Scientifically-Backed Steps to Remember 50% More of What You Read

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This first step is probably going to surprise you… but I have to start here.

Step 1: Read less at a time

There is a raging epidemic plunging into the hearts and mind of America. This disease festers in our cars, where many of us are stuffed one to three hours a day. Trapped close quarters, it is hard to avoid.

It is called Podcast-a-holism.

Symptoms of Podcastaholism include:

  • Listening to shows on 2X speed so you can get more in
  • A feeling of panic when you forgot to turn the Wifi back on your phone so it missed the automatic download
  • Listening to the same guest on 6 different shows (“just in case!”)
  • Pretending you are the co-host on your favorite cast.
  • Heightened feelings of superiority that others don’t have the knowledge you do (“Oh, the new Ariana Grande song? Haven’t heard it. Too busy getting smart.”)

Humans like to think we are better at remembering things than we actually are. For the most part, we don’t like to acknowledge Hermann Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve, which says at least 50% of what we learn goes out the window almost immediately.

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That episode you downed on I-65? Yeah, it’s gone by the time you reach coffee.

Most Podcast-a-holics fall prey to this curve. Information goes in our heads at a red light, and then slides right down that slope and away forever.

If you read one NYT Bestseller in 9 hours for dinner party conversation to talk about how it “changed your life,” but forget the premise by the next week, what advantage does that book have over the one which you read in 9 months but recall every principle?

None. The answer is none.

This information gluttony is the adult version of cramming, a practice which often leads to shallow processing, a phenomenon which researchers Fergus Craik and Robert Lockhart found led to memories decaying and not sticking in long term memory.

For most, one chapter per day is plenty to occupy your thoughts. The rest of these steps help actually keep the 50%+ of that chapter which would otherwise disappear.

Step 2: Annotate

Once, I refused to do this.

Books were holy. To make any marks or highlights would break the unspoken sacred contract between myself and the writer. She would give me the information I needed. I would leave her work of art pure and pristine.

My thoughts have… um… swayed a little since that time.

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My barely legible copy of Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception

For me, annotating along with the reading keeps me engaged in the process. I am an active participant of the reading, not a passive consumer.

This is simple with physical books, but it helps to keep notes along with audiobooks as well. Any time you have a chance to involve the body as well as the mind, do it.

Step 3: Write a Summary

This is my favorite new trick.

For every chunk of information you read, simply take 30 seconds and jot down everything you remember. Do this before moving to a new book or new tasks.

Think bullet points here. The key is not to write down everything, but to create hooks in your brain to recall the information later.

According to Scientific American, you can boost your chances of recall with a learning mnemonic, a sort of device that makes concepts stick in our brains. Acronyms, alliterations, and rhyme are all three examples.

Remember, you don’t need to get carried away here, you need a trigger to activate your incredible brain and grab what you need.

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My one-page summary for a chapter of Hooked by Nir Eyal

Step 4: Review. DON’T Re-read

One common tactic of many Business Bible readers is to run through the information once, then go over it again the next day.

This is sound logic. Surely getting to see information twice is a good way to get more out of the book, right?

Well… yes and no.

According to the Forgetting Curve up there, you can reinforce the information by going over all of it again. You’ll certainly remember more than you would otherwise.

But will you remember as much as possible? I’m not so sure for one reason: lack of novelty.

The brain obsesses over novelty, constantly trying to find new threats, movements or other information which may lead to us being a lion sandwich. When you recognize the information as familiar, the mind relaxes, and it’s easier to get distracted.

Jim Kwik, Bestselling author of “Use Your Brain to Change Your Age,” says this:

“Information combined with EMOTION becomes a long-term memory. But if your emotion is zero because you’re bored, you won’t remember what you read.

If your brain doesn’t get the stimulus it needs, it will seek entertainment elsewhere in the form of distraction.”

Instead of rereading, try taking 5 minutes at a time to simply remember what it is you read the day before. If needed, go over your bullet points to trigger.

This action goes a long way in cementing information in your memory.

Step 5: Teach it

I love what health and fitness expert Shaun Stevenson says on this matter:

“When you teach something, you get to learn it twice.”

(Actually, who knows if he said it first. You know how quotes get on the Internet. I could attribute this to Abe Lincoln and you’d believe me.)

But it’s good, right?

I first learned this as a computer science. My 6 months of age designated me as the one who must have known what was going on. The day after each class, 3 or 4 students would track me down in the lab to explain something to them.

Truth be told? I had no idea about the concepts myself, until they asked.

When you teach something, a couple of things happen:

  1. You are forced to recall information from memory, fighting off the dreadful Forgetting Curve a little longer.
  2. Any questions from your “students” reveal holes in your knowledge. You can then review what you need to, walk the new information through these steps, and know more text time.

This does work best if you have a partner, but talking out loud is also effective. My steering wheel is very knowledgeable about the things I learned each day.

If you do nothing else…

I’d suggest writing 30-second summaries. You are free to do otherwise of course, but that trick specifically has made the biggest difference in my personal reading journey.

I think it’ll work wonders for you as well


And if you want MORE books:

I’m giving away a whole bunch to celebrate the holidays.

Enter to win here:

— TB

Written by

An optimist who writes.

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