A random sampling of the world’s most successful people will show one common trait: a love of reading. Reading is the easiest way to continue the learning process, increase empathy, boost creativity, and even just unwind from a long day. But books can also change the way we think and live.
Warren Buffett, who says he spends 80% of his time reading and writing, attributes a huge amount of his success to a single book: The Intelligent Investor, by his mentor Benjamin Graham. For Malcolm Gladwell, it was Richard Nisbett’s The Person and the Situation that inspired his string of New York Times bestselling books. These are what economist Tyler Cowen calls “quake books”—pieces of writing that are so powerful they shake up your entire worldview.
As author and avid reader Ryan Holiday explains: “Whatever problem you’re struggling with is probably addressed in some book somewhere written by someone a lot smarter than you.”
Every story has been experienced, recorded, and published by someone at some point in time. Beyond just stories, books provide life lessons—a set of proven theories and anecdotes that you can apply to your own life.
So there’s the why of reading, but what about the how? Too often we get through a book, flip the last page, sit back, and think, “What the hell did I just read?” Reading and being able to use what you’ve read are completely different things.
Understanding how to get the most out of your time reading starts with understanding why we remember things at all, and then figuring out the best way to use that information.
The basics of memory
Without purpose and intention, the ideas sparked while reading easily slip away. Learning to hold onto them means understanding how our memory works. For the purposes of reading retention, we can think of our memory as being basically made up of three components:
Read to be impressed (and to impress others)
When you’re impressed by something, there’s a much higher probability that you’ll remember it. This could mean a phrase or quote that catches you off guard or changes the way you think about a certain topic. Or an interesting fact that you’ll want to teach someone later on.
Just like a teacher is able to master a subject because they know they’ll be teaching it later on, attacking a book with the same level of purpose means you’ll be able to recall information a lot quicker.
A recent study in the journal Memory & Cognition showed the effect that reading with intention and purpose can have. Two groups were given the same material to read—one was told they’d have a test at the end, while the others were told they’d have to teach someone the material.
In the end, both groups were given the same test. Surprisingly, the group that was told they’d have to teach the material (rather than be tested on it) performed much 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 question in mind or a topic you’re focusing on can make all the difference in helping you to remember and recall information. While this can be as easy as defining a subject to look into beforehand, if time is no object here’s how to effectively “hack” your brain into being impressed with the subject matter:
Ruin the ending. Read reviews and summaries of the work. You’re trying to learn why something happened, so the what is secondary. Frame your reading with knowledge around the subject and perspective of what’s being said and how it relates to the larger topic.
As you read, have a specific purpose in mind and stick to it. Don’t let your mind be the river that sweeps your thoughts away as you read. Be a ruthless notetaker. Your librarian might kill you for this, but using a technique such as marginalia (writing notes in the margin and marking up key patterns for follow ups), will make you a more active reader and help lock information in your memory.
Engage with the material. Write a summary or analysis of the main ideas you want to recall or use, research supporting topics and ideas noting how they connect with what you’ve read, and then present, discuss, or write about your final ideas.
Make associations with what you already know
Association is a peg upon which you hang a new idea, fact, or figure. When you know where the peg is located, it’s a lot easier to find what you’ve hung upon it. As you read and come across new ideas and thoughts, you’ll want to connect and associate these with familiar memories as a means of creating a bond between old and new. There are many different ways to create associations in your mind, from pairing new thoughts with familiar objects, to creating acronyms.
Many champion memorizers (there is such a thing) talk about creating a memory palace—a mental map in their mind where they store information. Each memory is connected to a ‘physical’ place in their mind, so as they walk through the palace they can ‘find’ what they were looking for, just like you or I would walk through the house looking for our keys.
The information “sticks out” because it’s in contrast to the “physical” locations in your mind. Our brain’s work much better with visuals than they do with words and abstract thoughts alone. Connecting a memory with a location or visual makes it much easier to recall.
Repeat, revisit, and re-engage
The final factor influencing our memory, and the one that is most important for long-term memorization, is repetition. Without revisiting or re-engaging with the material that you’ve read, there’s a pretty low chance you’ll be able to remember and apply any of that knowledge in the real world.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to read through the book multiple times (although that does help). But rather, that you need to have a method for taking and organizing notes around the key parts you want to revisit later on.
How the smartest people read
The most successful creatives don’t just read for pleasure, they read to learn. This might not seem like much of a distinction, but it is. Reading with intention is the sum of all of the parts of memory—it means that you have a specific goal at hand (impression), that you want to connect what you’re reading to other information (association), and that it is something you’re invested in and will come back to again and again (repetition).
Here’s how some of the most well-read and successful people organize their thoughts and get the most out of reading:
Ryan Holiday: author and marketer
Ryan Holiday’s monthly book recommendation emails are one of my favorite newsletters to receive. Ryan is so well-read on a wide variety of subjects that I was incredibly curious as to how he organizes his thoughts as he reads. Ryan uses a method he picked up from his mentor Robert Greene.
Here’s the rundown:
- While reading, write detailed notes in the margins and then fold the bottom corner of any page you’ve written on.
- After a week or two, come back to the book and transcribe the notes you’re still impressed by onto 4×6 cards.
- Each card gets a category or theme in the top righthand corner (or you can use color-coded cards).
- Organize the cards by category (or by chapter if you’re working on a book project). This way you can move them around as you please and connect random ideas (the basis of creativity).
Maria Popova: author and founder of Brainpickings.org
If you read Brainpickings.org, you’ll quickly realize that Maria Popova either has a freakishly good memory or has devised an incredible way to store and organize thoughts. Turns out it’s a little bit of both.
Maria relies on making her own indexes of books in order to quickly scan what’s inside and connect it to what she’s writing. Here’s how it works:
- While reading, highlight any passages or quotes you find interesting (making notes in the margin).
- In the back (or front) of the book, create an index listing each page you’ve highlighted and what category the note should be under (This could be “C” for creativity, or even the title of your latest project).
Austin Kleon: artist, author
I’m trying to construct a 2-D memory palace on paper. By making notes in a non-linear manner, by arranging images and words in space, I can see connections that would otherwise be impossible with just words written in sequence.
Josh Kaufman: bestselling author of The Personal MBA
While not as intricate or as interesting as some of the other methods, Josh’s method—named “The McDowell Grid” after Benchmark Revenue Management CEO Tyson McDowell—is an excellent way to connect new thoughts with your own opinions and ideas. Here’s how The McDowell Grid works:
- Create a simple two-column grid.
- On one side, write the fact, thought, or quote you are impressed by.
- On the other side, write your own personal reaction and thought.
That’s it! This way, when you revisit your reading notes later on, you’ll be able to put yourself back into the same frame of mind you were in when you originally read.
Reading is one of the great joys of life. And while it is an incredible way to unwind from the busyness of our day-to-day lives, reading with intention allows us to increase our skills and learn from the lives of others.