How to remember what you read: What to do before, during, and after reading anything

There are few things guaranteed to improve your professional and personal lives like reading more. Reading has been the ‘secret’ to so many peoples’ success, from Bill Gates who reads 50 books a year to Elon Musk who claims to have read 10+ hours a day when he was younger (including the entire Encyclopedia Britannica when he was just 9!)

Unfortunately, whether you’re reading to expand your imagination or put yourself on the path for promotion, finding more time to read in our already-hectic schedules is difficult. Especially when so much content is coming at us on a daily basis.

A decade-old study found we’re exposed to 100,000 words a day. (And this was before we started spending hours a day staring at our phones). So if we can’t spend more time reading, how can we make sure we’re getting the most out of the time we do have?

RescueTime was designed to help you optimize how you spend your time. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to make the most of your reading time, from how your brain turns information into long-term memory, to what to do before, during, and after you read.

How your brain turns reading into memory (and why it doesn’t all the time)

Reading more won’t do you any good if you don’t remember what you’ve read. The problem is, your brain can’t store everything and so it has to make decisions about what’s important and will need to be used later.

So how does it make that decision? The easiest way to think about this is to talk about High School English class.

Most people can remember the plot, characters, and maybe a few key scenes from books they studied in English class. Yet forget entire books they read only a few months ago. Why is that?

The simple fact is, you remember because you had to. In class, you read for a purpose (getting a grade) and as such, you knew you’d have to use the information and connect it to larger themes or ideas (whether for a paper or quiz). But that book you picked up at the airport last weekend? Sure, it helped kill a few hours on the plane, but it wasn’t for anything.

And just like your High School curriculum was designed to build off what you were learning, the more you’re able to connect the information you get from reading, the more knowledgable you’ll become. As Warren Buffett explains:

“That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

This doesn’t mean you should only read things you’ll immediately use. But simply that if you want to remember what you read you need to be specific and intentional.

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Before reading: Think about impression, association, and repetition

How to remember what you read - impression

The science of memory is pretty complicated and goes well beyond just intent or purpose. You can have the best intentions when you pick up a book but still forget everything once you turn the last page.

Instead, setting yourself up to remember what you read comes down to hitting three factors: Impression, association, and repetition.

Let’s look at each:

Impression: Choosing the right books

Our brains love to lump experiences together to save energy (and space). And so in order to remember what we read, it needs to stand out. Yet most of us make two big mistakes.

  1. We read what everyone else is reading
  2. We force ourselves to get through books we’re not interested in (Hello, sunk cost fallacy!)

There are two obvious problems here.

First, the publishing industry puts out 50,000+ books a year, plus the millions of blog posts, articles, and studies out there. There’s simply too much to read if you don’t curate your reading list.

Next, forcing yourself to read books you’re not interested in just wastes time. As studies have found, when you’re impressed by something, there’s a much higher probability that you’ll remember it and be able to use it later.

One suggestion is to follow Joseph Campbell’s advice of “the fewer citations, the better the book,” which helps you focus on primary resources.

Or try Quartz at Work’s Khe Hy’s slightly less scientific approach and look for books recommended by diverse groups of people. Hy prioritizes readying any book that is suggested by three friends from three different professional circles.

If all else fails, go with your gut. Pick books and articles that you’re genuinely interested in for personal reasons. If you find yourself falling asleep or checking your phone every 2 minutes, it’s probably worth moving on.

Association: Connecting the book to “your why”

If interest in the book’s subject is the first part of how to remember what you read, the purpose is part two. Why are you reading this book/article/study right now?

Of course, it’s fine for your purpose to be general interest. But if you’re looking to remember and use what you read, it’s better to know how you’re going to use it.

In a study published in Memory & Cognition, researchers gave two groups the same material to read. One group was told they’d have a test at the end, while the others were told they would have to teach someone the material they read.

In the end, both groups were given the same test. However, the “teaching” group ended up performing significantly better:

“When compared to learners expecting a test, learners expecting to teach recalled more material correctly, they organized their recall more effectively and they had better memory for especially important information.”

Having a clear purpose before you read can make all the difference in remembering and recalling information.

Repetition: Do a high-level skim (and don’t worry about the spoilers)

If you hate spoilers, this section is going to hurt. Our brains love novel experiences (impressions), but also pay special attention to anything we repeatedly do. That’s why skimming and doing ‘pre-reading’ is a great way to solidify what you’re reading in memory.

In his 1940 book, How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler explains that the first stage of reading to remember is what he calls the “Structural stage”.

Instead of just flipping to the first page, you should start with a general understanding of what the book is about. At a minimum, Adler suggests noting a few things:

  • Is this book practical or theoretical?
  • What field of study does it address?
  • How is the book divided (not just the table of contents, but other divisions)?
  • What problems is the author trying to solve?

Skim the book and read titles and random quotes. Go through the citations or index and see what sources it draws from. In other words, give yourself a picture of the whole before diving in.

If you’re worried about missing nuance by skimming, listen to this advice from neuroscientist and author Sam Harris, who says “most books are too long” and that we shouldn’t be afraid to read in unconventional ways or turn to formats (lectures, blogs, etc…) with a lower opportunity cost.

While reading: Commit to active reading, take better notes, and build connections

While we all learned to read as children, we weren’t taught what’s called ‘active reading.’ Simply put, active reading is the process of reading with determination to understand and evaluate how and if to use the information you’re reading.

Compared to more ‘passive’ reading where you just take the words in, actively engaging with a book is more hands-on, deliberate, and, if we’re being honest, slower. But the payoff is immense.

Here are some tips for how to make the most of your time actually reading:

Commit to regular reading sessions and block distractions

You need space and time to read actively. Yet, a study published in Time magazine found that Americans read, on average, just 19-minutes a day. And that number drops to 10-minutes or less for people under 34.

According to a University of Michigan Health study, at a minimum, people should be reading for 30 minutes a day. Not only does this help you get through books quickly, but consistent reading has also been found to increase attention span, develop deeper connections, and make us more empathetic.

To hit your daily reading goal, it can help to block distractions like social media and entertainment sites while you’re trying to read. RescueTime’s FocusTime feature can do just that.

Take better notes

Being swept away by a story is fine, but when you’re reading to learn and remember, you can’t let your mind become a river that sweeps you away.

One of the best ways to do this is to become a ruthless notetaker. Your librarian might kill you for this, but using a technique such as marginalia (handwriting notes in the margin and marking up key patterns for follow-ups) or sketchnotes (drawing notes and ideas) will make you a more active reader and help lock information in your memory.

How to remember what you read - sketchnotes

There are plenty of different methods for taking better notes, but two things you’ll want to avoid are:

  1. Highlighting, re-reading, and typing: Studies show passive techniques like this are pretty much useless and can even make it harder to create connections in your memory.
  2. Spending more time note-taking and indexing than reading: Your notes are only good if you’re able to use them and re-engage with them. Skip the massive indexes and detailed notes and find a system that works for you.

Build mental connections while you read

Along with note-taking, active reading involves creating associations between what you’re currently reading and what you already know about the subject matter or how it applies to your life.

As you read and come across new ideas, try to associate them with familiar memories as a means of creating a bond between old and new. This might mean pairing new thoughts with familiar objects or using acronyms to connect ideas.

For Farnam Street founder, Shane Parrish, the best way to create associations is to use a “running tally” as you read. Here’s how his process is explained in Quartz:

“As he’s reading, Parrish marks out thoughts, questions, and ‘most importantly connections to other ideas’ in the margins. (Note, he strongly prefers physical books.) Once he reaches the end of a chapter, ‘without looking back’ he writes down the main points and arguments, specifically noting topics that can be applied somewhere else.”

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After reading: Apply, explain, and revisit

How to remember what you read - teach

At this point, you’ve done everything in your power to consume, digest, and connect the ideas you’ve read. But our long-term memory doesn’t just rely on this type of ‘learned knowledge’ but also on knowledge that is ‘experienced.’

When we connect memories or thoughts to different experiences (reading the book, talking about it, meeting a friend who has a different perspective) those moments are stored in our neocortex—a part of the brain that is much easier for us to recall.

Once you’ve gotten through a book the work then becomes turning that information into experience. Here are a few tips:

Apply what you’ve read

Let’s jump back into our High School English class example for a second. The reason you remember what you read way back then isn’t just because you knew you’d have to use it. But also because you actually did. You wrote tests and papers and had discussions on the topic. You connected the ideas to bigger themes and new ideas. Yet how often do you do that with what you’ve read these days?

One of the best ways to remember what you read is to find opportunities to use it. Talk to a friend about it, share thoughts online, write a synopsis and discuss it with someone who doesn’t know the book. Any and all applications will help you turn these ideas into memories.

Explain it to someone else

As we wrote before, you’re more likely to remember what you’ve read if you have to teach it. But even better is teaching it to a child.

According to Nobel winning physicist Richard Feynman, one of the best ways to really learn anything is to explain it in the most basic terms possible. Short sentences. No jargon. Common language only. These limitations force you to understand the core of the topic and not mask misunderstanding under frilly language.

Revisit and organize your notes

While you explain and apply what you’ve read, you’ll more than likely find spots where you’ve forgotten or aren’t completely sure about the ideas. This is where it’s time to use all those great notes you wrote.

Go back through the source material and your notes and see what sticks out to you. Make sure you’re translating jargon into simple sentences. And then organize your own notes into a simple story that flows. A great way to think about this is as an elevator pitch. If you had just 30 seconds to explain the most thing you learned from this book, what would you say?

Reading to remember is more work, but the results are worth it

With all the urgent tasks that surround us every single day, it’s easy to forget the joy and benefits of reading. And while actively reading might make it a less relaxing activity, these techniques have compounding returns.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t grab a paperback and fall into someone else’s world once in a while. But simply that if you’re reading to remember and grow either personally or professionally, you need to be more deliberate.

The more you read, remember, and connect ideas, the more your knowledge base grows. And not only will you become more confident, but also more creative.

Want to find more time to read? RescueTime lets you take back control of your time each day and focus on what matters. Find out more and try it for free

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

7 comments

  1. Question, I’m a voracious reader of articles, blogs and other short forms on subjects of interest to me. I rarely read books (yes I feel guilty about that) but I wondered as I read your post if these techniques are as effective for these shorter format reads (like Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street) that come fast and furiously on a daily basis?

    1. I think some of the techniques definitely translate well to shorter-form content. Specifically for me, it’s important to understand the context of an article (who’s writing it and why I should care), know why I’m reading it in the first place, and then take notes and apply what I’ve read. More tactically speaking, I use Trello to keep track of ideas and will often start cards while reading (or after I finish) a post to take notes and make connections. I’ll always set a due date on the card so I’m reminded to come back to it later and see if anything I wrote down makes sense! Hope that helps.

  2. Loved the great reminders you present here. In my book Riding the Current, I talk about ‘trash reading’ which is very similar to this — and not at all about trash. As to reading blogs, articles on the web, etc. (I spend two hours a day reading at this level.) I find that I read them so that, in addition to learning myself, I can send them to colleagues who may find them of value. It’s a purpose, and it helps me remember what I’ve read because to send the article, I have to tell the person why I’m sending it to them — a form of teaching.

    My tool is Evernote. Just noting the tags is a means of reinforcing the message to my memory. Later, finding them is a simple selection of tags. Great tool.

  3. Good article. Only, the refernce to the brains ability to store is limited by the size of our brains harddrive is not correct. We must use visual, fantastical, and creative ways of remembering, like funny images or some other truley enticing cues. Memory excercises to retrieve data is another fun method. There is nothing hard drive or hardware related in our human brain experience sir. MAKE NOTES works very well and summary conclusions at the chapters end is great also.

    Regards

    JAMES

    1. Thanks James. And you’re right that it was a bit of a misleading analogy. I was trying to illustrate the fact that our mind makes choices about what to remember (as we can’t remember everything!) I updated that section so it would be more clear.

Comments are closed.