Tag: Daniel Coyle

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.

The Velocity of Skill Development: Quickly Closing the Gap

We are remarkably inefficient at skill development. Understanding the nuances of how repetitions, situations, and feedback interconnect offers us a few small changes that lead to remarkable improvements in skill acquisition. 


We think that skill development is a function of repetitions. The more the better. Bruce Lee summed this up when he said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” What Bruce didn’t tell us is that not all repetitions are the same.

Repetitions that matter for development are a function of quantity, variety, and feedback. You need a lot of reps, you need them in a variety of situations, and you need both internal and external feedback.

But there is a problem for most of us: Time.

Let’s use football (soccer) as an example.

You can show up at the football pitch for practice and while you’re there an hour or two, you might only get five minutes of focused repetitions. The use of time is remarkably inefficient. The variety of situations in which repetitions occur is limited. The feedback is often poor. And to top it off, you’re often unwilling to look like an idiot in front of your peers, so you take few risks in practice (which further limits the variety of repetitions).

Traditionally coaches practice two things: techniques and the most common situations. You can’t practice every possible scenario that you might face in a game because time is limited. So, it makes sense that coaches focus on the most common situations that a player will face. Coaches offer feedback and we get better. Or so we think.

It’s not true that more feedback is better. It’s also not true that coaches provide the best feedback.

There are two main types of feedback. There is feedback that’s internally generated and feedback that’s externally generated. Internal is what you feel, see, observe. You hit a ball a certain way and don’t get the result you want, so you try it another way. External feedback, often from coaches, is harder in some ways. Most coaches can give reasonably accurate feedback on a particular technique.

What separates coaches is ego involvement. Most coaches want to give you feedback that confirms their view of the world. They’re quick to tell you what they would do, which isn’t necessarily what you should do. They want to feel like they’re making you better. The best coaches coach you without you even being aware that you’re being coached. This takes time. You have to develop a relationship with the player. You have to put them in situations that stretch them. This requires a lot of focused observation.

While practices with coaches can be helpful, it’s easy to see how they can work against you too. Practices often focus on individual techniques not a principle. The number of repetitions per unit of time is low. The variety of situations under which those repetitions occur is low. And external feedback is noisier than it might seem.

Luckily, we know the three variables that matter the most: (1) The number of repetitions.; (2) The variety of situations in which those repetitions occur; and (3) The quality of both the internal and external feedback.


Long known for their development of football players, Brazil figured out how to rapidly increase the velocity of development of its players. They found a way to increase the frequency of repetitions, the variety of situations, and improve the quality of feedback.

Brazil is the home of many of the world’s most skilled soccer players. So you might wonder how it develops its players? Brazil uses a game called futebol de salão (From: The Little Book of Talent):

This insanely fast, tightly compressed five-on-five version of the game— played on a field the size of a basketball court— creates 600 percent more touches, demands instant pattern recognition and, in the words of Emilio Miranda, a professor of soccer at the University of São Paulo, serves as Brazil’s “laboratory of improvisation.”

Brazil focused on learning the principles as opposed to specific techniques. For example, the principle is getting comfortable in tight spaces with the ball. The technique, on the other hand, might focus on how to get by a defender.

If you’re comfortable in tight spaces, you won’t make a mistake trying to resolve the tension. For instance, you have a defender approaching you and your nerves take over. You pass the ball, not because you should but because you’re uncomfortable. If you don’t get enough repetitions in practice with a defender approaching you rapidly, you’ll focus on resolving that tension in a game rather than doing what’s best in the situation.

Lionel Messi, an Argentine football star, can’t plan where everyone on the field will be and how they will all react — he has to improvise by recognizing patterns and responding. The best way to develop those skills is to increase the speed of the game. More reps. More situations. More internal feedback.

Three Variables That Matter

These lessons apply in the workplace too.

You can increase the velocity of development with three variables: (1) The quantity of focused repetitions; (2) The situations under which they occur; and (3) The quality of feedback.

While these variables need to be tailored to your environment, they carry the weight. The mistake we often make in the workplace is the same one that we often make at practice. We offer limited reps under tightly controlled situations with ego driven feedback.

Adapting these to your environment means:

  • Focus on the meta skill not the specific skill
  • Focus on increasing the number of focused repetitions and the variety of situations under which they occur
  • Setting up the environment to help generate both rapid and high-quality internal feedback. What information do people need to know they should have done something different. How fast can you make that information available?
  • External feedback (from a boss/coach) needs to be based on a relationship, focused on the person not what you think, and based on thinking not actions (e.g., what did they miss – why is there a need for external feedback).

Focused repetitions give you feedback. Feedback makes you better. Each repetition builds upon the ones you’ve already done. This is how greatness happens. A series of tiny gains, imperceptible in moment, aggregate into massive differences in the end.

You almost can’t help but get better if you apply these four things to your situation.


Still curious? Discover an effective way to learn new things and identify holes in your knowledge.

What’s the best way to begin to learn a new skill?

What’s the best way to begin to learn a new skill? Is it listening to a lecture? Reading a book? Just doing it?

According to Daniel Coyle in The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, “Many hotbeds use an approach I call the engraving method. Basically, they watch the skill being performed, closely and with great intensity over and over, until they build a high-definition mental blueprint.”

The key, according to Coyle, is to create an intense connection. You need to be at the point where you can almost imagine the feeling of performing the skill you’re trying to learn. For physical skills this is easier. Pay attention to the movements, the timing, the rhythm. But a lot of the skills we want to learn are mental.

For mental skills, simulate the skill by re-creating the expert’s decision patterns. Chess players achieve this by replaying classic games, move by move; public speakers do it by regiving great speeches complete with original inflections; musicians cover their favorite songs; some writers I know achieve this effect by retyping passages verbatim from great works.

Still curious? Learn how to practice better.

Stretching yourself to learn new things

Carol Dweck, Daniel Coyle, and Noel Tichy all point out that you need to stretch to learn new things.

First, this from Carol Dweck …

My colleagues and I have conducted interventions with adolescents in which they learn that their brains and intellect are malleable. They discover that when they stretch themselves to learn new things, their neurons form new connections and they can, over time, enhance their intellectual skills. Compared to a control group that learned only study skills, these students showed marked improvements in motivation, and their declining grades were sharply reversed. Researchers Catherine Good and Joshua Aronson have found similar effects. In studies led by David Yeager, high school students who were taught a malleable view of their intellectual and social skills showed positive changes in their grades, stress level, conduct (including aggression), and health that lasted over the course of the school year.

Second, this passage from The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

There is a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It’s called the sweet spot. … the underlying pattern is the same: Seek out ways to stretch yourself. Play on the edges of your competence. As Albert Einstein said, “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

The key word is “barely.”

Finally, this passage from Deliberate Practice:

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.

Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.

Update: This passage from The Art of Learning fits as well:

Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety. The hermit crab is a colorful example of a creature that lives by this aspect of the growth process (albeit without our psychological baggage). As the crab gets bigger, it needs to find a more spacious shell. So the slow, lumbering creature goes on a quest for a new home. If an appropriate new shell is not found quickly, a terribly delicate moment of truth arises. A soft creature that is used to the protection of built-in armor must now go out into the world, exposed to predators in all its mushy vulnerability. That learning phase in between shells is where our growth can come from.

A Simple Tool to Help You Learn Better

Learning something new shouldn’t be easy. If it feels effortless, you’re probably not actually learning anything. In order to get better, you have to reach. It needs to be a little bit difficult.

From The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

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]. This is because of one of deep practice’s most fundamental rules: Learning is reaching. Passively reading a book—a relatively effortless process, letting the words wash over you like a warm bath—doesn’t put you in the sweet spot. Less reaching equals less learning.

On the other hand, closing the book and writing a summary forces you to figure out the key points (one set of reaches), process and organize those ideas so they make sense (more reaches), and write them on the page (still more reaches, along with repetition). The equation is always the same: More reaching equals more learning.

You don’t have to write a summary in paragraph format either. You can simply write bullet points. And while you can use the author’s terminology, it’s much better to use your own.

This is part of the idea behind our blank sheet approach to instantly improve your ability to retain, connect, and use the information you’re reading.

Still curious? Discover how to practice; an effective way to learn new things and identify holes in your knowledge.