Retaining Knowledge From Books


  1. Write notes by hand while reading.
  2. Teach others what you’ve learned from the reading — this can happen many times (retrieval practice, spaced repetition, Feynman technique).
  3. Type said notes (spaced repetition).
  4. Send notes to others, with targeted nuggets (spaced repetition, retrieval practice).

Getting into the weeds

I accidentally stumbled upon a number of the techniques I use which work quite well and happen to be backed by science. While taking the Learning How To Learn Course on Coursera, I realized I’d been implementing a number of their techniques already. This made me feel quite clever 😉

If I need some retail therapy, I will buy a book on Amazon. Otherwise, I have a wishlist of books that I store there. Additionally, I keep a book list in my head. If the same book repeatedly gets mentioned by people whose opinions I trust and value, I’ll go ahead and buy it.

At this point in my life, I wouldn’t say that I read books for leisure. This doesn’t mean nor imply that I don’t enjoy reading; however, leisure isn’t the sole purpose. With rare exceptions, I generally read books to learn. I read articles and listen to or watch podcasts for fun. For example, I often watch the Joe Rogan Experience on Youtube at 1.5 speed.

For the last few years, I’ve taken handwritten notes while reading. Writing the notes by hand helps implant the knowledge in my brain. I generally write verbatim anything that stands out to me. Sometimes I put books on pause and don’t return to them ever again, or may return after a few days or weeks. Usually, I return to a book if there is some environmental trigger, like a friend mentioning it. After watching a TEDx talk about the top 5 regrets of the dying, I decided to turn around the thinking and think about things I would cherish, or things I would never regret. For example, I don’t imagine anyone on their death bed, wishing they had a longer commute or watched more TV. It’s hard to imagine someone wishing they had read fewer books. Reading books is one of those activities that is rarely a bad idea.

After writing the handwritten notes, and during the reading process, I will often share things that I have read and learned with friends and acquaintances. Sharing happens pretty naturally for me, and likely because I have been doing it for so long. One of my favorite things is to share things I find interesting and exciting, so this is a natural way for me to do that, and it helps with my learning. It’s similar to the Feynman Technique from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. I have also found that if I am unable to explain a concept in simple terms or “tell it to me like I’m 5”, it means that I don’t have a solid grasp on the material.

That’s ok! The goal is to maintain lifelong learning and increase my knowledge base. Sometimes concepts will later click when I read something else. Also, I’m not concerned with “being right.” When sharing what I’ve learned, often friends will correct me, or give me a different perspective to think about the concept or recommend and share related things that they have experienced. All of these things reinforce the learning and help to strengthen my understanding of the material.

I type up my notes in a digital format about a week after writing by hand. Some of them sit in Google Drive, and others are in Evernote. Occasionally I refer back to them. More frequently, I will share notes with friends. I consume a lot of content, as many of us do, and sharing a book can be a great thing, though in some sense it is like giving a person a homework assignment. Even if the person enjoys doing homework, they may not be willing to spend 8 hours on a new book. The notes and sharing of them is a good substitute for me. It also is an opportunity to review them and work on retrieval practice. Sharing with friends the most valuable parts of the notes helps me to glean the best nuggets from the material.

Often if friends mention a book that I happen to have read before, I will send them a copy of it. This also helps to cement the material in my head, and I usually write the receiver a personalized note based on what I think they’d like most from the text.

How Could This Be Made Better?

Tagging and categorizing. I have yet to find a decent system for this. Do any of you all have an effective tagging system? If I happen to write a book and need specific references, perhaps this would come in handy. I despise fact-checking, though it is necessary for good nonfiction writing.

Using a tool such as Readwise stores kindle highlights and send you a daily digest of random items. The downside here is that highlighting isn’t a great method for learning. Also, I prefer to read physical books and don’t have a Kindle. It’s an excellent way to feel smart without actually doing anything. A similar comparison is using a leg press at the gym. Plenty of gym newbies like to pile weights onto the leg press machine. It’s cool to look and feel strong loading all the weights but doesn’t translate well to anything functional.

Something else? Please let me know if you’ve found a better way!

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