How to Remember What You Read
Last year I read 55 non-fiction books. That’s more than a book per week for an entire year.
But what does that even mean for me as a learner? Was it information that I applied to my life? Was it information that I absorbed and can later recall? Did those 55 books stick, and somehow move the needle in my life?
Some, yes. Others, no. But they all, in theory at least, held some wisdom that is worthy of remembering. Much like the people in our lives, there’s usually something to be learned from the books that cross our paths.
Reading large quantities of information is important to me. In a similar vein as “hard work”, reading is insurance for staying ahead of the general population and lesser versions of myself. But just like working hard can be detrimental if that work isn’t intelligent work, reading a lot can be detrimental if that knowledge isn’t absorbed and applied. Wasted reading, just like wasted hard work, purely equates to wasted time. So there must be a balance of quantity and absorption, consumption and application.
To solve for this as 2017 approached, I instituted a note-taking process for remembering the key takeaways of the books I read. These notes are intended to answer the question:
What is the distillation of this book, and how do I apply it to my life?
The result is a very simple 3×5 note card process that I complete after finishing a book. I don’t take notes while I’m reading because I want to focus on the big themes – the paradigms not the details, the models not the components – which tend to reveal themselves once the book is completed. Once I’ve finished reading a book, I then go back and skim the book while doing the following to create my note card system.
- Quantity Each book gets (5) 3×5 note cards. No more, no less. The actionable outtakes of a book should be like an elevator pitch – short and memorable. By using just 5 note cards it forces me to think through what is most valuable.
- Title In the upper-left of each note card, I write the title of the book.
- Topic In the upper-right of each note card, I write the topic or category of the book – entrepreneurship, leadership, parenting, habits, etc.
- Takeaway The front of each note card has a key takeaway. These are the things I want to remember and apply to my life.
- Research The back of each note card has concepts that I don’t fully understand, and I write them down as a reminder to read more about them. This oftentimes leads to my next book to read.
- Organization I then organize the note cards by topic first and title second. They go in a plastic note card holder, separated by topic.
This process, over time, will give me a large warehouse of actionable information in various disciplines at my fingertips. Think about having several years worth of leadership content, distilled into actionable insights, at your disposal whenever you need. That’s my ultimate goal. I’ll have a library of information to revisit when I want to dig deeper or refresh myself on a specific topic.
This process also has a secondary benefit of reminding me of the books I’ve read in the past. I’m regularly asked by readers about this book or that book, and by having this system in place I’ll be able to quickly reflect on whether or not a book was a good read when I pull up the relevant note cards.
Information is useless if not applied. This system helps me absorb and apply information instead of just consume it. It took me many years of heavy reading to get to this point, and while it works for me it may not work for you. But wherever you’re at in your reading journey, think critically through building your own system for applying knowledge. Better to read one book and apply it than read ten books and forget them all.
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