How I remember what I read

@December 31, 2019

I spend a lot of time reading. While it’s great to live in a time where information is easily available, the amount of content on those topics alone is overwhelming! The challenge of our age is not about access to information, but about choosing what information to consume, retaining it, and putting it into practice.

When I talk about remembering, I’m specifically referring to remembering complex ideas presented in books or articles with the intention to use those ideas in the real world. I want to remember a book well enough to apply the knowledge when there’s an opportunity to do so.

So how do I remember what I read, and well enough to make a meaningful difference in the actions I take? I’ve been working on a couple of principles to solve this problem. The first part covers industry news and articles, while the second part focuses on books.

1. News and Articles

The first step is to fix the pipeline, which in my case, was an overwhelming firehose of information. Twitter, Hacker News, email newsletters, Apple News, long lists of book recommendations.

Letting go of the pressure to read everything is a big part of this step. I like how Paul Stamatiou characterizes this in a post called Simplify:

I had a revelation one day when I realized I didn't have to read everything I found on the Internet.

Make a choice to read deliberately. Start by identifying the sources that matter most to you, and set aside time to deliberately focus on those.

  • This list should start small, maybe two or three sources. Naturally, these should be high-quality sources that you trust to provide useful information. I’ve found that email newsletters are a great way to manage this flow. For folks in the tech world, I’d recommend Stratechery, The Information, or Good Work.
  • Set aside time, don’t check throughout the day. I generally read industry news while eating breakfast. It’s something I look forward to and after I’m done, I’m not tempted to check other things for the rest of the day. I’ve reduced the time amount of time I spend reading things that I haven’t deliberately chosen to.
  • Focus. The idea is that you’ve deliberately chosen these sources because they’ll be helpful in some way. If it’s short article, read it twice. Jot down notes. Summarize it in your head as if you were explaining what you read to someone else. Spend the time you would’ve spent reading other, less important things to really internalize what you’ve chosen.

Change up the sources every once in a while and remember diversity (which is perhaps even easier to account for when deliberately choosing sources).

2. Books

Setting a goal to read a certain number of books in a year is a waste of time if I don’t remember any of them. New material is often just the old content rephrased in a worse way — this post included! Seneca, a Roman philosopher, was writing about this topic nearly 2000 years ago:

Be careful... about this reading you refer to, this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.

My strategy for remembering the books I read has two parts:

  1. Re-read the books I love.
  2. I’m working on a list of about 100 books I plan to reread in between each new book. My list is roughly split between books that I think are timeless (e.g. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius) and seminal works in the field (e.g. High Output Management by Andy Grove).

  3. Highlight and take notes, and review those every once in a while.
  4. For books I really want to internalize, I like to own both a Kindle copy and a physical copy. While I prefer to read physical books, the ability to revisit your highlights on Kindle is just too powerful. I use Readwise to review highlights, which is a spaced-repetition app that shows you a set of new highlights every day. Readwise can also connect to Instapaper, Pocket, and other services, so you can review article highlights through the app as well.

    I also keep a note for each book where I try to summarize what I learned per chapter. I like to imagine how I would explain the chapter to a friend when writing these. I don’t review these notes often, but the act of summarization is a great help for memory.