How to level-up your reading habits

Why are some people able to recall a massive amount of information from a book, while others find it difficult to even remember the key points? The answer in this lies not in what someone reads, but how they read. Even if you are reading a book other people have found easy to read, how you approach reading that book matters. When you are building a reading habit, you should be aiming to both read more, and read better. How can we remember more of what we read?

There is no one solution which will make it easier for you to remember what you have read in a book. Indeed, there are apps which allow you to take notes, or tools which promise to help you read books in a shorter period of time. But most of these add little or no value to the reading experience. Rather, you should be focused on building a set of habits which will maximize your chances of remembering what you read. Although it may sound like reading 25 books in a year is a great accomplishment, it doesn’t matter if you only remember a few points — quality is king.

Reading more is always a good thing. But knowing how to retain that information will help you get more out of a book. You will be able to better recall key points, and have more informed discussions about a book when you are asked. And you will notice all of the other common benefits associated with reading — the ability to use analogies from a book, expanded vocabulary and knowledge, et cetera.

Active vs. passive readers

There are two main types of readers: active and passive. Passive readers forget almost everything they read. These people are often focused on quantity over quality; they believe skimming 10 articles is better than reading five really well. Active readers, however, retain a significant portion of what they have read.

The active approach to reading is better because the more you read, the more your knowledge will compound. Active readers are more engaged with the text and are able to think about ideas on a deeper level. Active readers choose better articles and books because they know that they will need to engage with the next. Passive readers, on the other hand, find it difficult to develop such comprehension over a book. They have already moved onto the next thing.

How to remember what you read

There are a few different strategies you can use to help remember what you read. The first step before you start using these strategies is to choose something you are interested in. The more interesting you find an article or a book, the more likely you are to stay engaged with that text. A rule for this is to read books that: have survived a period of time; are related to your current mindset; or you find interesting.

1. Take notes.

Taking notes can help you reflect on what you have read and reinforce knowledge in your mind. When you write notes, you are actively thinking about what you have read, which increases the chance you retain information. There is no one single approach to note-taking. Some people like to write on a book; others prefer to write on index cards. A great way to get started is to write a summary of each chapter and to write down a few interesting quotes. Then, as you get used to taking notes, you can start to write down more.

2. Stay focused.

Set aside a time to read and make sure you focus only on the book. Don’t check your DMs. Or your text messages. Or have the television on in the background. In order to fully understand and consume a book, you need to give the book your undivided attention. Active reading requires you to remain focused on what is in front of you. Making time to read without distractions makes it easier for your mind to digest what you have read, so you will be able to remember more of what you have read.

3. Make connections.

Books are not separate from everything else you have read. You can combine what you have read in a book with a variety of other concepts. If you are reading about education, you could try to make connections with your own personal experiences in high school. If you can combine what you have read with a memory or something else you have read, your brain will find it easier to remember that information. Why? Your brain knows that when you think about the old memory, that is a cue to think about the new memory you are developing.

4. Stop if you are bored.

Those who love reading usually do not finish a bad book. They value their time too much to waste it on something they do not find interesting. The Rule of 50 states you should try to read the first 50 pages of a book. If you don’t find the book interesting, you should move on to something else. It can seem unusual to quit a book half-way through, but you can only fully engage with something you are interested in. Reading a book because you have already started does not mean you need to finish it, assuming you are getting little value out of the book.

5. Learn what you have read.

Reading and learning are two different things. Reading is the act of consuming information. Learning is about reflecting on what you have learned, and using that knowledge in practice. After you have read something, make time to think about what you have read. Take notes on what you found interesting, and see what mental connections you can develop. If you read something and don’t think about it after you have finished, you will quickly start to forget what you have read. Learn the material, don’t just read it.

6. Use the Feynman Technique.

Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, developed a technique to help master knowledge. He said you should: learn about an idea; teach it to a young person; figure out what you do not fully understand and figure it out; and review what you have learned. Teaching is a great way to reinforce what you have learned. Tell someone about what you have read from your point of view, and keep it simple. If nobody is around, talk to yourself.

When you have finished a great read, you may even want to read it again. There are many books which include so much knowledge and wisdom that it takes multiple reads to consume everything. When you re-read a book, you will notice there are some subtle details you missed when you first read the book. And re-reading will help you recall what you have learned, and create new memories based on the details you have just discovered. For example, I intend on reading Atomic Habits again soon because it had so much actionable advice I couldn’t comprehend all of it on my first read.

Finally, you need to find a way to apply what you have learned. The Feynman Technique is one way of reinforcing what you have read, but there are many others. After you have read something, go tell someone about it. Take a few notes. Or write a blog post about the idea. Try to do this as soon as possible so the information is fresh in your memory and ready for you.