How to Remember What You Read (#113)

“I just sit in my office and read all day.”

Warren Buffett

Reading books has lately become one of my greatest habits. But only reading them and taking in information isn’t going to help if the books I read don’t show up in my morals and through my actions. We’ll see how we can remember and get the most out of reading in this article.

Note: The techniques outlined don’t just go for non-fiction books, they can be used for any written material, or even sources from different mediums other than words, e.g. verbal ideas, podcasts, documentaries, TV shows, etc.

Make notes (on and off the book)

This sounds obvious, and everybody preaches note taking. Because it works. Yet, not everyone uses it. Whatever your information medium may be (books, audiobooks, TV), take notes. Be a passionate note taker and note maker. In the book, write in the margins. Have your own conversation with the author. Whatever goes on in your mind when you read something, write it in the margin beside the thought-provoking paragraph. It can be silly, but write it down. Writing while reading makes you more aware of your own thoughts. And helps you later to better remember what you read, because you were consciously writing something about what you read when you were reading it. Make notes, highlight, draw arrows, diagrams, anything. Forget about those teachers who told you not to write in your books or make them shabby. Unless it’s someone else’s property, feel free to write anything in your book.
Now, what if it is someone else’s book? Perhaps a friend’s or from the local library?
Well, then you make notes off the book. Digital notes (I use Apple Notes) or physical notes (pen and paper if you are able to preserve them well) both work well. Type/write your notes there.
I use both methods. When it’s my book, I highlight and write in it. Also, whenever I find something really important, resonating or enthralling; I copy/paste from the book to my Notes app on my phone. Then I write my reasoning or my thoughts of that idea or principle from the book in brackets (). I use this note taking method for every book I read. It’s linked to all my devices and I can access my notes anytime. Use this method, combined with the note making inside the book (if it’s yours). I like to go back to these digital book notes of mine when I want to brush up on some book or recall an important idea from it. It’s simple and it works. It makes you voluntarily think about what you’re reading, not merely read words on a page.

Teach someone what you learn.

Note: This method is popularly known as the Feynman Technique by Richard Feynman.
You just read a chapter from a book where you think you’ve learned a great deal. Great! Now, before you tend to forget about it in the rough and tumble way of life, grab someone (who is willing) and teach them what you learned. Yes, teach. Even though you’re not a master or learned professor in that principle or idea you just read about. Give them the gist of it. Make them understand the principle. State it’s importance. State it’s uses. Tell them how they can use it to their benefit. And make sure they understand. This is important because your language needs to be as simple as possible. Why? Because that shows how much you’ve really understood about the topic. If you can’t teach it to a child, you probably don’t quite know what you’re talking about. So, when you learn something, teach it to someone in the simplest words possible. Get down to the fundamentals of the fundamental principle of what you learned. Keep it simple. If it isn’t simple, or the person (or child) you’ve taught has not understood you, try refining and relearning, and then making it simpler yet. Until your pupil understands. First Read. Then Teach. Then you shall Learn.

Use the principle as soon as you learn about it.

You can teach someone about the principle, and make a better chance of remembering it and thoroughly learning it. Then, you can directly go out and use that principle in real life. As simple as that. For example, you just read a chapter of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People (one of the greatest books ever written on self-improvement). And you understood a principle given in the book: “Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.”
Now all you have to do is, on your next meeting, be a more open-minded, and open-eared person. Let the other person talk. And let yourself listen emphatically. Doing this, you just used a principle of what you learned.
Then note how it felt on using it. How important that principle was in your conversation. Why it’s important for you to use more often. Living the principle or idea given in a book, rather than merely reading it, will certainly raise your chances of remembering what you read by a great margin.
This can work for most of the things you learn from a great book. Books which allow you to take action as soon as you read a chapter of it. Read. Understand. Then use what you’ve understood as soon as you find an opportunity to do so.

Make your own summaries.

Once you’ve read a whole book, make your own summary. Then if you wish, post it on your blog, or any social media platform for the world to read. This gives accountability to write sincerely. Or if you prefer, keep the summary with you. But make a summary of the book! Use mind-maps, and highlighters and literally anything. Make it as simple as possible. Something you can go back to and read and which would automatically make you recall the main points in the book. In your summary, try answering questions like these:
– What is the significance of this book?
– What is the main message the author wishes to convey?
– What are the key principles I learned on reading this book?
– How can I summarize the book in one sentence?
– How can I use the basis of this book to my benefit?
Spend some time thinking and reflecting after reading every book and make a synopsis.

The Blank sheet.

This is something I’ve newly adopted in my reading habit. And it’s very, very effective. (This insight is originally from the blog of Farnam Street aka FS which I found to be really helpful for me so I’m sharing it here). It makes every reading session worthwhile. At the start of a book, I take a blank sheet of paper. And as I finish my first reading session, I write, very briefly about what I learned from the time I spent on the book. I do this after reading every chapter or rather even every session I spend on the book. This usually is in the form of a mind-map. Where, I’ll fill up the whole blank sheet (sometimes requiring a few more than one paper), as we proceed through the entire book. And at the end, I have a filled paper or two of all the summaries of all my reading sessions. Every point gets listed. It’s very simple, you don’t need to write a lot. Even a single sentence can do.
For example, if I read a chapter on the history of chemistry just now, then I’d take a line radiating from the middle of the page (which usually is just the name of the book) and write on the branch “The History of Chemistry”. Then, I’d branch out a few more lines radiating from the sub-line of “The History of Chemistry” and on those I’d write “John Dalton – Atom“, “Proton – J. J. Thompson, Neutron – Ernest Rutherford & Electron – James Chadwick“. Then another branch would say “Mendeleev – Periodic Table“. Another would say Marie Curie – Radioactivity. And that would be my summary for the history of chemistry if I read a chapter about it. All in the form of one simple mind-map. The name of the book in the middle of the page in a box. Then all information pouring out through lines and branches emanating from the main title.
This works for every message. You just write the fundamental message of what you read about. That’s it. And at the end of the book, you’ll enjoy having a filled page (or quite more) of all the things you read about with ideas or information personally quoted after every reading session.
Doing this after every reading session is so helpful to remember what you spent an hour on reading about. And of course, you can always go back to your mind-maps.

That’s all the ways I better remember what I read. It really helps me. And I hope it’s the same way with you.

Happy reading.

The Blank Sheet method was adopted from an article on the blog of Farnam Street (FS). You can read that amazingly helpful article here.

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