How To Retain What You Read

Statue of a reading frog in Matsumoto Japan. If you want to retain what you read, don't stop at casual reading.

We live in an age of information overload.  If you are a knowledge worker, you are expected to be able to process and remember lots of information.  Although I am a fast reader, I have struggled in the past to remember what I read. I realized that I didn’t have lectures and study to help reinforce reading like when I was in school.  After struggling for a while, I put together my system based on advice from others and my personal hacks.  Here are my tips to how to retain what you read.

Take Good Notes to Retain What You Read

The key to remembering what you read is to take good notes.  If you have the time, skim a chapter beforehand to gain an idea of the main points.  Look at the first and last sentences of a paragraph to get the key highlights.

Next, read the chapter again carefully.  Highlight any major passages that strike you and include your thoughts in the book next to that paragraph.  If you have a Kindle, use the highlight and annotate function to document your thoughts.  Marginalia, as this is called, is useful for creating a snapshot of your first reaction to a book.

I use my local library to screen books that I read.  If I really like a book, I will buy a personal copy to annotate.  If I don’t think a book is worth buying, I use a Moleskine to document my highlights from the book.  Then I take a picture of the passage and import it into Evernote.  I can support my local library system and keep my book budget under control.

Ryan Holiday uses a system of index cards to keep his thoughts organized.  He labels quotes according to subject to keep track of quotes and thoughts on a particular topic.  I use a Moleskine to keep all of my thoughts in one place so that I don’t have to shuffle through index cards.  By taking a picture and importing into Evernote, I can take the quote and take advantage of Evernote’s robust search capabilities.  It’s the best of both worlds.

Why not go completely digital?  A study from Princeton showed that people remember handwritten notes better than digital notes.  In my experience, I remember notes that I have written by hand better than notes that I have typed.

After you have completed all of your notes, take some time and compile your quotes and thoughts into a one page summary of the material.  Don’t limit yourself by the book or article’s structure.  If you think that the information could be organized better, rework your summary to help your understanding.

Convert Information Into Other Formats

Your one page summary is just a starting point.  Look into other ways to organize your notes so that you can test your understanding.  Mindmapping and sketchnoting are great methods to visually organize notes about a topic.

At this point, consider adding in other books or articles related to your topic.  Look for themes and ideas that keep popping up.  Look at the references listed in the books and articles that you have read for sources for more information.  Wikipedia is also a good resource to find more articles related to a topic.

Teach Someone Else

The ultimate test of understanding is whether you can explain a topic to another person.  If you need to learn more information for work, you have a built-in audience for your knowledge.  Consider putting your information in a presentation or whitepaper to help your coworkers.

If you are learning for personal interest, you could create a blog post or Youtube video about a topic.  Teaching others helps your personal understanding. More importantly, you are also helping others who are also interested in a subject.  Teaching is a great way to make new friends.

What are your tips for remembering what you read?  What is your favorite method of taking notes?


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Photo of a Statue of a Reading Frog.  The text says "How to Retain What You Read"


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