“Why can’t I remember what I read?”
“I immediately forget what I read.”
Those were my words back when I was just starting to read textbooks. (That was in my senior year of college, by the way.)
Have you also experienced spending lots of time reading, focusing, resisting distractions, only to forget everything you’ve read? What a waste, right?
This happens to me a LOT. Especially when I read books about productivity, aka my weirdly favorite topic.
That’s not so productive, isn’t it?
Anyway, the thing is, you can’t apply anything you can’t remember.
Below are some of the insanely actionable advice that works wonders for remembering what you read in a book:
How do you know when a piece of information is inside your head? When you can get it out of your head.
After consuming a lot of content about how we retain information, I realized that every single one of them points to the same conclusion: Whenever you retrieve a memory, it gets stronger.
This act of active recall is called retrieval practice.
Now, you can implement this just as I’ve described in my Revision Strategies post, but that means getting your notebook out to create some prompts or recall cues, or even making some flashcards in Anki. That’s perfectly fine if you really want to remember it so bad.
In my opinion, though, when I read interesting stuff about productivity or some psychology stuff which I’m not even going to be tested later on–I find doing the Revision Strategies more of a chore than an enjoyable process.
I mean, if you want to remember what you read just a little bit better, then I think Mental Retrieval Practice is a better option.
Just to be clear, I’d like to emphasize that doing Revision Strategies are FAR superior in information retention. What I’m giving here are is an easier and more enjoyable way to remember what you read.
How to do it: When I do this, I just follow some personal, simple guidelines. “Whenever I finish X, I pause-and-recall Y.”
- Whenever I finish a paragraph, I pause for a moment and recall its main idea.
- Whenever I stumble upon an interesting phrase/term/word, I pause for a moment and recall what they mean.
- Whenever I finish a chapter, I pause for a moment and recall the summary of the whole chapter.
All of these happens only in my head. Therefore, I only use this one when I’m not in the mood to take notes and create questions.
#2. Use the Question Book Method
If you don’t like to interrupt your “reading flow” by pausing every time you finish a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter, then I recommend the Question Book Method.
Essentially, this method transforms your book into a “Question Book” such that it becomes more of a personal Q&A material.
I learned this one from Ultralearner Scott Young, who famously finished a 4-year CS Degree in MIT in just 12 months.
I like this method because of its simplicity: All you need is a book and a pencil.
How to do it: Again, some simple guidelines.
Whenever you stumble upon the main idea, instead of pausing and recalling, you think of that idea and turn it into a question.
If the main idea is: “Habits are automatic actions that help our bodies solve repetitive problems to help free our brain from repeatedly thinking how to solve it.”
Then transform this into “How do habits help our brain?” and write it at the margins near to the paragraph of the main idea.
Here’s the link to the great resource from Scott Young himself.
#3. Pre-Read your Book
Pre-reading your book is something that’s highly underrated. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t feel productive.
In my experience, though, you’ll see pre-reading do its work when you finally start the actual reading. The magic of pre-reading happens after doing it, not while doing it.
In essence, you pre-read a text by locating key ideas before actually getting into them. This kinda like creates a “skeletal outline” in your mind to hook sub-ideas on.
How to do it: I found 4 easy steps to do this technique, the 4P’s.
- Preview – take a look at the title, headings, subheadings to have some idea of what’s going to be discussed. These will act as “hooks” for new information that you’ll be getting.
- Predict – might as well predict what’s going to be discussed in a certain subheading. Take the chapter objectives if you want more ideas. This brings me to the next point.
- Prior Knowledge – use what you already know to predict what’s going to be discussed, or just try to guess it in your mind. This act of retrieving possible answers before being shown some feedback induces the Generation Effect, where your brain metaphorically becomes more susceptible to new learning after thinking of a possible answer.
- Purpose – based on one post, it was mentioned that determining the author’s purpose will help you understand the book better. Personally, I do this by looking at the end-chapter questions. I think “Oh, so these are the things the author wants me to understand”. Otherwise, you can use the Chapter Objectives.
#4. Use the Feynman Technique
It’s highly likely that you’ve already heard of this technique because it’s quite famous in study communities.
The Feynman Technique is one method to accelerate our learning and retention by using psychological effects from Elaboration and Association.
Try this one out: After you read a paragraph, transform what you’ve just learned into something so simple that a 5th grader can understand it.
You’ll be surprised how hard it is for the first time.
How would you do it? 99% of the time, you will use analogies.
Analogies are perfect tools for accelerated learning, because not only does it make something easier to understand, but also associates new learning to something you’ve already known for a long time.
How to do it: I’ve found the perfect video just for you, from Thomas Frank at College Info Geek.
Next up, you’ll see how I incorporate this technique in conjunction with another note-taking technique that’s BEST for someone who has trouble retaining information: Cornell Notes.
#5. Take Cornell Notes while reading
As I mentioned in my giant note-taking guide, Cornell Notes is the absolute best way to take notes if you want to remember something better.
Here’s a preview of how it looks like. (Yeah, I used this method when I was reading about Cornell Notes)
It’s simple, you just divide your notes into three parts:
- Leftmost ⅓ of the page – for cues; this is where you put questions that test you of your notes’ contents. This incorporates Active Recall.
- Right ⅔ of the page – for notes; this is where you…well, take notes.
- Bottom ⅓ of the page – for summary; This is where you summarize everything you’ve written. Better if you do it while covering your notes. And even better if you use Feynman Technique for this one. By doing that, you’re essentially doing Active Recall and Feynman Technique at the same time! Retention is guaranteed.
To review your notes, you don’t have to reread them; just cover the notes page and try to answer the questions!
To tell you the truth, the moment I learned about how our memory works, I immediately realized that Cornell Note-Taking is an absolute beast that combines the best of both worlds–effective note-taking and retention.
Anyway, Cornell notes essentially FORCE you to write the main points and not “parrot” them. It’s like you’re using the Feynman Technique, again and again, each time you write something down.
#6. Develop Hyperfocus
I’ve recently been reading the book Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey and I have to say, I’m impressed with the arguments that he gives toward managing our attention better.
Hyperfocus is the act of channeling our attention to a complex task without any distractions in order to insanely improve our productivity and work satisfaction.
It’s the same concept as in Deep Work by Cal Newport. I highly recommend reading both.
Perhaps I’ll make a book summary of Hyperfocus soon.
Anyway, according to the book, our attention is quite the superpower. When we enter a conversation with someone, we use more than half of our attentional capacity just to decode what they’re saying.
This is mind-boggling, at least for me. When I realized this, I instantly made more deliberate decisions toward where I put my attention to.
Now, if you’ve been reading a textbook or any type of book, make sure you’re focusing intently on the book’s contents alone.
Distractions, whether external or internal, should be eliminated/mitigated as much as possible.
I mean, how are you supposed to remember anything that’s constantly being interfered with by something else?
Our brain’s resources, especially our attentional capacity, is limited.
How to do it: Well, here are some good habits to incorporate to develop Hyperfocus.
- Find a quiet, cool place to read your book. When I was still in college, I was able to research productivity (unsurprisingly, it’s still my favorite topic) and the physical environment. Some meta-analysis (can’t find it in my files, sorry) have found that the “sweet spot” for a productive environment is at 21 to 25 degrees Celsius. That’s around 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Read during the time at which you’re most energetic. I’ve talked again and again about this concept of Human Energy Cycles, but essentially, you can determine it yourself through tracking how you feel at different times of the day.
- Put your smartphone or any distractions away. (Or at least turn off all notifications) This goes without saying. Notifications are the “slot machines” and can become annoyingly attractive, but then cause you to be unproductive.
- Re-focus your attention when you realize it’s wandering. This not only trains your awareness of where you put your attention to but also develops mindfulness.
#7. Have some Downtime
I can’t remember where I read it, but one interesting question still leaves me thinking to this day:
“When was the last time you were bored?”
The answer is, I’m not really sure. Perhaps it was during my childhood when there were still no smartphones as “constant companions” around.
But think about it: the last time you were bored, you started thinking of all sorts of random shit.
And, as I read more and more books about productivity and learning, there’s this incredibly ironic, magical stuff that’s always present.
It’s the idea that downtime aids learning and the creation of new insights.
Heck, even Bill Gates had his most brilliant ideas during his “Think Weeks”–time he spent in solitude, in total disconnection, in absolute downtime.
Here’s what he does, according to Thrive Global’s post:
“The seven days tend to include a lot of reading, a lot of thinking, and a lot of alone time, as Gates is completely disconnected from family members, friends, and employees (despite one exception: a caretaker who slips him two simple meals a day.)”
Downtime activates our default mode network, also called diffuse mode thinking, also called Scatterfocus. Complementary to Hyperfocus, downtime provides us with our creativity superpower, rather than the productivity superpower.
How to do it:
I’ve recently written a blog post about how to take better breaks, read that.
#8. Do some Mind Mapping after reading
Mind Mapping is one creative way to activate your “Radiant Thinking”, as Tony Buzan says.
There’s been some debate as to whether Tony Buzan is (or isn’t) the inventor of the Mind Map, but I have to say he gives solid advice when it comes to Mind Mapping, and you can’t discredit that.
I’ve talked a little bit about Mind Mapping in my giant note-taking post, check it out if you’re interested!
Anyhow, Mind Mapping allows you to think of every single piece of connected idea that comes into your mind upon laying out a central, main idea. Here’s an example:
It works because you’re not just actively recalling information, but also connecting them in logical ways. (along with their hierarchy, through branches)
Because of the visual nature of mind maps, you can readily observe connections between ideas — making associations stronger than ever.
#9. Use Memory Techniques
Have you seen those people who memorize a deck of cards in a little under 2 minutes?
Or those who memorize 1200 digits of pi?
They’re memory athletes. I gotta say that I became intrigued by their ability to memorize information. (quickly, too)
So, I did my research and I found that they were using a variety of memory techniques that I’ve never even knew existed!
Anyway, these are going to be hard for anyone to use for the first time, but if you master this technique, I guarantee that you’ll be able to remember ALL main ideas of a single chapter, and eventually a whole textbook without fail.
Bonus Tip for Self-Improvement Books: Just Do It.
Here’s one tip that practically ensured not just my retention, but also my personal growth: Just do the damn thing.
When I started doing this on Productivity books (they have a lot of actionable advice), I noticed that I was instantly becoming more productive, aside from remembering EVERY piece of advice that I’ve learned.
In fact, when I write my blog posts on Productivity, I usually write without my notes. The ideas just pop in my head so vividly because I already applied them into my own life.
When I started getting into self-improvement, I was so hyped to learn as much as possible–thinking that it would somehow make me better.
It absolutely did help me think better, but I realized you can’t get away with just learning about them; you have to apply them immediately. That way, not only you’ll remember them, but also internalize them.
I know that sounds woo-woo, but I still believe actually practicing all the actionable advice you read is the best way to remember them.