December 18

Remember and Apply What You Read: A Quick and Effective Guide

Chances are you’ve read dozens of articles on the internet this week. Maybe you’ve even finished reading book or two. You may have even underlined or highlighted a few passages in what you’ve read. A few days later you can’t even remember what you read or where. And this continues the vicious cycle of excessive consumption.

1. You have to Develop Effective Reading Habits to Remember What you Read

In school, you read books to memorize answers and pass tests. But in life that’s useless. Many people believe they don’t enjoy reading because they never got to choose the books they wanted to read.

In life, we get to choose the books we read. Reading is a powerful tool for personal transformation when we remember what we read and apply it to our lives. But if what you read isn’t a deliberate choice you won’t get much out of it.

Deliberate vs Default Consumption

Make a list of the status updates you “liked” and articles you read this morning. If you read a book, add that too. How many of those were deliberate choices? On the internet, most of our consumption isn’t deliberate, its reactive.

We go to a website like Medium and click whatever link sounds interesting.

An effective filter for more deliberate reading habits is to treat the information you consume like the food you eat. Clicking on whatever shiny object rolls through your news feed is like picking garbage off the floor and putting it in your mouth.

When the information you consume is a deliberate choice, it will add more value to your life. It doesn’t take a genius to know you’ll get more from reading a book than a blog post or tweet. Books require two of your most precious resources: time and attention.

Develop Your Own Set of Filters

Developing a set of filters is also helpful for developing effective reading habits.

Align Your Reading with your Goals. Maybe there’s something you want to learn. If you want to learn to cook, pick up some cookbooks and make as many of the recipes as you can.

Focus on a topic. Our monthly theme in the unmistakable listener tribe, while I was updating this article was how to transform information into wisdom. With this as my filter, I noticed a book in our local bookstore called The United States of Distraction.

Become an Active Reader Instead of as Passive One

In Shane Farnam’s blog post about how to remember what you read, he make an excellent distinction between passive and active readers:

“Passive readers forget things almost as quickly as they read them. active readers, on the other hand, retain the bulk of what they read. Another difference between these two types of readers is how the quantity of reading affects them differently. Passive readers who read a lot are not much further ahead than passive readers who read a little. If you’re an active reader, however, things are different. (

2. Take Notes

Why would you take notes on the books you read? Unless you capture your ideas you’ll never capitalize on them.

Ryan Holiday said that his thousands of note cards often lead to nothing. But he wrote down a quote about Stoicism. Four years later, it led to him writing the Obstacle is the way. I asked him about this in his interview on our podcast. He said “even if most of the cards lead to nothing, one of them is enough to build a career.

When you don’t capture things that you find value in, what might have been worthwhile insights eventually fade into oblivion. But if you capture what catches your attention, you’re more likely to remember and act on it.

Mark Up Your Books

If you checked out a book from the library, when you were school, there you were taught never to write in books. But if you have to highlight or underline what resonates with you. While you’re reading, don’t be afraid to underline anything you find interesting.

I break the way I underline my books into a few categories.

Beautiful language: If I love the way a particular sentence or phrase sounds, I’ll underline. In her book Tiny Beautiful things Cheryl Strayed used the words “soul smashingly beautiful.” I underlined it. And I decided to steal like an artist and use it in some of my pieces.

Research projects: I write about human behavior, productivity, flow, neuroscience, and creativity. So, I underline anything that falls in those categories, or gives me an idea for a blog post.

Actionable Ideas: This could be exercises or specific directions to try something. In Shawn Achor’s book, I learned about the concept of activation energy. I used it to develop my habit of writing 1000 words a day. That habit eventually led to a book deal with a publisher.

One simple idea change your life or career if you get in the habit of capturing what gets your attention.

While reading, it’s not uncommon to highlight and underline several parts of a book.

Capture What You Read in a Personal Knowledge Base

When you go back to capture what you’ve read, this is when you want to be discerning. And the simple way to discern between what you should capture and not is by asking yourself the question “is this important to me?” Many of the quotes I end up capturing from books are often used in my blog posts.

In Notion, I have a reading list. And it contains all the quotes and highlights from the books I’ve read. Once I’m done reading a book, I put on my shelf, and return to it a few weeks later.

There are multiple systems you can use for capturing insights.

The method doesn’t really. But having a system is critical.

Progressive Summarization

Tiago Forte’s system of progressive summarization is the most effective I’ve found for taking notes. The simple version is as follows:

  1. Transfer what you underlined
  2. Bold what really strikes a chord
  3. Highlight what you definitely want to remember
  4. Create a short summary of the main points in the book
  5. Rewrite what you learned in your own words

When I”m reading, I write down any ideas for blog posts that came from it or actions I have. For example, I followed this process for The Happiness Advantage. This led to an article about The Daily Routine Backed by Science that Will Make You a Happier Person

3. Discuss What You Read With Other People

Discussing books with other people is invaluable. It’s why people who are in mastermind groups get far more value from the discussions than the information. Discussion illuminates things you’d never see.

I’ll recommend books to friends. They think I’m being helpful. But my motive is partially selfish.

Their brains work differently than mine, If they read the books I recommend, I’ll get insights that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

4. Write About What You Read

There’s a great deal of power to writing about things you read . Most of my articles and book chapters are often inspired by things I’ve read.

When we write about the things we read, we not only reinforce those ideas. We synthesize them and gain our own insights from them.

By asking questions about what we’re reading we move from passive consumption to active engagement. You’re better off being actively engaged with 10 pages of good writing than passively consuming 50 blog posts.

The authors of How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading pose 4 key questions.

  1. What is the book about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part
  4. What part of it?

I ask myself some other questions as well.

  1. Where might I apply this in my life?
  2. Where have I seen this play out in my life?
  3. Does this give me any ideas to write about?

You can either be a passive consumer in your reading or an engaged participant. When you write about what you read, you become the latter.

5. Apply What you Read

Take the time to make a plan and decide how to implement key lessons from the book. – Shane Parrish, Farnam Street

Practical application of what you read reinforces what you’ve learned. You’re forced to integrate it into your life. Unless you apply it to your life, you’ll forget what you read.

If you really want to apply what you read, there’s one book that teaches you how to do this in real-time.

The Bullet Journal Method

At the start of 2019, I interviewed Ryder Caroll for the Unmistakable Creative. After reading his book, I ordered a new notebook and have been using the Bullet Journal method to organize my life ever since. Because it’s about transforming your notebook into a personal productivity system, you apply what you read in real-time.

Do the Exercises in a Book You Read

All of us have books filled with exercises we couldn’t wait to apply to our lives. But, we finish a book, forget about the exercises, and put the book back on the shelf. The upside of a crisis like the one we’re in is that it forces us to stay at home. It’s a perfect time to go back and do those exercises you forgot about.


You may also like