How To Better Retain Information From Books And Articles

How to Better Retain Information from Books, Articles, and More

Although we can learn a lot of great information from books, articles, interviews and conversations, we naturally forget much of it. Create a system to regularly remind you of lessons you've already learned. Here are three simple ways you can do that.

Photos by watchara, Atovot, Kamilla Oliveira, Beglen and Emily Bergquist

Take Notes As You Read

How to Better Retain Information from Books, Articles, and More

You may think note-taking is just for students, but taking notes preserves the essence and context of what you're taking in. If it's a book, you could organise your thoughts with a commonplace book, which is a book containing excerpts from other books. Although it requires a bit more effort, it could also help you connect and organise your ideas in ways you couldn't with a computer. You could also organise your book's contents and your notes with an idea index.

If it's a conversation, interview or speech, take notes on the important points. You could do this with a phone or computer, or with a pen and pad (the actual act of writing helps you learn more effectively). If it's during a conversation, be sensitive when it comes to certain types of information and when you type. There's some stuff that's better left unwritten out of respect for privacy.

Digitise these notes so you can easily search through them in the future. If you have no idea where to start, try Evernote, Google Keep or Simplenote, and tag your notes with relevant keywords. You can also use these apps to easily copy clippings, screenshots or images from articles. Write briefly about the context in which you acquired this information (for example, coffee with [name], or [name]'s interview with [magazine]). Jot down any questions or related points that come to mind.

When in doubt, err on the side of collecting more information than you think you will need. When a point borders on important or unimportant, take notes anyway (here's how to do that well). It's easier to discard what you have than to try to conjure a point from memory. Try learning shorthand if your writing can't keep up with someone's speech.

Review The Information

How to Better Retain Information from Books, Articles, and More

While the act of taking notes is great for active reading and processing information, these notes become exponentially more useful when we actually go back and review them. Make it a priority to do so once every few weeks.

Author Ramit Sethi sets aside a 30- 45-minute block of time every 4-6 weeks dedicated to reviewing the highlights of his books and articles. This system helps you remind yourself of any important points you may have forgotten or overlooked otherwise. If you have trouble remembering context, go back into the original source (original interview or video speech) if you can.

When you're reviewing your notes, go a step further and see what actionable steps you can implement into your life or plans. Pass it along to friends and peers that you think it could help, or that might find the information interesting at the very least.

Similarly, take the information and use it in your daily conversations when they fit (there's a fine line between citing quotes and stories, and forcing them). Sharing and discussing information with another person can help you retain it as well. They could even bring up points that you'd unintentionally overlooked, or share an insight or reaction that you hadn't considered.

Trigger Lessons With Mementos

How to Better Retain Information from Books, Articles, and More

Objects can trigger ideas and memories. Use this to your advantage and remind yourself of valuable lessons and experiences.

Each situation or experience comes with different mementos. For example, you could print quotes that have resonated with you and stick them on your wall as constant reminders. You could enhance this technique by encoding your memento with a list of memories or a memory palace.

Review the most important pieces of information weekly or bi-weekly. These could be important lessons or experiences that you need to prioritise. Constantly evaluate what questions pop up that you can't answer. You may need to return to your notes to see if you can find the relevant information.

You could also use objects from firsthand experiences to remind yourself of mistakes to avoid for the future. For example: I got scammed for a fake designer jacket once, so I hang that up in my closet to remind me.

A Sample System

Here's what a system for a book could look like:

  1. Read book. Make notes in margins and highlight (or mark) segments. Wait a week.
  2. Re-open book, type up notes and related quotes in Evernote and tag with an occasion I might need the information for (negotiating) or its relevant field of expertise (marketing, business).
  3. If the book is related to an article idea or theme that you're exploring, write out related quotes (or print them) on index cards and tag them appropriately in software or add them to your commonplace book.
  4. Add calendar entry for four months from now to review book or related information.
  5. If a point resonates with you, print it out and tape it onto your wall. In order to keep these quotes free of noise, try to have no more than two or three quotes up there at any time.

The system also allows for flexibility. For example, should an unexpected client opportunity or negotiation come up, I'm all ready to access this information and related notes by typing in the keyword "negotiation".

You Will Forget, So Re-Learn Quickly

Our brains aren't very well-suited for memorising things (although they can be trained to be better). Instead of trying to memorise everything, create a system that enables you to re-learn important lessons or experiences that you've already discovered from books or conversations. Collect and organise your information well, review it regularly, and trigger these memories with mementos.


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