3 tips for remembering what you’ve read

Turn the words into works by putting them into action, long after you've finished the page.

If you like to read and are in the military, chances are that you aren't reading for the hell of it, but reading to learn. Reading history, military leadership and self-improvement books are a great way to work toward developing skills to help improve your chances of success as a leader.

While the intent is admirable, there is a more practical problem with this approach. According to the forgetting curve, we forget most of what we read in the days or weeks after we encounter the material. Research has found that we generally remember as little as 10 to 20% of what we read.

I read a lot and I'm continually looking for ways to help me retain the important ideas, passages and quotes I come across. And I'm not alone.

Since humans first started writing practical advice for leaders, people have tried to figure ways to remember these lessons and incorporate them into their daily lives. The Stoic philosopher Seneca even commented on this over 2000 years ago:

"We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application—not far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech—and learn them so well that words become works."

So how do we learn the words so well that we turn them into works? The key is to counter the forgetting curve and increase our ability to recall the information we gain from reading. Thankfully, memory research has some answers for us.

Here are 3 tips for remembering what you're reading:

1. Use your hands.

One of the ways in which we can better remember what we read is to get our hands involved in the process. In other words, using a highlighter to mark important passages or a pen to write marginalia (notes in the margins) helps us with retention.

In their book, The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain, educators Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek argue that by adding the sense of touch to learning, we create multi-sensory pathways in the brain. Studies have shown that a multi-sensory approach to learning greatly increases the probability of recall.

2. Build an external hard drive.

From Marcus Aurelius to George Patton and Leonardo da Vinci to Bill Gates, these leaders and inventors kept personal notebooks or notecards where they captured quotes, maxims, ideas or anything else they found of interest. As we look back now into their private writings, we find evidence of the intellectual growth that made them successful. For instance, Patton copied down insights at West Point that would eventually become his fighting style decades later.

Typically when I finish a book, I return to it and transfer my margin notes, highlighted passages or additional reading (footnotes and endnotes are great for this) into my notebook. This extra step takes about thirty minutes, but it is worth it.

I continually look back through my notebook, gaining more familiarity with the subject. This "external hard drive' is a great place to review ideas when I need them, and I don't have to worry about it crashing!

3. Talk about it!

Finally, when we discuss what we read, we increase the chances we won't forget it. By talking about it, we force our brains to recall the information. Research has shown that in recalling information, we strengthen the memory.

If I am reading a book I enjoy, I will bring it up in conversation with friends and family members. As we discuss an aspect of the book, I typically find that we will come up with even more applications for the quote or idea put forth by the author.

So, next time you pick up a book, don't just read it cover to cover and put it away. Grab your highlighter and a pen. Mark passages and make notes in the margins. Find a small notebook where you can capture insights, quotes and tidbits worth remembering. And talk about your books with family and friends, always looking for ways to recall the information. If you do these things, you will be able to follow the advice of Seneca, and know the words so well that you turn them into works.