I Can’t Remember What I Read  : You can improve your professional and personal lives by reading more. Reading has been credited to the success of many successful people, including Bill Gates, who reads 50 books a year, and Elon Musk, who reads the Encyclopedia Britannica every day when he was younger.

The main goal of reading is not only to expand your imagination, but possibly to increase your chances of getting promoted. Unfortunately, it’s hard to fit reading into our already hectic schedules, especially when we’re bombarded with so much content on a daily basis.

During a decade-old study, researchers found we’re exposed to 100,000 words every day. That was before we spent so many hours staring at our phones. So if we can’t spend more time reading, how can we maximize the time we have?

 The information in this guide will help you learn how to make the most of your reading time, by demonstrating how your brain processes information into long-term memories and what you can do before, during, and after you read.

Table of Contents

How your brain turns reading into memory (and why it doesn’t all the time)

Your brain can only store so much information and so must prioritize which ones are important and which should be used later. Reading more will do you no good if you don’t remember what you have read.

What is its decision-making process? The best way to think about this is through the example of High School English class.

While many people can recall the plot and characters of books they read in English class and maybe a few key scenes, they are not able to recall complete books just published a few months ago. Why is that?

But what’s more, you remember things because you had to. In class, you read for a purpose – to get a grade. You knew you needed to apply that knowledge somewhere and apply it to broader themes or ideas for a paper or quiz.

It is also no accident that your academic curriculum in High School was designed to augment what you were learning, so the more you read, the more knowledgeable you will become. Warren Buffett illustrates this point very effectively.

Before reading: Think about impression, association, and repetition

Memory is a pretty complicated subject and it goes far beyond just intent and purpose. Even if you pick up a book with the best of intentions, you can forget everything once you turn the last page.

In reality, if you want to make your reading stick, you have to hit three factors: Impression, association, and repetition.

Let’s look at each:

Impression: Choosing the right books

The human brain loves to merge experiences together to save energy (and space). Therefore, when reading, it needs to stand out. However, most of us tend to do two things wrong.

  1. Our reading material is influenced by what everyone else is reading.
  2. (Hello, sunk cost fallacy!) We force ourselves to read books we don’t want to read.

First, the publishing industry releases more than 50,000 books a year, in addition to the over one million blog posts, articles, and studies available on the web. Our reading needs are simply too great if we don’t curate our reading list.

It’s also a waste of time if you ignore the books you are not interested in. Studies have found that you’re more likely to retain an idea when it’s at the top of your mind.

Joseph Campbell advocates following the adage “The fewer the references, the better the book,” which helps you stick to primary sources.

For a slightly less scientific approach, Khe Hy at Quartz at Work suggests looking for books that are suggested by multiple groups of people. Hy prioritizes those book recommendations that come from three friends from three different professional circles.

Whenever all else fails, trust your gut. Pick books and articles you’re genuinely interested in. If you start falling asleep, or looking at your phone every couple of minutes, you may want to move on.

Association: Connecting the book to “your why”

What is the purpose of reading this book/article/study right now? If the reader is interested in the book’s subject, interest is the first part to remember what was read.

If you’re reading for general information, it’s fine. But if you’re trying to remember and apply what you’ve read, it’s best to tell yourself how you’ll use it.

Researchers gave two groups the same material to read in a study published in Memory & Cognition. One group was told that they would receive a test while the other was told they would need to teach someone the material they read.

The “teaching” group performed much better in the end, but the test was given to both groups, but the results were very close:

Repetition: Do a high-level skim (and don’t worry about the spoilers)

You should avoid this section if spoilers bother you. Our brains love novelty, but also pay careful attention to things we have done repeatedly in the past. That’s why skimming is great for the brain.

When Mortimer Adler wrote How to Read a Book, he explained that the first step in reading was what he calls the structural stage.

You should read the book cover-to-cover instead of just reaching for the first page, Adler advises. At a minimum, notate the following:

  • Is this book practical or theoretical?
  • What field of study does it address?
  • How is the book divided (not just the table of contents, but other divisions)?
  • What problems is the author trying to solve?

Read the prologue and random quotes in the book. Look at the citations or index and see what sources it draws on. In other words, get a feel for the book before buying it.

Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and author, says that “most books are too long” for skimming—he claims that we shouldn’t worry about the opportunity cost of reading unconventionally (lectures, blogs, etc…)

While reading: Commit to active reading, take better notes, and build connections

As children, we learned to read, but we were not taught what’s called ‘active reading’. Active reading is the process of reading in order to gain an understanding of and evaluate how to make effective use of the information on the page.

The reward for actively engaging with a book is greater than passive reading, when you just listen to the words. Although it takes more work, it is more deliberate and, if we’re being honest, slower.

Here are some tips for how to make the most of your time actually reading:

Commit to regular reading sessions and block distractions

It takes time and space to read actively. However, a Times magazine article reveals that Americans read, on average, just 19 minutes of reading a day. That number drops to 10 minutes or less for people younger than 34.

Several studies suggest people should spend at least 30 minutes a day reading, not only to expedite the reading process, but also to increase their attention span, develop deeper connections, and become more empathetic.

You can help yourself meet your reading goals by blocking out distractions like social media and entertainment sites when you are trying to read. 

Build mental connections while you read

Active reading includes creating associations between what you’re currently reading and your previous knowledge of the subject matter and how it relates to your life.

Whenever you read something new, try relating it to familiar memories as a way of creating a bond between the old and the new. This might mean pairing new ideas with things you already know or making use of acronyms).

For Farnam Street founder Shane Parrish, tally your readings while reading in order to make associations. Here’s how he describes his system.

After reading: Apply, explain, and revisit

By this point, you’ve done everything you can to consume, digest, and integrate the ideas you’ve read. But remember that our long-term memory relies on knowledge that is not just learned, but experienced too.

Whenever memories or thoughts come together with a different experience (reading a book, talking about it, seeing a friend and having a different perspective), they are recorded in the neocortex—a part of the brain that is much easier to recall.

When you finish reading a book, the task becomes applying that information in practice. Here are some tips:

Apply what you’ve read

You remember what you read in high school for reasons that go beyond the fact that you knew you would use it. You actually did. You wrote papers and completed tests and discussed the topic. You connected the ideas to big themes and new ideas. But is that what you do with what you read these days?

You can turn the study of books into memories by talking to friends about them, sharing your thoughts online or writing a synopsis and discussing them with people who aren’t familiar with the book. Any and all uses will help you create memories.

Explain it to someone else

Having to teach something makes it more likely for people to remember what they have read. But even better is teaching something to a child.

The Nobel physicist Richard Feynman thinks that the best way to really understand something is to explain it in the simplest, plainest terms possible. Short sentences. No jargon. Only common language. This limits your ability to mask your misunderstanding with excessive wordiness.

Revisit and organize your notes

While you explain and apply what you read, you’ll have moments when you’ll forget or be uncertain of what you’ve read. This is when it’s time to pull out all those notes and look them over again.

Then review your notes in the original source material to see what stands out to you. And then organize your notes in a simple story that becomes clear once you have read the book. Think of it as an elevator pitch: What are the most things you learned from this book in only 30 seconds?

Reading to remember is more work, but the results are worth it

While it can be easy to get distracted and make reading a less relaxing activity with all the urgent tasks we have to attend every day, these techniques can have compounding returns.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t choose a paperback and lose yourself in someone else’s world occasionally. But if you read to grow either personally or professionally, you should treat it more deliberately.

Reading, remembering, and connecting knowledge builds your knowledge base, so you become more confident, as well as more creative.


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