Strategies for learning: how to remember the book you just read

I have learned to be strategic about my reading, and manage my memory. I have developed some key reading, learning and memory recall skills. As for any habit change, the key is to form new habits in place of ineffective ones, and that requires initial practice and conscious effort. The good news is that this is easy to implement.

My reading strategy has 3 steps:

  1. Scanning the territory I am exploring, and defining my learning needs. 
    I always read with a clear purpose in my mind, which primes the brain to identify and prioritise the key ideas, and I only read books that serve my strategic purpose and which capture my interest and energise me. I don't waste time on poorly written or boring books, I just move on.
  2. Define clear goals before reading every book. 
    Set your intention and attention correctly, and you will remember more. Knowing in advance if you are reading to scan for ideas, or to deeply digest content that you know is worth mining for insight, is key. Low productivity is everyone's enemy, eating up our time unnecessarily.
  3. Use methods that work for me to connect, distill and chunk the key ideas in any book. 
    Knowing some memory hacks will help you a great deal here.

Before we start, let’s dispel a myth. When reading non-fiction, you don’t have to read one book at a time. Where did this idea even come from? Reading to learn should be goal-oriented, and it should be fuelled by energy and interest. So let’s unpack the process of learning from books.


Step 1: Define your reading radar and learning needs

The key to remembering the ideas and books that matter, is to deeply integrate the key ideas that are most useful to you. This is stating the obvious, but many people make the mistake of trying to read everything the same way and in the same depth. So by reducing your head clutter, you reduce the cognitive overwhelm that overloads and exhausts your mind.

So what does reading strategically mean? By being strategic, you will only study deeply the books (or chapters) that you will benefit from the most.

I am always scanning Amazon, blogs and other sources of book recommendations. I have a list of topic areas that are of interest to me, and I tell people that I know are knowledgable in these topics. Recommendations or discoveries that hit my radar get a quick scan of reviews on Amazon or Google, followed by a buy or leave decision. If you have Blinkist (a book summary app) then this is a great way to get a fast overview of a book, and short-cut this process. I keep a list of books on my radar, and I regularly review it.

If I have 3 or more books on my radar across all topics on my reading map, I will speed read them first (Google "speed read" and you'll find resources and tips). On first pass I scan the contents pages, read the chapter summaries, and then flick quickly through every page scanning for diagrams, bullet points, and content headings for interesting clues. I will then selectively skim read parts of chapters, to evaluate quality and overlap with other books I've scanned.


Step 2: Define clear goals for reading every book

What are my reading goals? If I don't know, my interest is not peaked my brain is not primed to receive information in the right mode. So I will aimlessly wander into a book and potentially waste time.

When I moved to Spain from the UK, I had to learn the language fast, from scratch. I learned from my language teacher Rocio that there are two types of vocabulary: “passive” and “active.” Passive vocab are all the words that you understand when you hear them, but that you find hard to access when you want to express yourself. These words are on the tip of your tongue, but just beyond your recall. Active vocab is all the vocab you can use when try to express something, without thinking consciously or searching for words. With use, vocab becomes an automatic component of your repertoire for communicating and moves from passive to active.

Ideas and concepts are committed to memory in a similar way. So I read in one of three learning modes:

  • Passive reading - to acquire general knowledge

    I'm reading for the pleasure of learning, and to stay up to speed and hope to stumble on great ideas and tools. 

    The goal for general knowledge reading is simply to enjoy the stimulation of new ideas, without the need to make copious notes or worry about forgetting things. I just accept that general knowledge reading enters into passive memory, and let go of worrying about recall. But if I sat down to recall the key topics and insights of the book, I might struggle.
  • Active reading - to scan for solutions

    The brain will not let go of problems. They circulate round and round in your thoughts. That's why in GTD (Getting Things Done, the book by David Allen) he tells us for every to-do that we have, we should identify the first thing that needs to be actioned, and then commit when you will do it. Having done this, your brain will let go of worry, knowing that the task is scheduled. If you don't do this, your mind will be full of worry about all the things that you need to do.

    Solution-seeking is easy because the brain wants to solve your problems. Relevant ideas and tools just jump out at you. The focus of reading is to first understand, and then capture solutions or ideas as they occur to you.
  • Active reading - for deep integration

    This is reading to deeply integrate ideas that are valuable to your career know-how and life goals, and that add to your specialist expertise or professional insights. You want to commit this knowledge to long term “active” memory.

    These are the books that your first scan suggested are worth deeply reading. Usually I find such books are harder reading material, either because their concepts and ideas are new or challenging to me, or because they are densely packed with research or tightly argued and complex. They demand more time to digest, and are worthy of the investment. 

    These books I will usually read at least twice, and hold for future reference. So my goal is to understand the ideas on the first reading, and capture content to return to. The second reading is to digest, evaluate and decide how to take action on the new knowledge. We want on the second reading to commit the key ideas to long term memory, using all the methods in Step 3.


Step 3: The right methods to connect, distill and chunk ideas

So we've identified books that we need to actively capture in longer term memory.

The heart of your reading strategy is your choice of methods for digesting and committing to memory what you learn. Note taking is the basic vehicle for most of us (unless you are Dyslexic like Richard Branson, or have a photographic memory like Elon Musk). I use mind maps extensively, plus I capture in the Evernote app all my bullet point summaries of key ideas or quotes and research references.

I use mind maps to make connections, and mentally sort my ideas out. You can read more how I do this here: Tom Board's answer to How can I expand my ability to think deeply?

I use Evernote for word-based note taking, in order to make my reading easily accessible in future, after my memory has faded. I can also structure captured ideas in folders for specific projects or further study. Evernote is fully searchable, even for PDFs and photographed hand-written notes. You can also tag notes, create folders, add web links, record audio, or use a digital pen on the iPad.

There are three main memory hacks that I use regularly, depending on the situation:

  1. Build a “mind palace”

    This is an ancient method, which I learned from one of Derren Brown's short audio books (Memory Tricks I think it was called). It goes like this. Think of a walk that you do often, and know intimately, or a house or other building that you similarly know inside-out. Then mentally associate places or rooms with what you want to remember, in the order you want to remember it. 

    Each subject is located in a place on your route, or a room in the building, and you use imagination to associate objects in your memory with the subjects you want to recall. The more outrageous the images, the better for memory recall. Run through mentally the rooms/walk until you can recall these images and subjects reliably. This method is used, I am told, by many TED speakers for presentations. It's useful if you need to recall information in a certain order, for a well-defined purpose. You can mentally 'clear' your walk or palace once an event or situation has passed, and re-programme your mind.
  2. Simplify and chunk
    Simplification consists of distilling and prioritising what is important, and so de-cluttering the memory of the less important stuff to remember. You can use post-it notes, or just make lists, to sift and prioritise ideas. The ‘expert disease’ is to think that everything is important, and so discard nothing. This just overwhelms your short term memory.

    Chunking is a deeper method of ordering information so that you can hold more complex ideas in your short term memory, and think about them. Research shows that you have 3/4 “memory slots” in short term memory. If you try to hold more than 3/4 things in your head at once, you start to struggle. But chunking is a method of hacking this short term memory bottleneck, by grouping ideas. You can read more about chunking in the Quora post here: 
    Tom Board's answer to How can I expand my ability to think deeply?
  3. Find helpful metaphors

    Our minds think in metaphors. Metaphors can be simple and generic like "up" or "down" or broad like "country" or specific like "the genome project" or “waste basket” as in the Apple desktop or the physical bin in your office or study. You can associate metaphors with new ideas or concepts, to make them easier to recall.

    If I say to myself that Malcolm Gladwell's book Tipping Point "is like the moment I realise I've eaten too much and my body diverts all its energy and resources to digestion, and my thinking goes fuzzy as my head feels lighter" then I've likened it to a physical body metaphor. If that metaphor is meaningful to me, it will be memorable. 

    Taking this further, if I want to convey ideas in a way that others will remember them, then I should choose familiar and universal metaphors to liken them too. Marketers use this trick all the time to introduce new products and services without triggering consumer's resistance to change and newness.

So in summary, maintain a map of your reading territory consisting of the topics of interest and all the books on your radar. Speed read or scan them, or use a book summary service, to prioritise your reading. Then selectively read deeply, and throw all the memory tricks here at the key books so that you can access the knowledge you need, when you need it.

I would like to end on a simple idea that helps tremendously: be selective, and let go of guilt. Don't treat reading books like a challenge that must be overcome. Reframe your reading as meeting different goals, and take pleasure and time to read the books that really matter. You will have less mental clutter, more time, and enjoy the process far more. 

Thomas Board1 Comment