Today I am going to teach you how to improve your retention when reading non-fiction books. After all this is the only reason why we read such kinds of books, right?
I have gone over several methods that do not work. From passive reading (i.e., I just read the book and then I take the next one), to highlighting quotes and important passages, and all the way to extracting my highlights and creating a mind map organized by chapter. But when I read a great book like Adam Grant’s Think Again, I will find myself unable to generate a thoughtful review about it or remember even one important idea from the book.
Here, I will show you my latest method for improving retention. It is based on the book How to Take Smart Notes (link to Goodreads).
Retention means to be able to keep in your memory as much information as possible based on something that you’ve read. I will not go into any details about how memory works (short-term vs. long-term), but this will be a great topic for another article.
For example, you read a book about being more productive. It all sounds great, logical, and practical while you read it, but when you turn the final page, you find your life and processes exactly the same as they were before you opened the book. Would you like to change that?
There are a few important principles that will help you increase your retention.
Three easy steps to improve your retention
Start with the end in mind
First of all, you need to start with a few questions in mind so that you can set the goals for the book.
- Why are you reading this book?
- Why are you trying to get out of this book?
- How can this book help you improve your skill in X?
Ideally, you can have these questions and, most importantly, your answers, written down somewhere. But you keep thinking about them as you read.
Take notes instead of quotes
As you are reading the book (hopefully it is a good one and is covering the topics you were expecting it to cover), when you get to an idea that resonates with you, pause and think about it.
- How does that idea map to your goals?
- How can you adopt this idea into your life (process, way of thinking, habits)?
I intentionally skipped a very important step, because it will feel intimidating at first, and I plan to write another article about it. You also need to have a reliable system in place for capturing notes.
Then, after you have answered all these questions and if the thought still feels relevant, take a note about it. You can write the note in the margins for the book, or on a piece of paper, or on your phone. Do not copy the text, do not take a quote. Instead, elaborate on the idea with your own words. Again, being able to get back to that note is very important so work on that note tracking system.
Review your notes not the table of contents
After you are done with the book, you will hopefully have a handful (hopefully more) notes about it. Review them and think about how they relate to each other and how they relate to everything else you know. If you are up to it, write a review about the book – for yourself. Do not get back to the table of contents, but get back to your notes. The notes follow the structure of your brain, while the table of contents follows the structure of the author.
Finally, give yourself a few weeks and get back to your notes and to your review. Try to recall from your memory the most important ideas from the book and then go back to your notes to fill in the blanks.
Without retention, you will keep investing time in reading non-fiction books without getting any observable benefit. By turning the process backwards – you start with what you would like to learn, you learn it, and you store it – you will be able greatly improve your retention.
The one action that you can do if you want to start will be to think of one question and one goal before you start reading the next non-fiction book on your to-read list.
Which is the most important question which you can ask yourself before reading a book?
What are the next steps?
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