How to remember what you read

9 minutes reading time

Last year I read 30 books and countless articles. The problem is, through my journaling, I realised that while I was reading plenty little was being retained. This year, I have a target of reading 36 books, and not just reading them, absorbing them and acting on the lessons learned.

This article is my attempt at documenting how I’m taking on this challenge and the strategies and techniques I’m using to read more, better.

It was during last year that I changed my book reading habit to more actively take notes and engage with the text. I got over my aversion to ruin books. I’d always felt that books were sacred and not to be messed up. I was taught to look after them. Fuck that. Write in the margins, underline, highlight - really think about what the author is saying or trying to say. Question it. Be critical. Without this, you’re squandering the gift the author is giving you, and honestly, you’re wasting your valuable time.

The simple, scientific fact is unless you engage with the text and review it, you will forget what you read. How many times have you read something, nodded along and then not even 24 hours later tried to explain it to someone and found yourself floundering or unsure of exactly what was trying to be said?

In the Atlantic article Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read 1

The “forgetting curve”, as it’s called, is steepest during the first 24 hours after you learn something. Exactly how much you forget, percentage-wise varies, but unless you review the material, much of it slips down the drain after the first day, with more to follow in the days after, leaving you with a fraction of what you took in.

Improving your odds of remembering starts with good book notes. It makes reviewing a book much quicker, you don’t need to read the whole thing again.

That said, it’s not all about remembering — after all we can look things up again — we’re trying to cultivate our brain’s ability to make new connections and ideas. Much like physical exercise you have to exercise your brain to improve these skills and increase your chances of creating these new thoughts. When you read a book again or re-read your notes you’re not the same person who read it the first time. You’ll have read other books since then, with new experiences which you can now apply.

Reading to lead or learn requires that you treat your brain like the muscle that it is–lifting the subjects with the most tension and weight. Ryan Holiday 2

The Four Levels of Reading

Mortimer Adler literally wrote the book on reading. In his book, How to Read a Book3, he identifies four levels of reading:

  • Elementary
  • Inspectional
  • Analytical
  • Syntopical

Most of us have only ever attained the elementary level. Our aim is to achieve at least an analytical level, if not syntopical.

At the inspectional level, you skim the book, looking at the table of contents, the index, if there is one, reading the blurb and looking at the main chapters before quickly reading through the book.

As the author says, “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.” This way you don’t waste your time on books that don’t deserve your attention.

One important note, your goal of reading determines how you read. If you’re reading for amusement or entertainment then there’s little point or reason to read beyond the elementary level. But, if you’re reading for understanding and you want to improve yourself then you need to read at a higher level.

The rest of this article is geared towards reading at the analytical level.

How to do it

First, remember you’re reading for you, it’s not like school doing rote learning to pass a test. In real life we can look up facts and do research (we need to be aware of fake news and checking that our sources are accurate — a topic for another day) but our main aim should be to look for the lessons to learn and internalise to improve ourselves. And from there we’re looking to turn words into works.

My advice is really this: what we hear the philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of the happy life. We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works. Seneca


James Somers4 introduced me to the idea of Kenjitsu — that you have to fight the knowledge.

Don’t just read it; fight it! Ask your own questions, look for your own examples, discover your own proofs. Is the hypothesis necessary? Is the converse true? What happens in the classical special case? What about the degenerate cases? Where does the proof use the hypothesis? Paul Halmos

Paul Halmos was talking about maths when he said that but you can apply it to any text. You have to wrestle or attack it; don’t take it at face-value. Ask questions of the author, be critical, actively use ”and what would that mean?”, like Feynman, to translate the text into terms you can understand and comprehend, to fully absorb it.

Ask questions

Start out by asking yourself and answering these questions:

  • What is this book about?
  • What is being said in detail and how?
  • Is this book true in whole or in part?
  • What of it?

Read as fast or slow as you need to. Speed Reading is Bullshit. You can skim a book to get an overview but you can’t read fast to get a deep understanding. You’re not taking the time to think, to argue with the author, find counterpoints or come to your own conclusions given the evidence presented.

Take (better) notes

Read with a pen in your hand. If it’s a paper book, don’t be afraid to write in the margins. Highlight passages, note your thoughts and reactions as you read sections. I’m currently trying SmartMarks from BestSelf so I always have paper to hand to collate my notes and build an index. It’s also a bookmark. Turn up corners or use post-it notes with colours to track ideas or actions you want to take.

Post-it note markers in Essentialism


You’ll want to come up with some shorthand when you’re jotting notes or use a colour scheme with post-its so you can easily identify and find information later.

BestSelf have a comprehensive, free, resource on levelling up your note-taking that’s well worth reading. In it, they suggest the following classifications:

Key Concepts:

  • MI: Main idea
  • SI: Supporting idea
  • L: Lists

There’s likely to be only one main idea - the reason you picked up the book in the first place. Supporting ideas are the breakdown of the main idea into some kind of framework to structure our understanding on. Lists are the practical, low-level steps that we can put into action.

  • AM: Anchoring moment
    An anchoring moment is where you have a flashback to a previous moment in your life, it most often happens during a story in a book where you make a connection. This can be critically important because they can act as a point to make the idea or list more easily remembered.

  • TQ: Triggering Quote
    Similar to an AM this is a phrase that particularly speaks to us in some way. They help to stimulate us towards action. Be careful and discerning when you’re recording quotes within the context of the book you’re trying to understand. Too many and they can lose their potency. Make sure they support the main concepts you’re trying to build. By all means, record the quote elsewhere for later retrieval. I add quotes that particularly speak to me to my commonplace book.

  • DD: Deep Dive
    These can be resources that the author explicitly mentions or references to other material that you want to take a look at. Often this can come to you through the questions you’re asking of the book. I try to collate these in a single page on my SmartMark or in a notebook to review after I’ve read the whole book.

  • AD: Take Action Directive
    These can be harder to find, but they’re often words or phrases the author repeats throughout the book to drill the concepts they are presenting into you so that you take action.

BestSelf recommends leaving the bottom line of any note page for these Take Action Directives so they’re easy to find when you need them.

Create an index

Use the inside covers of the book, or designate a few pages of your notebook to act as an index to the key concepts, quotes, etc for quick reference and later review.


Summarise the chapter with a few bullet points. Do you have any unanswered questions?

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” - Francis Bacon


After you’ve read the book for the first time, let it rest awhile.
I create a project in my task manager for each book I read. In it, I create a set of tasks to review my notes that become due after set periods to help counter the forgetting curve.

Screenshot of task manager with review note intervals
The intervals are 3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months, 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, 4 years and 5 years. Use these intervals to review and make new connections (as you’ll have read other things and had other ideas since).

Write out anything by hand (that’s important to help recall). I use my iPad Pro in GoodNotes so that I can capture it to text later and move it into Bear for future reference and easy searching.

How to review a book

Again, BestSelf have a nice, simple review system:

Firstly, review all your notes. Grab a highlighter (or a different coloured pen) so you can pick out the most important points. Where appropriate, stretch your notes further by jotting down additional thoughts, ideas, or insights that crop up as you review.

Next, identify the 1-3 key points/ideas/strategies/insights you want to implement. Keep it achievable by making your list a size you can realistically action. If you can’t decide, prioritise and pick the items that will make the most impact on your life. You can always come back to the book again at a later date if you want to apply more ideas.

3. WHY
Finally, get clear on the thinking behind your shortlist. Why have you picked the items on your list? Write a quick sentence explaining what excites you about your choices - to help confirm you’ve selected the right priorities. This tactic helps build momentum because you’re more likely to take action if you feel juiced.

Plan/schedule the actions you want to take from the book.

Finding time

The inevitable question. This is all well and good you say but where will I find the time? It’s as simple as, you have to make reading a priority. There are many statistics like this which show that around 90% of people watch at least 6-10 hours of TV per week. Around 40% are spending more than 20 hours a week. You could read a lot of books in that time! For myself, to read more, I’m trying to stop defaulting to watching TV in the evenings. I’m making it as easy as possible to read instead. We’re redecorating our living room and I’m creating a reading area where I can’t see the TV. This will let me be in the room with my family but without getting sucked in. I can wear headphones to listen to music and avoid distraction.

”It’s pretty simple: Either you read or you don’t. If you read, you probably want to do it more. If you don’t read, I’m not going to convince you to put down the remote.” Shane Parrish 5

For articles, I cue them up in Instapaper to read on my phone or iPad whenever I have a few minutes. I choose to read instead of browsing Twitter or playing snatches of a game.

My guidelines

I’ve set out some guidelines for myself that I’m trying to follow for any book that I’m not reading for entertainment:

  • You don’t need to finish the whole book
  • Don’t read stuff you find boring
  • Quality over quantity
  • Take notes
  • Wrestle with the text
    • Take the time to look up stuff you don’t understand
    • Ask questions of the author and yourself
    • Have an opinion



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Got any questions or comments? Drop me a message on Twitter (@elaptics).