3 tips to retain more from the books you read
The text below was first sent to our newsletter subscribers, in July 2019. If you enjoy it and want more, subscribe here.
At The CEO Library, we believe in empowering people to grow with the help of the best books, and use them to accelerate our growth on a personal and professional level. It’s why a few months ago we published a guide to how to read more books, sharing lessons learned from my own experience on how I managed to go from not reading at all to forming this life-changing habit… and reading close to 60 books last year.
Sure, reading the right non-fiction and business books is important and can completely transform you – in the most incredible way. However, potential means nothing without action. You need to also retain and apply that knowledge, otherwise you might be in for a rude awakening. You might wake up one day and acknowledge that you’re reading 200 books per year and your life is nowhere close to where you’d want it to be (well, in this extreme case, if those really are “normal” books and not short ones, it’s likely that you don’t actually have a life, cause you don’t do anything else besides reading non-stop and feeling like your head is about to explode from the high dose of information hoarding inside your skull :)) ).
So in today’s newsletter I’m going to share a few tips that I found useful on how to better retain what you read.
1. Easiest option: get in the teaching mindset.
Take the most important principles you just read in a book or a long article and start explaining them to other people. You can teach them to your team, discuss them with your partner or friends. Maybe even start a blog, a vlog, write social media updates about it. Whatever way you choose, what’s important is to make it a purpose to share what you learned with others.
It will help you better understand and retain knowledge over long-term. You might notice that the first time you try to share the information, it can be hard to express those ideas in the best way so that the other person understands. In time, you’ll be forced to clarify and refine the material. By getting better at explaining to other people, you’ll get better at understanding those principles yourself, cause you’ll put time in thinking about what you want to say, test out new narratives and approaches to organize the information.
This is what Erik Rostad, creator of Books of Titans project, talked about in our interview. Erik reviews the books that he reads on his website and records a podcast episode about each of them, in order to remember things way better (at the end of a book, he’ll also do one life-changing thing that he learned from that book – just one nugget of wisdom).
Yes, you need to constantly learn new things and improve at what you already know in order to be constantly growing. But don’t forget that giving to others can be more fulfilling than accumulating more knowledge.
By the way, just like most of what I’m writing in this newsletter, this advice is something I personally need to remember to apply 😛 Yes, I sometimes tend to forget that I need to focus on the pleasure of sharing with others (and by “others” I include you, dear brainiac reading this!) what I read and learn from all those books. For most of my life, I didn’t read at all and, when I finally realized all the affordable and valuable knowledge that I’ve been missing out on, I jumped in another extreme and started reading… maybe just a little bit too much. The trap that I tend to fall in is that if I don’t constantly improve myself and my skills, if I don’t accumulate new knowledge, I’ll feel less worthy. I need to remember the joy in sharing with you and be less self-centered. Confessions over!
2. Slow down your reading and put knowledge into practice on the spot.
Instead of devouring hundreds of pages in a day, purposely decide to read only 5 to 10 pages every day, maybe even every morning, to start your day this way.
Stop reading after you finish with those pages and write down a plan on how you’re going to implement what you learned – right away. Yes, sometimes you don’t need to read more, you only need to be more mindful about how you can use that information into your everyday life.
This is something recently reinforced by one of the podcast episodes of my coach, where he interviewed another coach and, at some point, they talked about the gap between knowledge and action. The coach that he interviewed was detailing his morning routine and said that he reads every day, but he stops after reading only 5 pages from how-to books. He won’t read without taking notes and asking himself how he can put that knowledge into practice that day, how he can prove that he learned something out of that book. They go on to talk about the gap we create between “what we do” and “what we know”, and how this leads to frustration. The more we read without applying, the more immune we become to all that knowledge and we lose the spark that inspires us and generates action.
(unfortunately, their podcast conversation is in Romanian language, but there’s a transcript available that you can Google Translate if you really want to dig into it, I’ll leave the link here).
3. Perhaps the hardest one, especially if you’re obsessed to be in control: Don’t take any notes. Never. No highlights, no dog ears, no underlining, no agendas dedicated to writing down what you learn, no nothing. Trust that the most important ideas will surely stick over the long term. Trust the process.
Below you’ll find multiple other tips that you might want to experiment with. A quick note before jumping into them: I experimented with multiple book-notes systems and I was never satisfied with any of them. I finally reached the conclusion that there are no “perfect” systems 😛 A few months from now, I might change my mind and recommend completely different approach to reading and retaining information,
So take whatever system you feel is appropriate and might work in your situation and test it out, see how it goes, perhaps it will work for you. Maybe there is a perfect system for you to retain more out of what you read 🙂
Oh, and for an extra dose of inspiration, feel free to also browse the book-talks section on our website – we asked leaders all over the world about their note-taking system to conquer the torrent of information and retain what they read.
How others read & retain information:
– Tim Ferriss creates his own table of content, where he writes at what page he encountered a certain subject that he found helpful. He reads a book just in time, when he needs to focus on that information, not just in case he needs it, not to stockpile on decaying memories. He said he “made the mistake of shoveling excess information into head for a long time.” and it’s now 80/20 to him – what he reads is much more important than how much or how quickly he read, and he’ll re-read a handful of books that he knows that helped him, instead of obsessing with reading new books. (you can find here a list of books recommended by him)
– Ryan Holiday has a system of index cards that he keeps in a commonplace book. He has a huge guide, complete with pics, on how he created and updates this system. (you can find here a list of books recommended by him)
– Entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant, co-founder of AngelList, compared taking notes to taking photos on trips: he said it takes us out of the moment, hanging on to memories. He prefers to re-read the really great books more than he reads new books. Twitter has helped him share a few of the insights or concepts he has while reading, by forcing himself to distill those lessons into a limited set of characters and sharing them there. (by the way, you can find here a list of books he recommends)
– Shane Parrish, founder of FarnamStreet, starts by reading the preface, inside jacket and the table of contents. This way, he already knows how the book might prove to be helpful to him, or he even decides to put it away. While reading, he’ll underline what strikes him as interesting, write comments or questions on the margins and so on. At the end of each chapter, he’ll write a few bullet points to summarize what he read and, when he finishes the book, he’ll just put it away and let time do its thing. He comes back to it after a while and re-read his underlines and comments. In that time, he’d have had a chance to sleep on the ideas and perhaps some of them don’t seem as interesting anymore.
– In her book and learning how to learn course, polymath Barbara Oakley talks about using diffused and focused learning through deliberate practice, by disconnecting from what you read and sleep on it. Read something, look away, see what you recall from what you read. Active breaks, when you just let your brain wander, can also help. If you memorize information, you’ll understand it better, but it’s not enough – you also need to pull that information out multiple times afterwards. (for some great books on how to learn, check out the list we compiled here)
And you can always just read a book about how to read a book 😀 This one’s highly praised and the quote below convinced me to add it to my to-read list:
“Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.”
I’m curious to find out more about your own note-taking system and how you try to better retain the knowledge from all those books that you read. I was thinking about creating a complete guide on the subject, hoping it will help others as well 🙂 So, tell me: how do you conquer the torrent of information and make sure you internalize what you read? Do hit reply and share your own system (include links, if you have any).
And if you only keep in mind one thing from today’s newsletter, I think it should be this one: potential and knowledge mean nothing without action. Always learning, and always trying to apply! 🙂
The text above was first sent to our newsletter subscribers, in July 2019. If you enjoyed it and want more, subscribe here.