The Most Effective Way to Retain What You Read

“Nothing so much assists learning as writing down what we wish to remember.”

— Cicero

One of the keys to getting smarter is to read a lot.

But that’s not enough. How you read matters.

But reading is only one part of the equation. It’s nearly worthless if you can’t remember and apply what you read.

To learn how to 10x our retention, we’re going to borrow tips from Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Antifragile, to make our reading go deeper and stay with us longer. But we’re also going to talk about the single most effective approach I’ve used to help thousands of people improve their reading retention.

Cialdini revealed a trick that he uses, to a reader of FS:

While on the flight to Omaha, he was reading. He took notes on the material itself, and every time he completed a chapter he pulled out a sheet of white paper and wrote a single page summary on what he had just read. He places the paper in another folder. This is how he gets his learning deeper and this also enables him to refer to summaries in the future.

This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about this. In his book, The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, Daniel Coyle writes:

Research shows that people who follow strategy B [read ten pages at once, then close the book and write a one page summary] remember 50 percent more material over the long term than people who follow strategy A [read ten pages four times in a row and try to memorize them].

But is there something more we can do?

Nassim Taleb adds “Don’t write [a] summary, write bullet points of what comes to mind that you can apply somewhere.”

The Blank Sheet

But the most effective approach that I’ve found, and tested on thousands of people, is called the blank sheet. It’s the single easiest change you can make to reading that will 10x your ability to recall what you’re reading.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Before you start reading a new book, take out a blank sheet of paper. Write down what you know about the subject you’re about to read — a mind map if you will.
  2. After you are done a reading session spend a few minutes adding to the map (I use a different color ink).
  3. Before you start your next reading session, review the mindmap (I use mine as a bookmark sometimes.)
  4. Put these mindmaps in a binder, and periodically review them.

That’s it.

Still curious? Check out our helpful guide to reading better.