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How to remember more of what you read

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

Are you one of those people that seem to be able to read a book once and remember every detail of it, while others struggle to recall even the central theme a few days after finishing?

I am somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, which got me thinking about how to improve my reading, thereby remembering more so that I make better decisions.

What's the point of reading non-fiction if it isn't to learn something new, and gain insights? The problem is that, if you are like me, we quickly forget what we have spent hours reading, listening to (podcasts) or watching (tutorials, webinars, YT videos).

"Your mind is for having ideas. Not holding them."

David Allen. Author - Getting Things Done

The (Ebbinghaus) Forgetting Curve

Our memory decays unless we have ways of engaging with the content to combat it.

The Forgetting Curve

We, therefore, need a system in place to help us to:

  1. remember more of the content that we consume

  2. be able to recall the most important insights and learnings quickly

If we are going to spend some of the scarce time that we have on reading books and articles, then we should ensure that we are getting the most from doing so. The focus of my system is reading books, but I also use it for articles and courses. You can also apply it to podcasts and video tutorials, webinars and reap the benefits more broadly.

In this article, I will share the five stages I have identified to remembering more of what we read.

Stage zero.

You don't read any personal development books. If this is the stage that you are at, I highly recommend checking out my top reads here or here. I am confident that you will gain new insights from reading these books, which will help you throughout your career. And significantly, reading them will help you to make better, more informed decisions.

The first stage - read books.

You read non-fiction books, in the self-help and personal development categories and after finishing them, you move onto the next one. It's a broadly passive experience - you expect the content through osmosis to get into your brain and stay there. No highlighting or note-taking is happening. You read lots, but with this approach, you hope to remember the important stuff.

The second stage - you make notes and highlight things.

A typical study technique that I utilise when reading non-fiction is to :

  • Highlight and underline sentences, that I find compelling, or that surprise me.

  • Record my thoughts at the time by writing in the margins.

  • Turn over the corners of the pages that I feel warrant returning to so I can spend more time on a particular point or topic.

  • Or I use the Kindle highlight functionality for the small number of non-fiction ebooks that I buy.

However, we won't remember the stuff that we have highlighted or underlined. It doesn't aid with recall. Some of the research finds that highlighting may get in the way of learning; because it draws attention to individual facts, it may actually hamper the process of making connections and drawing inferences.

We also now have the problem of all those insights hidden away inside the books that we have read. Trying to search for something, even if you remember the right book, can be like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack. I even go as far as turning over the corner of pages which are the most interesting, but a typical book will then have many corners turned over, so it doesn't help.

I have been using this approach, highlighting, underling, writing in the margins and turning over corners of pages up to the first half of 2020. And this is when I finalise realised I have been missing out, all of the learning and insights are locked away because I haven't moved to stage three.

The third stage - a nascent system emerges.

You're already doing the hard work of reading books, listening to podcasts, and having ideas. Building a central, digital note-taking system is the best way to take advantage of all the hours you spend consuming content. The third stage is about having a systematic process for capturing your highlights, notes and underlined sentences and paragraphs.

For physical books, we need to invest additional time copying the highlighted and underlined parts of the books and typing them into a central note-taking app. For those Kindle users, extract your highlights from Kindle using a tool like Readwise.

There is lots of choice as to which app to use for the central database. I like Microsoft OneNote that comes free with Office. There are many others that you might choose from such as Evernote, Notion etc. Pick something that will endure, and you expect to be used more broadly for years to come. OneNote is my to-do list, the repository for blog and article ideas, and much, much more.

This process will bring the valuable content together in one place, which you can now search digitally, rather than struggling to find the topic that you want to revisit by physically scanning the books or your Kindle library. But it is passive. We haven't reviewed the highlights and notes to make connections, inferences, or distilled the key themes into bite-size pieces.

The current result is your learning is fragmented, missing crucial links, and a veneer of what could be.

The fourth stage - writing and recording notes.

The next stage is to write notes. In particular, to summarise the book in a few sentences is a powerful way to ramp up your learning and understanding. It is a way of actively ensuring you understand the central themes and concepts. It can also help forge connections between the new information and what you already know, increasing your retention. I have found that the information or different point of view also helps form the basis for new ideas and potential solutions to existing problems.

A good idea to ensure consistency and that you capture everything is to use a standard template. Here is mine, feel free to copy:

Template for taking digital book notes

You can see that I capture the name of the author, when I read the book, how did I discover it - often through recommends etc.

I know this takes time to think and do, time that you may say you don't have. But once you have established the system and created your template - feel free to copy mine - the reviewing, copying and writing notes is a small additional amount of time on top of the investment you have made by reading the book in the first place. If the book took you three to five hours to read and you take an additional twenty to thirty minutes to do this, then that adds only about 10% more time, but your ROI will significantly increase.

If I had done this for every non-fiction book that I have read then I know I would be infinitely more knowledgeable about all the stuff that I have read than I am. So what?! The what is that being more knowledgeable and having almost perfect recall will lead to better decisions! I wish I had given this advice to my younger self. The value of this knowledge compounds throughout our careers as the bank of knowledge builds up.

I am happy to stop at stage four. I view stage four as a sweet spot in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.

The fifth stage - reflective writing.

But you may want to go further and engage with books by writing reflective notes which encourages more in-depth thinking and will help you to make connections between what you read and what you need to do in practice. You reflect so that you can learn further.

Create your perspective on the points that resonate the most. The topics that particular impact you and your work. Those that you find the most interesting, insightful or surprising. It's a great way of engaging with and getting the most out of the books, but it does take more time than stage four. Stage five takes a lot more time. Stopping at stage four for the majority of books you read is the most efficient and practical approach. I would only consider doing this stage for the highest-rated books and content - the 5 out of 5 stars.

Organisational learning

So you've finished the book, recorded your notes (stage four) and perhaps even written reflective notes (stage five). Now what? How can you use what you have learned? Well, the one way to apply what you have learned is in your work, by introducing it into your teams by sharing with your work colleagues.

Take the time to discuss with them and decide whether and how to implement key lessons from the book. One way to do this is to form a new team habit, one where you or another member of the team shares what they have learned from the book with the rest of the group. Teaching others is a powerful way to embed information in your mind.

From an organisational perspective, there are many benefits:

  • You create a more enduring organisational memory - people leave teams, change organisations or retire. Don't lose that knowledge.

  • You establish a rich archive. This library helps to build the capacity to apply this learning and knowledge to new problems.

  • You will come across books, authors, and broader content that you wouldn't have done otherwise. A diverse team will have different points of view. These varied perspectives will help further deepen the learning and how it may be applied to solve problems.

  • The level of bonding within the team to each other and to the team's goals is likely to increase as you further get to know each other through this process.

Books pique our interests and imagination. So I will finish this article with the wise words of Albert Einstein:

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

If you want to discover my favourite non-fiction reading lists, check out:


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