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How to Retain More of What You Read

How to Retain More of What You Read | THINKERS Notebook
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 you on 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 book Deep 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. 

Excerpt:

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."

Excerpt:

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

Excerpt:

 
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

The Secret to Successful Teamwork

The Secret to Successful Teamwork | THINKERS Notebook
"Okay fine. I'm convinced. This is the better way to do it. Now let's talk about how to implement it."

And with that, our team's intense debate about a particular feature of the new THINKERS App was over.

Now you might think that the speaker of those words "lost" the debate. After all, he was the one who was "convinced," right?

But ask Sean Jackson, the speaker of those words, and the founder and final-decision maker of THINKERS, if he feels like he "lost" that debate. 

I guarantee you he doesn't.

Because a good leader would never view it that way -- at least not for long. And neither would good team members.

Our lead developer Daniel and I don't feel like we "won" the debate even though the idea we were arguing for ultimately ended up being implemented.

Nope.

The app won.

The customers won.

And that is what's actually important.

The power of 'we' over 'me'

The reason why none of us care who "won" or "lost" is because we're a genuine team. And teams, by definition, come together to work toward a common goal. 

So all that matters is the progress being made toward that common goal, not who wins this argument over here or who gets this piece of credit over there.

Our team's common goal over the last six months has been developing the best iOS app on the market for capturing, storing, and sharing ideas.

We want it to be optimized for THINKERS Notebook customers but also accessible and valuable for folks who use other notebooks too. (The debate referenced above was about how we could best achieve this shared objective.)

Because we all share this goal, the intensity of our debate was driven by coming to the best conclusion for the app, not winning an argument for our own egos.

But you and I both know it's not that simple. Humans are complicated.

Phrases like "There no 'I' in team" sound good, and reinforce an important idea, but they also ignore the reality that ego and pride are often major drivers of individual effort and desire, which are necessary for the collective group to achieve its goals.

I can say that none of us -- Sean, Daniel, or myself -- were driven by ego or winning while we debated, but is that really true? Probably not. It was in there somewhere. It just wasn't on the surface, and it wasn't in our words.

And that's the key.

When egos dominate a discussion, the debate becomes about people and identities, not ideas.

"Guys, I founded this company. It was my vision. We're going with my idea."

What if Sean had said that? He'd be right, of course; and Daniel and I wouldn't have had any recourse because it is ultimately Sean's decision. But nothing in that statement is actually a defense of the idea itself. It's just a defense of Sean's relationship to the debate.

Contrast that with what he actually said. 

"Okay fine. I'm convinced. This is the better way to do it. Now let's talk about how to implement it."

This is entirely about the idea -- even to the point of moving right into discussing implementation. 

That's what a productive team discussion is all about: ideas over identities.

No one wins if the common goal isn't achieved

Think about a basketball game that is tied in the final seconds ...

The players drink water as the head coach starts drawing up a play. Suddenly, the assistant coach who was in charge of scouting the opponent, and thus knows them intimately, suggests a different play he thinks would work.

The head coach realizes immediately that the assistant is right. 

What does the head coach do?

 
  • Does he ignore the assistant and stick with his own play because he is the head coach and the assistant shouldn't be undermining his authority in front of the team?
  • Or does the head coach recognize that the common goal is winning, and his most important job is to put his players in the best position to win the game, regardless of whose idea the play was?


The right answer is obvious, or at least it should be.

Some coaches would make it, other coaches wouldn't. Some coaches are good leaders, other coaches aren't.

The more that we can detach our ideas from our identities, and thus detach outcomes from our egos, the better we'll be able to lead or contribute.

This is the trait that great teams share: they can debate ideas intensely without it getting personal and without anyone caring whose idea ultimately wins out.

The leader sets the tone for this with his or her words and actions, like Sean does for us, and the other members of the team need to follow it.

Because the team wins when the best idea wins out.

Ultimately, that's what matters most.

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

We have three upcoming events now scheduled. If you're a member of the THINKERS Workshop, I do hope you'll consider joining us. (Click the links for more info and to RSVP.)

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.
Healthy debates actually build stronger teams

Excerpt:

Teammates want the opportunity to challenge each other. As long as discussions are respectful and everyone gets a chance to contribute equally, most people thrive on this kind of debate, finding it not only intellectually stimulating but also helpful for unearthing the best solutions.

What’s more, teams typically feel more bonded and more effective when they have challenging discussions regularly, trading a wide range of ideas and perspectives. That’s even true when those debates get a little heated. After all, this is the whole point of diversity and inclusion–it’s about bringing in people whose points of view differ in order to spark new ideas and ways of looking at things. 

Read: Your Team Members Need To Disagree More. Here’s How To Help Them (Fast Company)

Focus on maximizing your team's 'cognitive diversity'

Excerpt:

Remember we’re all on the same team. Just about all debates fall into one of three categories: The kind where the goal is to persuade people you’re right; the kind where the goal is to look better than your opponent; and the kind where the goal is to find better solutions together. The third is the one that helps us get the most out of a group’s cognitive diversity. To steer people in that direction,  set the stage by kicking off the discussion with a shared goal, a spirit of inquiry, and emphasis that everyone is on the same team.

Watch: How to Debate Ideas Productively at Work (Harvard Business Review)

Seek truth, not personal victory

Excerpt:

Contrary to popular belief, the most successful teams are not the ones in which team members always agree with one another. Instead, they are often characterized by healthy debate -- and at times, heated arguments. What distinguishes strong teams from dysfunctional ones is that debate doesn't cause them to fragment. Instead of becoming more isolated during tough times, these teams actually gain strength and develop cohesion.

One reason great teams are able to grow through conflict is because they have a laser-like focus on results. Top teams seek out evidence and data and try to remain as objective as possible. As a result, while people may have different views, they are united in seeking the truth. Team members can argue, but in the end, they are on the same side. In sharp contrast, failing teams tend to personalize disagreement, creating territorial divides that continue to grow.

Read: What Strong Teams Have in Common (Gallup)
Quote of the week

It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

-- Harry Truman

One Tip to Tame Your Wandering Mind

One Tip to Tame Your Wandering Mind | THINKERS Notebook
So I was taking a shower a couple of days ago, doing some thinking ...

If you're anything like me, the private, quiet, analog time in the shower is prime time to do the kind of focused thinking often made impossible by the tumult of everyday life.

Knowing I had a newsletter to write that evening, my mind drifted to what this week's topic should be.

I returned to a thought I'd had earlier in the week -- "Get it out of your head" -- and how it could provide a nice tie-in to the app upgrade we're in the final stages of prepping for release.

But then the other thought came.

This wandering mind 

Spurred by a passage I had read the night prior in the book How to Think by Alan Jacobs, I started thinking about a potential future edition of the THINKERS Roundup centered around fundamental attribution error, and how relevant that would be with the election coming up.

It would give me an analytical, apolitical way to discuss this remarkably polarized election.

I began to get excited about this idea.

WAIT A MINUTE! 

The other idea was screaming at me.

My internal dialogue was now at war with itself.

I knew I needed to focus on the first idea. It would fit best for this week. But damn if my mind didn't keep wandering back the second idea.

And with that, my precious shower thinking time began to swirl around the drain of my distracted mind.

What's a thinker to do?

Get it out of my head.

So I finished my shower, toweled off, and opened up the beta version of the THINKERS App on my phone to record an audio note.

 
Future idea for THINKERS Roundup: fundamental attribution error cognitive bias and how it relates to 2020 election. Maybe it can serve as a subtle reminder to everyone during this polarized time that we should seek to understand each other first, before we condemn. 

(Note: you can even listen to the actual audio note here, if you want to.)

The impact of getting it out of your head

An incredible thing happened once I recorded the idea: I found that my mind was instantly more willing to let it go.

I could now get back to the job at hand: planning how I wanted to approach this week's newsletter.

It's almost like my subconscious mind was so worried about possibly losing or forgetting the idea, that it was adamantly thrusting and rethrusting it into my train of thought to ensure that it stuck.

With the audio note there to catalog the idea in my THINKERS Roundup Ideas folder, it had stuck. It was safe. Now I'd have the idea easily accessible, and instantly transcribed, right there in my app when it became time to work on that essay.

A clear, focused, present mind is a wonderful thing.

How to help tame a wandering mind

What I described above is a common experience for me. I'm betting it is for you too, because we know that the human mind wanders a lot.

 
  • I'll be reading ... and my mind will suddenly fixate on the fact that we need more grated parmesan cheese and that I really should add it to a grocery list somewhere so I don't forget.
  • I'll be listening to a podcast about a topic I'm really interested in ... and my mind will suddenly fixate on the four urgent to-dos I need to make sure I accomplish tomorrow.
  • I'll be playing with my daughter ... and my mind will turn to the call or email I forgot to return.

This is what it means to be human. Our minds wander, and it's up to us to figure how to manage it.

Certainly meditation is helpful.

I'm an on-and-off meditator who aspires to do it more. I can attest to its positive benefits. But I also know that many of us struggle to make it a consistent part of our daily routines.

And meditation is a long-term solution. Its benefits compound as you practice more and more and get better and better. So if you have a life goal of becoming consistently adept at taming your wandering mind, then committing to a meditation practice is absolutely the way to go.

But sometimes we just need a short-term solution that works now and delivers immediate benefits.

This is it: 

Get it out of your head.

Until you get better at the meditative practice of noticing a thought wander uninvited into your consciousness and then wander right back out without hijacking your attention, go with a strategy like Get it out of your head -- which is a little more forceful and urgent.

You give the uninvited but interesting though a gentle push out of your conscious mind by giving it a physical spot in the real world to reside.
 
  • Tomorrow's to-dos on your mind before bed? Write them down real quick. Your mind will relax so you can fall asleep easier.
  • Driving your car when that perfect sentence pops into your head for the email you need to write that afternoon? Record it on your phone real quick. You can focus on driving with your mind unburdened from trying to remember it word for word.
  • Out for a walk trying to think through a issue when you see someone's landscaping that you love? Snap a quick picture of it. The inspiration will be captured, but your mind will go back to the issue you were thinking through.


Our best ideas don't always wait for the most opportune time to pop into our heads, so we have to be ready with a system we trust.

You can't lose the great idea, but you also can't lose your original train of thought.

Get the idea out of your head.

It will be safely stored for later when you're ready to do something with it. And after the brief pause to record the idea, your attention will be right back into the present moment ... which is a proven path to increased happiness.

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

 

We have three upcoming events now scheduled. If you're a member of the THINKERS Workshop, I do hope you'll consider joining us. (Click the links for more info and to RSVP.)

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, 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.
Here are three ways to shift back to being fully present and engaged.

Excerpt:

There's one other big takeaway. We should focus less on what we're doing and more on how we are being. This study also found that mind wandering has more to do with unhappiness than the activities we engage in. This isn't the way we normally think. We generally think that doing pleasant things makes us happy.  But these researchers found that activities account for 4.6 percent of our happiness. Being fully here, instead of time travelling through the mind, accounts for around 10.8 percent. 

So how can you shift from mind wandering to focus? Enter Notice-Shift-Rewire -- a tool that you can use to radically change your mental state, anytime, anywhere.

Read: Harvard Psychologists Reveal the Real Reason We're All So Distracted (Inc.)

The cognitive and emotional benefits of increased focus are worth pursuing.

Excerpt:

Looking at activity in these brain networks this way suggests that when you catch your mind wandering, you are going through a process of recognizing, and shifting out of, default mode processing by engaging numerous attention networks. Understanding the way the brain alternates between focused and distracted states has implications for a wide variety of everyday tasks.

For example, when your mind wandered off in that meeting, it might help to know you’re slipping into default mode—and you can deliberately bring yourself back to the moment. That’s an ability that can improve with training.

Watch: How to Focus a Wandering Mind (Greater Good Magazine)

Clear your mind for higher-level thinking.

Excerpt:

David Allen, productivity speaker and author of Getting Things Done, recommends doing what he calls a “core dump”. This involves writing down every task, activity, and project you need to address. This could range from picking up milk on the way home, to a multi-person project at work. Writing down every “to-do” item you can think of clears space in your head for more important topics.

You can also use a technique called “morning pages”, which was pioneered by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. Morning pages involves completing three pages (around 750 words) of stream-of-consciousness writing. Through doing this first thing each morning, you clear your head in preparation for the day’s most important thinking.

Read: How Writing Things Down Can Change Your Life (Lifehack)
Quote of the week

I don’t care how much power, brilliance or energy you have, if you don’t harness it and focus it on a specific target, and hold it there you’re never going to accomplish as much as your ability warrants.”

-- Zig Ziglar