Randall Payleitner

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How I Retain What I Read

I read mostly non-fiction. Over the years I’ve tried reading and retaining on my iPad (which mostly sits and gets dusty these days). I’ve listened to audiobooks, which I enjoy very much, but audiobook retention seems to be a hopeless case as well. These non-500 year old technologies are great for serial reading, but less great for actually remembering and referencing the content.

What follows is my system for retention that involves, gasp, a pen and a paper book (I fear I’ve just lost my digital native street cred). Please feel free to throw things at me at any time. My goal with the following is to:

  • Retain more effectively while I’m reading.
  • Create a reference index for myself if I want to come back to a book in the near future. This is how I create my Short Book Reviews.
  • Save a record of my thoughts/gleanings well into the future long after I may forget the details of the book.

As you make your way through a business, spiritual growth, parenting, or biographical book you’ll often come across things you’ll want to remember. Here’s how I do it:

(1) Read with a pen handy.

I find that “behind my ear” is usually the best spot.

(2) Decide why you’re reading the book and make your index accordingly. 

  • To be a better supervisor
  • To be a more “present” parent
  • To learn how to pray from people who pray

(3) As you read, mark spots you'd like to retain on the page.

Scribble a bracket in the margin or underline a section on any page when you see something good you want to retain. This is more or less a flag on the page. Don’t try to write too many notes in the pages themselves, you’ll never find them again. And usually you’ll run out of space.

(4) Make a personalized index at the back of the book.

After you’ve marked a bracket, star, or underlined on the page, turn to the very last page (inside the back cover) and write a list of notes and page numbers. You’re making your very own index to each book you read, e.g.:

  • Page 19: Four core principles for leading a group through trouble
  • Page 31: Winston Churchill quote about priorities in leadership
  • Page 55: Organizational structure for a nimble team

This helps so that you’re not underlining every mildly awesome thing you read. I find that depending on how good/helpful a book is, I may end up having 10-15 notations per 100 pages. This is a reasonable number for me to then be able to reference what I read at some point in the future without having so many points to sift through that I might as well read the book again.

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I read all the time while traveling and between activities, so, I needed a simple system for retention that didn’t require me to have a journal handy. The one downside here is you’ve got to own the book as libraries don’t look too kindly on readers marking up their books. But as I’ve been saying all along—books are cheap, go buy them!

After doing this for about two years I now have a personalized library littered with my own notes, thoughts, and reference points. My library has gone from being a trophy case to being a personalized index. I wish I had started 10 years earlier!

How do you retain knowledge when you read? Email or Tweet at me.