Sean Johnson

Build an Intentional Life.

how to remember everything you read

A long time ago I read article by Tom Peters. He argued creativity was nothing more than combining two different ideas together in new ways.

It seemed logical that in order to be more creative, I needed to have more ideas at my disposal. And that meant more reading.

So reading became a much bigger part of my life after school than before it. Each year I try to read at least 20 books (you can see what I’ve read so far this year here.) Some are directly applicable to my field. Many aren’t.

The goal is to expose myself to as many good ideas from smart people as possible.

But over the years, memories get fuzzy. And when you read as often as I do it, jumping from one book right into another, it can be difficult to remember all the great ideas you spent so much time discovering.

And so a few years back I started to implement a system to remember everything, with help from my buddy Emerson Spartz.

It’s pretty straightforward, and requires a fair amount of organization. But the results are powerful.

Step One: Annotate.

Step one: annotate

Unless I’m reading fiction, I keep a highlighter and a pen next to me at all times. As I find passages that are interesting, I highlight them.

As I read passages that lead to thoughts of my own, I write them down in the margins. This allows me to remember not just that I thought an idea was interesting, but why.

I tend to pay particular attention to three sets of passages:

Principles

Most non-fiction books have frameworks or principles they’re attempting to explain. I make sure I highlight each of them, with any relevant action steps for implementation.

Stories

Stories are often more compelling than facts. Having good stories at your disposal allows you to explain ideas and argue positions much more persuasively.

References

It’s not uncommon for great books to reference other great books. These can be a great source of new ideas?—?if I see the same book pop up more than once I almost always pick it up.

Step Two: Transfer

Step two: transfer

As soon as I finish a book, I open up Evernote. I have a notebook for books, and I create a new note for the book. I transfer all my highlights and annotations, noting the page number and whether it’s a principle, story or reference.

I also have a second notebook for quotes. Any quotes I highlight I put in both the book’s note, and in their own note in my quotes notebook. I tag my quotes by theme so I can track them down later if necessary.

Sounds tedious, but it typically takes less than 20 minutes.

I’ve found that the act of typing my notes into Evernote dramatically increases the likelihood I remember the material later. But the next step makes sure of it.

Step Three: Remind

Step three: remind

As an avid fan of GTD, I’ve come to appreciate the power of a good “tickler system”. It’s basically a process for reminding yourself to do something. Sounds simple, but it’s what makes my whole book system work.

Whenever I complete my transfer into Evernote, I create a reminder in OmniFocus to review the note a month from now. I also set it to queue up the next reminder for every six months after.
I have a reminder to review at least one book most days of the year. It takes 5 minutes or so, and I’m usually able to do it during my commute.

This is the key step. It’s allowed me to remember all the important information from books I care about. And it inevitably triggers new ideas for how I can apply the material to my current work or life situation.

The Power of Remembering

This probably sounds tedious. Perhaps it sounds like I have an OCD problem. That might be true.
But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in meetings trying to solve a problem and the solution has been an idea applying ideas from books I’ve read, often that I had recently reviewed again.

This process gives my brain many more “mental models” than it would otherwise have. It folds these ideas into my subconscious, where I’m able to recall and refer to them much more easily.
It allows my brain to ruminate on them in the background, to internalize how they could apply in more situations than I had originally thought when reading the material for the first time?—?perhaps more than the author even intended.

For me, it makes all the sense in the world. If I’m going to take the 5 hours to read the book, I might as well take the extra 30 minutes a year to ensure I never forget it.

Creativity is fast becoming one of the only ways to remain truly competitive in your career. And I can’t think of a better way to be more creative than to systematically increase your inputs.

P.S. This was originally sent to my Inner Circle newsletter, but got enough positive feedback I decided to publish it. Want to get my next Inner Circle? Message me on Twitter.

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