How to Retain More of What You Read - THINKERS Notebook

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How to Retain More of What You Read

Fellow thinker,
There's a scene from the movie Good Will Hunting that has always stuck with me.

Will is sitting on a bed reading. He's flipping through the pages quickly, glancing left and right as if his eyes are taking a snapshot of each page that his brain consumes whole.

The implication, of course, is that the genius Will can read and retain an entire book in about the amount of time it takes a normal person to brush their teeth.

While I would never trade the experience of watching Good Will Hunting, an all-time great movie that I've seen 20+ times, I do wish that I'd never seen that particular scene.

Sure, it's unrealistic. Even "the world's faster reader" takes longer than that to read a page

Yet, as someone who has always wished that I could read faster and retain more, the image of Will and his casual super-speed reading has lingered to remind me just how suboptimal my own reading abilities must be.

How do you like them apples?

Anyway, I recognize how silly and irrational that sounds. Fortunately, it hasn't deterred me from doing the important work that a thinker must do -- read, a lot -- while striving to do it better.

What is your personal system for reading and retention?

After much trial and error over the years, I've finally settled on a system for reading and retention that I feel good about, which I will share you below. 

More importantly, I want to solicit feedback from youon what your system for reading and retention is.

Reply to this email and let me know. Or, if you're a THINKERS Workshop member, share your process here

Maybe you're one of those super-speed readers like Will Hunting, or maybe you have to be much more methodical about it like I do.

Either way, I'd love to know.

Selfishly, I'm hoping there's a nugget from one or two of you that I can steal for my own system.

And as a curator at heart, I'm hoping to get enough responses to fill up a future edition of the THINKERS Roundup that gives others new ideas for how they might be able to read and retain more.

Yes, there will always be an element of an individual's reading style that is personal of them and tailored to their preferences and proclivities, but that doesn't mean we can't still learn and be inspired by each other.

So here is my own personal reading system, followed by a few links that will give you some general strategies and insight into how you can read better and retain more.

My personal 5-step process for becoming a better reader

1. I make it a priority.

Like so many of you, my daily calendar can get filled up quickly. And the reality is that reading is almost never urgent. 

So if I don't make it a priority and schedule time to read, it too easily gets cast aside as a task best left for tomorrow.

That can't happen.

Whether reading is urgent or not, it's always important. Thus, it's imperative that we, as thinkers, make sure that it's treated as such.

For me, that means making reading a part of my morning routine. I also read before bed. That way, no matter what happens during the day, I always get at least some reading done. 

Creating these habits has been monumental in ensuring that I am consistently learning new ideas and experiencing new stories.

2. I "mark my territory."

Some of you will shudder at this. I used to be right there with you. But reading this blog post by my friend and former colleague Demian Farnworth changed my perspective.

It made me want to be the kind of person who "absorbs a book into his bloodstream."

So ...

  • I dog-ear pages I want to go back to later.
  • I underline or highlight passages I find especially insightful or entertaining.
  • I write in the margins. 

In other words: I don't worry about messing up the experience for someone else who might read it later, because I'm focused on maximizing the experience for myself right now.

If a book is good enough to recommend to someone later, I'll get them their own copy. This one is mine. 

Plus, this practice leads into the next one ...

3. I take time to reflect and take notes after finishing.

This is something I've started doing recently, and it's made a huge impact on how much I retain from the books I read.

Because here's the thing: I just don't retain that much from books if I simply read them and put them away.

This has frustrated me for a long time, and at times has even made me shy away from reading. What's the point if I'm not going to remember what I read?

Well, my solution has been to stop running away from the challenge and instead meet it head on. If I need to do a little more work to really absorb what I've read, then so be it. It's worth it, ten times over.

So I set aside an hour or two after finishing a book and go through it again. I pay special attention to the pages I've dog-eared and the passages I've highlighted. Then I'll either paraphrase concepts I want to remember, or copy down passages verbatim.

I've also started doing this while reading, usually at the end of chapters, instead of waiting until I'm finished with the book.

And yes, I do it by hand.

Getting away from technology and just spending focused time with the book, a pen, and a notebook makes it all the more engrossing.

Besides, the technology comes next ...

4. I digitize and organize my notes for future reference.

One of my favorite elements of the new THINKERS App (which will be released soon) is the handwriting recognition.

Here is an example of my notes from the bookDeep Work by Cal Newport. As you can see, I took two pages of notes and captured them with my THINKERS App. I organize them in my Book Notes folder.

Now for the best part ...

When I open up the notes in my app, there is a section for "Searchable Text" that actually does a pretty decent job of transcribing my handwriting -- and this feature will only get better. 

So if I want am search for a particular topic in my notes later, these notes will surface if relevant.

And lastly ...

5. I seek out opportunities to discuss what I read.

This step has been massive as well.

I try to find every opportunity I can to discuss the books I read.

One way I've done this is by launching book clubs in two of the communities I lead, the Unemployable Initiative and THINKERS Workshop.

Another way is by scheduling webinars and podcast recordings with the authors of the books. THINKERS Workshop members will recall our recent events with Ed Hess and Jess Tracy.

Not only does participating in these conversations always lead to new insights and a deeper understanding of the material, but the process of preparing for the conversations helps to motivate me to go the extra mile to dig in and understand the book.

So there it is.

That's my personal process for becoming a better reader, and I can feel its effect on my thinking, my knowledge, and even my general happiness compounding by the week. Reading and reflecting on what I read is always a worthwhile investment of time.

Now, again, I turn it over to you. What is your process for reading? I want to know. Reply to this email or comment here inside of the THINKERS Workshop.

If we're going to help each other to become better thinkers, then part of that is helping each other become better readers.

Next up, a quick update from the THINKERS Workshop and then this week's related links.

Here is a re-run of last week's update. We have several events coming up on the calendar. 

First, we'll have our next virtual happy hour on Thursday, September 24th at 6:00 p.m. ET.

Then we'll have two events will be centered around the book How to Think, by Alan Jacobs.

First, Mr. Jacobs will be joining me for a webinar on Wednesday, September 30th at 3:00 p.m. ET. We'll be discussing his book and his thoughts on how we can all think better in these polarized times we're living through.

Then the following week, on Wednesday, October 7th, we'll have our third meeting of the THINKERS Book Club to discuss How to Think. The first two have produced fun, insightful discussions, and I'm sure this will be no different.

Want to join the THINKERS Workshop?
The THINKERS Workshop costs $99.99 per year (or $9.99 per month) to be a member. If you own a THINKERS Notebook, then you get in free. If you haven't activated your free account, just reply to this email and let me know so I can send you the special link.
How to internalize and remember insights from the books you read. 


One way to imagine a book is like a knowledge tree with a few fundamental concepts forming the trunk and the details forming the branches. You can learn more and improve reading comprehension by “linking branches” and integrating your current book with other knowledge trees.

Connections like these help you remember what you read by “hooking” new information onto concepts and ideas you already understand. As Charlie Munger says, “If you get into the mental habit of relating what you’re reading to the basic structure of the underlying ideas being demonstrated, you gradually accumulate some wisdom.”

Read: 7 Ways to Retain More of Every Book You Read (James Clear)

The power of post-chapter summaries and "The Blank Sheet."


One of the keys to getting smarter is to read a lot.

But that’s not enough. How you read matters.

But reading is only one part of the equation. It’s nearly worthless if you can’t remember and apply what you read.

Watch: The Most Effective Way to Retain What You Read (Farnam Street)

The myth of lost time


When you can remember information from your content better, you actually can end up saving time. You don't have to go back and look up as many facts or ideas, and whether it's rubbing elbows with some big shots at a conference or explaining your rationale for a new process to your team, you can apply the information on the fly better. From this standpoint, reading reflection is an efficiency booster and worth the few brief minutes it takes.

Read: Science Says This Is the Simplest Way to Remember More of What You Read (Inc.)
Quote of the week

Think before you speak. Read before you think.”

-- Fran Lebowitz