, no one cares how fast you read or how many books you read last year or last week. All that matters is what you absorb and apply.

Reading one great book slowly is better than quickly skimming one hundred average books.

A good book, like a good wine, deserves to be savored. Find something worth reading, then chew on the ideas slowly and deeply.

The Simple Note-Taking System to 10x Retention

The single biggest change you can make to get more out of the books you decide to read deeply is the blank sheet method of note-taking. It took me years to develop this system, and it will be 10 times your comprehension. I don’t say that lightly. I’ve tested it on thousands of people.

The blank sheet method primes your brain for what you’re about to read and shows you what you’re learning.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Before you start reading a new book, take out a blank sheet of paper. Write down what you know about the book/subject you’re about to read — a mind map.
  2. After you finish a reading session, spend a few minutes adding to the map with a different color pen.
  3. Before you start your next reading session, review the page.
  4. When you’re done reading, put these ‘blank sheets’ into a binder that you periodically review.
An example I made when I was reading a new book by Jeff Immelt—someone whom I was preparing to interview for The Knowledge Project.

Why does this work so well?

The blank sheet method primes your brain for what you’re about to read, offers structure, and reinforces that you’re learning.

When you first start with a blank sheet, you’re forced to search your memory and put on paper what you know (or what you think you know) about a subject. As you read, you see that understanding grow as you add new knowledge to the foundation.

Not only will you add new knowledge, but equally valuable, you’ll remove things you thought you knew that turned out not to be so.

Reviewing what you know about a subject, as well as what you have already learned before a reading session, not only improves memory and recall but helps layer and connect ideas.

Most of the early connections come from putting the authors’ raw material onto your foundation. If you don’t know anything about the subject before you start, don’t worry. You’ll be able to borrow the scaffolding in the book to get you started.

As your fluency in a subject grows, you’ll start connecting ideas across disciplines, disagreeing with authors about specific points, and even developing your own ideas.

When you’re done with the book, put the page into a binder. Review the binder every few months. This last step is essential for establishing deep fluency and connecting ideas across disciplines.

Conventional Note-Taking

Forget the teacher who yelled at you for writing in your book when you were a kid. You bought this thing. It’s your property. Write in the margins. Make it yours.

Here is a very simple process to take notes while reading:

  • At the end of each chapter, write a few bullet points that summarize the main idea or specific points. Use your own words and not the authors’. Try and connect it to something in your life — a memory or another idea. Also, make note of any unanswered questions you had while reading.
  • When you’re done with the book, put it down for a week.
  • Pick up the book again and go through all your notes. In a lot of cases, reading your notes will be as good as reading the book again.
  • On the inside cover, write out the main idea of the book using your own words. If you find yourself stuck, review your notes. (This is called the Feynman Technique). Writing is the process by which we often discover we don’t know what we are talking about.
  • You can even make a custom index on the back cover with themes or topics.
  • (Optional) Copy out the excerpts by hand and put them on the back of your blank sheet from above, or type them out and put them into Evernote. Tag accordingly.

The point of both conventional notes and the blank sheet is to connect new knowledge to old knowledge and point out gaps in your understanding.

Writing about what you read is the key to turning the experience of reading into knowledge you can use. Writing is reflection. Reflection is the key to learning.

Reading More

You can’t get where you want to go if you’re not learning all the time. One of the best ways to learn is to read.

Reading habits don’t need to be complicated; you can start a simple 25 page-a-day habit right now. While it seems small, the gains add up quickly.

Above all else, remember that just because you’ve read something doesn’t mean you’ve done the work required to have an opinion.

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