How to Retain More of What You Read in 8 Simple Steps
You’ve read countless articles about the benefits of reading, you own an impressive collection of books, and you’ve even learned how to become a more prolific reader.
Of course, you want to use all the knowledge and inspiration that your books can give you. But how do you retain all that information and apply it to the real world?
Because of our extensive usage of the internet and social networks, we are often guilty of shallow reading. We skim through entire pages of content, without taking anything in.
“A wealth of Information creates a poverty of attention.” — Herbert Simon.
I think we’re all susceptible to a problem called CPA — continuous partial attention. Writer Linda Stone coined this term to describe the way our attention is constantly switched on in a shallow way.
We never want to miss anything and we allow ourselves to get constantly bombarded by information. This is why we might keep checking our phones even when we’re not bored, or why you may find yourself switching from tab to tab even when you’re reading an article you like.
If your attention is splintered, you can’t get immersed in the text you’re reading. This makes it impossible to make the most of the books you’ve read.
However, you can always make an effort to change things.
I’d like to share my exact process for reading and collecting/curating information. Hopefully, you will find some of those tips helpful.
1 — Read with purpose.
“Following your genuine intellectual curiosity is better than following whatever makes money.” — Naval Ravikant
Start with reading books that tackle issues you currently care about. You will be less inclined to get distracted if the main topics of the book address the questions you’re facing in your life.
People are natural problem solvers, and we don’t stop solving problems when our brain is in relaxation mode. As you read, your mind will keep working on a solution. You’ll also feel less alone — books offer a link to people who’ve gone through the same challenges you’re facing now.
2 — Arrange your schedule around reading, rather than the other way around.
To go into deep reading mode, I believe we need at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time.
Personally, I prefer not to leave this to chance. Interruptions make it difficult to retain any valuable information at all. They also turn reading into a frustrating experience instead of the pleasure it’s supposed to be.
So my advice is to consciously give yourself uninterrupted reading time, and put those reading sessions in your calendar if necessary.
I find that early mornings are the most effective for me — if I take the time to enjoy a good book before the craziness of the day starts, I can remain more balanced throughout the day. But evenings or lunch breaks might work better for you!
3 — Remove all distractions.
Once you have committed to your reading time, pick up a quiet place where you know you won’t get disturbed. Don’t keep your phone next to you, or switch it to airplane mode.
You may prefer to read in silence or to put on some music (or the soothing background noises of your choice). This could become a part of your depth ritual, meaning that it can make it easier to start focusing on the text in front of you.
4 — Go crazy with marginalia.
As clearly explained by Marten Van Doorn in his guide to effective reading:
“‘Marginalia’ are when you mark out thoughts, questions, and connections to other ideas’ in the margins. The goal behind doing this is to digest what you are learning and make it your own — make associations, draw connections, play with it, hold it in your mind.”
While reading, I will highlight a passage, fold the top or bottom corner of the page and write thoughts or ideas in the margins.
Doing this helps you transfer the newly acquired information from your short-term memory to your long-term understanding. You can also achieve more clarity, and note-taking can be an exercise in creativity too. There’s no one right way to create marginalia, it’s up to you to develop your own approach.
5 — Let it rest.
Once you finish a book, put it away for a week or so. Let the information sit in the back of your mind for a while.
6 — Gather your notes.
After a week or two, go back to your notes. Comb through them, cut everything but the most important parts, copy the edited version into your notebook.
You can return to these simplified notes when you need to revisit the topic. Also, consider rereading them regularly (for example, once a year) to keep the concepts fresh.
The act of writing will further anchor the book’s message in your long-term memory
7 — Why not try flashcards?
The following is something I picked up from Ryan Holiday.
When I reread my notes, I summarize concepts, ideas, and quotes on 3×6 flashcards. Then, I categorize them by themes and keywords.
This is especially useful for writers, as it allows us to find ideas and content for new articles quickly. It’s easy to flit through hundreds of references when they’re organized by theme.
8 — Learn by doing.
“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
My final piece of advice is to start applying the concepts you read about right away. You don’t need to become an expert on the subject before you can start using your new knowledge.
Remember that perfectionism is damaging and it can stand in your way. This is true for everything, even reading. Just finishing a book and thinking about it can get things rolling for you.
The additional work of keeping notes is here to help you, not hinder you. So if reading starts to feel like a chore, try changing something about your approach. For instance, you may need longer stretches of uninterrupted reading time, or you might want to try a different way of writing down your thoughts.
You Can Start Right Now
Let’s repeat the 8 main steps for retaining information:
#1 Read with Purpose
#2 Arrange your schedule around reading
#3 Create the perfect environment for reading (I recommend 30-minute sessions in a quiet, comfortable place, with no distractions)
#4 Take notes and try to connect real-life problems with actionable ideas from the book
#5 Let the book rest for a week after finishing it
#6 Gather your notes in a notebook
#7 Optional: Create Flashcards
#8 Apply what you just learned
Of course, what works for me might not be right for you.
I believe that you should read as much as you can, even if it feels like you’re not retaining the information all that well. If you start dreading (and avoiding) new books, you can’t progress in any direction.
So my final tip is to just start reading today, and pay attention to how you retain information and what seems to be missing. A small change in your reading routine could make all the difference.
“The book you don’t read won’t help.”