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A System for Remembering What you Read

Last year, I read 161 books cover-to-cover. And that doesn't include the ones that I started to read and put down. I learned a lot in the process about what works and what doesn't work. I get asked a lot how I remember what I read.

I have a system that I use for non-fiction books that enables me to remember quite a bit. And when I can't remember I generally know where to look to find the answers.

Here are some of the tips that work for me:

  • Learn How to Read A Book.
  • Start with the index, table of contents, and the preface. This will give you a good sense of the book.
  • Be ok with deciding now is not the time to read the book.
  • Read one book at a time.
  • Put it down if you lose interest.
  • Mark up the book while reading it. Questions. Thoughts. And, more importantly, connections to other ideas.
  • At the end of each chapter, without looking back, write some notes on the main points/arguments/take-aways. Then look back through the chapter and put anything down you missed.
  • Specifically note anything that was in the chapter that you can apply somewhere else.
  • When you're done the book, take out a blank sheet of paper and explain the core ideas/arguments of the book to yourself. Where you have problems, go back and review your notes. This is the Feynman Technique.
  • Put the book down for a week.
  • Pick the book back up, re-read all of your notes/highlights/marginalia/etc. Time is a good filter – what's still important? Note this in the inside of the cover with a reference to the page number.
  • Put the notes that you want to keep in your common place book/resource.

But one thing that most people don't appreciate enough is that what you read makes a huge difference for how well you remember things.

We fail to remember a lot of the stuff we read because it's not building on any existing knowledge. We're often trying to learn complex things (that change rapidly) without understanding the basic things (which change slowly or not at all).  Or, worse still, we're uncritically letting other people do the thinking for us. This is the adult equivalent of regurgitating the definition of a bolded word in our high school textbook.

Both of these lead to the illusion of knowledge and overconfidence.

I'd argue that a better approach is to build a latticework of Mental Models. That is, acquire the core multi-disciplinary knowledge and use that as your foundation. This is the best investment because this stuff doesn't change and if it does it changes really slowly. This becomes your foundation. This is what you build on. So when you read and connect things to the core knowledge, not only do you have a better idea of how things fit together but you strengthen those connections in your head from use.

If you're looking to acquire worldly wisdom, time is your best filter. It makes sense to focus on learning the core ideas over multiple disciplines. These remain constant. And when you have a solid foundation it's easier to build upon because you connect what you're learning to the (now very solid) foundation.