When asked whether reading was essential to his success, Microsoft Founder and Billionaire, Bill Gates, replied:
“You don’t really start getting old until you stop learning. Every book teaches me something new or helps me see things differently…Reading fuels a sense of curiosity about the world, which I think helped drive me forward in my career.” 11
Like Bill Gates, we also know how important it is to read books, but we often struggle to retain what we read: How often do you spend hours reading or listening to a book, only to forget the most important ideas a few days later?
When we fail to remember what we read, we waste valuable time and energy rereading the book—time that could’ve been spent reading another valuable book.
Over the past few years, I’ve experimented with different ways to improve reading comprehension and remember what I read.
Here are 8 of the best strategies I’ve discovered on how to retain more of what you read, without taking notes.
1. Share What You Learn to Others.
One of the best ways to retain what you read is to share ideas you’ve learned from books with friends, family and colleagues.
Just like how humming a catchy song helps you remember the lyrics, sharing important ideas you’ve read to different people —including specific examples of how the ideas apply to you—will help you retain what you read.
However, if you’d prefer to keep your thoughts to yourself, you can use a powerful accelerated learning strategy called The Feynman Technique, created by Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman.
The Feynman Technique is simple: simply grab a blank sheet of paper, write the title of the book at the top, and then write down the important ideas from the book as if you were explaining it to an eight-year-old child.
If you can practice explaining the key ideas from a book in a simple way that a complete beginner can understand, you’ll improve your reading comprehension and remember everything you read.
2. Make Connections to What You Already Know.
In the book Damn Right: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger, Munger noted that:
“If you get into the mental habit of relating what you’re reading to the basic structure of the underlying ideas being demonstrated, you gradually accumulate some wisdom.”
This wisdom is the fundamental idea or “first principles” of what you’re reading.
For example, whilst reading the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, I realized that the key ideas reminded me of the concept of a highly focused mental state called “Flow,” which I’d previously read through the work of psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.
As another example, whilst reading The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, I related the key concepts to scenarios where I’d been overwhelmed by a vast number of food choices on a restaurant menu.
By connecting new ideas to familiar concepts, you can retain more of what you read and improve your reading comprehension.
Plus, you’ll uncover innovative solutions to familiar problems—because new insights tend to emerge at the intersection of ideas across different domains.
Next time you’re reading an important idea in a book, simply ask yourself this question: What does this remind me of?
3. Binge Read Similar Topics.
After reading countless books on similar topics, I’ve discovered that information and knowledge within different books are like branches of a tree.
Although each branch may look different, they all emerge from the same trunk.
In other words, the fundamental ideas across seemingly different books tend to be similar.
Following my ‘eureka’ moment, I devised a technique called “Surrounding the 5.”
The concept is simple: I pick the top five most important books on a particular topic and then like surround sound around a listener, I “surround myself around the topic” by reading each book back to front in the right environment.
As an example, when I wished to dive into the topic of philosophy, I began reading the classic books by Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Nietzche and Jean-Paul Sartre.
This helped me to make connections between ideas and remember what I read.
Plus, it saved me valuable time and energy that could’ve have been wasted searching for the best books to read or reading bad books.
When you read the fundamental books on a topic, you build a solid foundation or “tree trunk” to accumulate new ideas that reinforce your existing knowledge on the topic.
This improves your reading comprehension and helps you retain more of what you read—because as King Solomon once said, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
So whilst new books may appear to contain new information, they all borrow ideas from the same knowledge “trunk.”
4. Read Books You Can Apply Immediately.
One of the best ways to improve your reading comprehension, is to read books that are relevant to your current struggles.
For example, if you’re struggling to lose weight and stay in shape, you can read a book like How to Eat, Move and be Healthy, and apply the key concepts instantly.
This way you’ll accelerate your learning, because all five senses will be immersed in engaging with the new information.
Haven said that, not all books are written to be applied in everyday life. But when it can be, ask yourself this question:
“What’s the one thing I’m going to apply after reading this book?”
By putting into practice what you read, you can retain what you read and bridge the gap between knowledge and wisdom.
5. Keep Your Notes and Highlights Organized.
If you decide to take extensive notes on a book, there are various tools you can use to ensure that you remember what you read. 2
I personally keep my notes organized in Evernote, because they are searchable and easy to access on my mobile phone and laptop.
Prior to using Evernote, I’d have my written notes scattered across various notebooks that went missing.
This meant that I’d have to rewrite my notes again—an enormous waste of time and energy.
Another effective strategy is to highlight key ideas on the Kindle Paperwhite and then export the notes to Evernote using their web clipper.
If you choose to type or handwrite notes from a book, you can use a reading stand to keep the book still as you turn the pages (otherwise, the pages will close and you’d have to keep reopening them, which can be exhausting).
6. Listen Slowly For Learning and Fast For Entertainment.
Listening to audiobooks is a great way to digest information from a book during commutes and whilst completing mundane tasks. But it’s easy to get bored, lose track of what you’re listening to and forget the most important ideas.
One of the best ways to remember more information from audiobooks, is to slow down the speed throughout learning portions of the book and increase the speed throughout entertainment portions.
Let me explain.
Most non-fiction authors tend to fill up a significant portion of their books with stories, statistics and exercises, designed to keep the reader engaged and support key ideas.
These fillers are entertaining but not essential.
And since nearly 80% of the content within most non-fiction books tends to be filler, you can listen to the audiobook at 1.5-2x speed on Audible. 3
Then, when you reach portions of the book that contain important ideas, simply rewind and slow down the speed throughout this section.
This way you’ll save valuable time skipping through the fillers and spend more time absorbing the key ideas in the book.
Pro tip: Use a pair of wireless headphones to listen to audiobooks hands-free while exercising, commuting and completing mundane tasks.
7. Only Read Good Books You Enjoy (Twice).
Eating is like reading.
The more junk food you eat, the worse your health and body shape.
Likewise, the more bad books you read, the worse your knowledge base will be, and the harder it will be to remember what you read.
Too often, we start reading a new book because it’s highly recommended and popular. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good book.
And more times than not, we beat ourselves up for failing to finish reading an average book.
A better approach is this: don’t bother reading any book that isn’t good.
In the book, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, Mortimer J. Adler explains that, “a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser.”
After reading a fair share of bad books that left a bitter taste in my mouth, I devised an effective 3-step strategy to help me sift the best from the average books:
- Step 1: Quickly read the table of contents to get the “gist”of the book, then skim over the first few paragraphs of the opening chapter and the last few paragraphs of the concluding chapter. Only proceed to the next step if the book appears to be valuable.
- Step 2: Skim through the first few paragraphs and the last few paragraphs within specific chapters that are of interest to you. Only proceed to the next step if the book still seems useful to you.
- Step 3: Open the book anywhere in the middle and read one full chapter. If you’re still hooked, it’s probably a good book to read back to front.
As a general rule of thumb, great books tend to be thought-provoking and leave you feeling slightly exhausted after reading.
They don’t just make you more knowledgeable, but also wiser.
If the book you’re reviewing passes through all three steps and meets these criteria, then it’s probably worth your time reading the entire book.
But we’re not done.
Whilst bad books should only be tasted and good books devoured, great books should be chewed and digested thoroughly.
In other words, great books should be read more than once. And in the words of playwright, Oscar Wilde, “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” 4
8. Read Before Bed.
A study published in Psychological Science—which explored strategies for improving memory—discovered that sleeping in-between learning sessions not only reduced the amount of practice needed by half, but also increased long-term retention of information. 5
During the experiment, the researchers split 60 French-speaking participants into three different groups: a control group, sleep group and no sleep group.
Each of them were assigned with the task of learning and remembering French translations of a list of 16 Swahili words.
The Control group studied the words in the evening and took the memory test 12 hours after sleeping.
The Sleep group also studied the words in the evening and took the memory test 12 hours after sleeping. However, they studied the words a second time.
Finally, the No Sleep group studied the words in the morning and took the memory test 12 hours later without sleeping in-between study sessions. Then they studied the words a second time.
Afterwards, the researchers conducted follow-up memory tests one week and then six months later.
The results: The Sleep group and the Control group both remembered the words better than the No Sleep group.
Most surprisingly, the Sleep group remembered more words than both the Control and No Sleep group after 6 months of the memory test.
The implication of this study is that sleeping in-between learning sessions can significantly boost memory and reading comprehension.
The best way to put this into practice is to read or listen to your book just before you go to bed, and get a good night’s sleep.
To ensure that reading in bed doesn’t disrupt your sleep, you can use a clip-on warm book light, which will make reading easy on the eyes—and avoid the effects of blue light from lamps and bulbs that cause sleep deprivation.
Books are much more than a source of entertainment.
They are an investment towards your future self: a gateway to connect with and gain knowledge from the wisest people who are, and were once alive.
But more times than not we often treat books in a fleeting manner—reading in a hurry whilst multitasking and tossing them aside afterwards.
The uncomfortable truth is this: reading is only half the battle. The other half is reflecting on what you’ve read.
The best ways to retain what you read and improve reading comprehension, embrace the idea that an equal portion of time spent reading a book, should also be spent thinking and reflecting upon the important ideas you’ve read.
But it’s time consuming trying to figure out which books are worth reading, and equally challenging to find time to read good books.
Ultimately, as Philosopher, John Locke, once said:
“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” 6.
If you’d like to get science-backed strategies that make it easier to stop procrastinating, stick to good habits, and get things done, join The Productivity Academy.
- Excerpt from Bill Gates interview.
- Even though this article focuses on how to retain what you read without taking notes, note-taking is a powerful strategy to help you remember what you read and improve reading comprehension. One of the best ways I condense my book notes in a memorable way is to write a short two paragraph summary of what I’ve read followed by three key ideas from the book.
- The 80% figure is an average estimation based on my experience of reading many non-fiction books.
- Source: Essays by Oscar Wilde.
- Mazza, Stéphanie & Gerbier, Emilie & Gustin, M.-P & Kasikci, Zumrut & Koenig, Olivier & C Toppino, Thomas & Magnin, Michel. (2016). Relearn Faster and Retain Longer: Along With Practice, Sleep Makes Perfect. Psychological Science.
- From ‘Of The Conduct Of The Understanding’ by John Locke.