Have you ever read through a book, only to discover that you can’t remember more than a few main points?
The problem isn’t you. The problem is your reading methods.
Many people learn the basics of reading in grade school, and add a few more tricks, like underlining and rereading, in high school.
And then they stop developing their reading abilities altogether.
They don’t learn time-tested methods and strategies for becoming better readers. These methods can help you remember more, build deeper understanding, and synthesize knowledge.
This article outlines a system, which I call the Upgraded Reading and Learning (URL) Strategy, that will level up your reading skills.
With this system, you will retain more of what you read, and be able to master difficult subjects more easily.
Disclaimer: this is not a “reading hack” or a shortcut. In fact, it involves more effort and thought than just flipping through a book.
However, if you are willing to put in the work, the rewards will be greater than your inputs.
Let’s get started!
The Problem With Cursory Reading
When you read instructions on how to assemble a piece of furniture, or look through a magazine in a waiting room, you probably scan or skim the text.
You are looking for the most important details, and the minimum amount of information needed to get the job done. Doing this saves you time, and you still manage to achieve your intended outcome.
However, your working memory gets rid of the information quickly after you are finished.
Which is efficient, from an evolutionary perspective.
Holding on to every piece of information paralyzes you. You wouldn’t be able to act in a world of constant uncertainty and change. Unfortunately, this evolved tendency towards forgetting works against you when you want to transfer something into long-term memory.
You need a method to bypass this automatic forgetfulness, and selectively remember information that matters to you.
Passive vs. Active Reading
When you are reading a book, you probably don’t scan or skim as much. You may slow down at points where the information is dense.
You end up paying more attention than you would when reading a magazine or instruction manual.
We can call this type of reading focused reading.
This is the type of reading that is most prevalent today. Focused reading is fine if your goal is to read for pleasure. But, there is a much better way to remember what you read.
Even during focused reading, your limited working memory prevents you from retaining concepts and details.
This is because focused reading can still be passive reading.
In passive reading mode, you aren’t interacting with the book. The ideas flow in one direction: from the author, to you. You aren’t doing the work, because the author already has.
If you sit in on a lecture, you may be enthralled by the speaker’s oratorical skills and mastery of the material, but you probably won’t be able to recall more than 10% of what they said after one week.
The same is true for reading.
Here’s a graph that shows how quickly we forget new information:
As you can see, remembering is an uphill battle.
Luckily, there is a solution: active reading. It is essential for improving retention and comprehension.
It attacks the root cause of forgetting, by deliberately strengthening memories and connecting them to existing knowledge.
Let’s take a look under the hood and see how some of the best active reading strategies work.
How to Read Actively
When you read actively, you do more than just process the information a single time. You engage and interact with the book.
If passive reading is like listening to a lecture, active reading is like having an open conversation with the professor. An active reader asks questions, clarifies important concepts, and gets critical feedback.
To read better, you need to look for weak points as well as areas where you should update your knowledge. This process is key to learning more effectively.
While highlighting parts of the book may draw your attention to important passages, it can also cause you to think that you understand more than you do.
In an article called Highlighting with Reservations by The Learning Scientists, Althea Need Kaminske notes this trend towards self-deception:
Highlighting draws our attention to the highlighted word, making it easier to read. The concern is that ease of reading can be interpreted as ease of knowing. That instead of thinking, “oh, that was easy to read” we think, “I must really know/understand this concept.” This is referred to as an illusion of knowing."
Instead of passively highlighting tons of key details, I recommend writing in the margins.
In academic jargon, this is called marginalia. It pushes you to become more engaged in your reading.
Some questions that lead to high-quality writing in the margins:
By responding to these questions and coming up with your own, you will find that your mind begins generating more and more new ideas about the material. This is a promising sign that you are the path towards active reading.
Recall and Summarize
After reading a chapter, you can take a five minute break to stretch your legs, or listen to some music.
When you come back, try to recall as much pertinent information as possible.
I find that writing down notes can help to summarize key information. A paragraph or two is fine per chapter. If you prefer, you can create flow charts, drawings, or mind maps that illustrate what you’ve read.
This process only takes about five to ten minutes, but it taps into a powerful learning mechanism.
This is because remembering something is an active process.
By dredging up recently acquired knowledge from your long-term memory, you are strengthening the connections behind those memories.
As a result, recall makes it easier to access the desired information later.
Testing yourself on what you have just read also helps you avoid the illusion of knowing—that pervasive sense that you already understand concepts based on mere exposure to them.
Testing yourself often is by far one of the best ways to read a book and remember it.
At first, you might discover that you don’t know as much about the topic as you thought. This can be painful, but necessary for expanding your knowledge. It also offers excellent immediate feedback.
As you repeat the process, you accumulate notes that you can refer to later. These can be used to safeguard against forgetting.
Harness Your Visual and Spatial Memory
Multiple studies (two examples: here and here) have shown that we have an easier time remembering pictures as opposed to words.
We also have excellent spatial memories.
To test this out, take a few seconds and try to visualize your childhood home.
Go ahead, I'll wait.
I bet you can do so, with considerable detail.
When we combine the two, we can create nearly indelible memories. This mnemonic tool is known as the method of loci, or creating a memory palace, and has been used for more than 2,500 years.
You can take the material you are reading, encode it in visual form and place it around a visually imagined space that is familiar to you.
I used this method to memorize 29 mental models from Farnam Street’s The Great Mental Models Project (Volumes 1 and 2). Having immediate access to powerful concepts like these has radically changed my thinking.
If you want to hold onto visual images for a long time, remember this trick: the more bizarre or funny the image is that you create, the better you will remember it.
Which is why Thomas Sankara, the socialist revolutionary and former president of Burkina Faso, is lighting a match in the fridge of my old house (activation energy), and a broken wine glass is sitting on the Great Wall of China under the sink (thermodynamics)!
By taking the time to actively commit concepts to memory, you can use them more easily. If you are wondering how to retain what you read, this is one of the most effective methods at your disposal.
You can even begin right now. What are some tips from this article you want to remember? How can you represent them visually? Which familiar location can you mentally store them in?
If you struggle to visualize things, don’t stress. I do too. Some people have stronger visual faculties than others. However, if you keep trying, you will find that your visual powers can increase over time.
You have actively read through a chapter, and summarized the details in a couple of paragraphs. Great!
Now it is time to distill those paragraphs into a single sentence.
What is the most important information? The key idea? If the author had to sum up several thousand words from the chapter, how would she do it?
Thinking through these questions will leave you with the core concepts from the book.
You will be able to remember it much more easily than if you tried to recall every detail and anecdote across 20+ pages of a chapter.
This process works so well because you are doing the work of deciding what is important.
An example of the power of condensing is the Twitter account of entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant. His tweetstorm called "How to Get Rich (without getting lucky) gained a ton of traction. The tweets are principles that he read about (and lived), and then distilled into 140 characters each.
By doing this, Naval determined what was most important and got rid of all the extraneous information. After all, less is more.
By collecting these chapter summaries as you read, you will have a short list of key concepts by the time you are finished. You can read through the list in less than a minute, and it ends up representing the skeleton of the book itself.
Commit these key points to memory, and you will begin to impress others with your thoroughness and deep understanding of any book that you pick up.
This is the magic ingredient that many people miss.
By taking what you have learned or read about and transforming it into a diagram, a product, or a piece of art, you end up internalizing it.
You manipulate the concepts, and discover the relationships between them.
When I started doing book summary infographics, I realized that arranging my notes into design points gave me a much better grasp of what I had read.
For example, when I worked my way through Adam Grant’s book Think Again, I really liked the four thinking modes he outlined in chapter 1. So, I came up with this infographic:
Now, these four thinking modes are stuck in my head. Forever!
Taking ideas you’ve read about from one medium—in this case, print—and transforming them into another medium is a form of remixing.
World famous artists like David Bowie, Thom Yorke from Radiohead, and Grandmaster Flash have all used the principles of remixing to produce their renowned art.
When you think about it, creativity is a superpower. It involves taking familiar elements and producing something unique.
If you want to remember more of what you are learning, creativity can help there as well; it turns out that memory and creativity are interconnected.
The final part of the URL strategy involves thinking.
While reading, we tend to home in on the author’s position, as well as the evidence that he or she might provide. But we often don’t consider the larger context of the work, or how we can apply what we’ve learned to real-world situations.
In the popular online learning course Learning How to Learn, Professor Barbara Oakley differentiates between two core types of thinking: focused and diffuse.
In focused mode, you have tunnel vision. Your awareness is on the task at hand. In this mode, you attempt to develop a narrow slice of understanding, whether it be in a skill or a course subject.
However, in diffuse mode, your connections loosen up, and you are able to form more wide-ranging associations. You begin to think in ways that you couldn’t before.
The key to switching into diffuse mode is developing a state of relaxed awareness.
In an article about how to have great ideas, I outline a method that uses diffuse mode and deliberate breaks to generate new insights. It really works.
One part of the method involves coming as close to sleep as possible (without actually falling asleep). This frees up your mind to explore uncharted territory, and reexamine what you've learned.
Diffuse mode may look like daydreaming or mind wandering to others, but it is essential to processing what you read, and making varied connections.
Passive reading leads to low rates of retention. If you casually read through a book, you won’t be able to use what you’ve learned unless you put it into action.
When reading a novel or strictly for pleasure, you don’t have to focus on remembering salient details (unless you find it fun!). But if you want to master the material, the URL strategy can guide you.
First, actively read. Write notes in the margins, ask questions, and visualize the concepts.
Then, summarize and recall what you’ve read in each chapter. This cements ideas in your long-term memory.
After that, condense your notes into a sentence or two that capture the essence of the chapter.
Then, create something new with your notes. This helps broaden your perspective.
Lastly, spend some time thinking about what you’ve read. This is where you make new connections, and see where you can apply what you’ve learned.
I hope you are able to elements of this approach to help you read and learn more effectively.