This Is How Successful People Read a Book (and Make Themselves Smarter)

I think we’ve all had that moment when we’ve flipped the last page of a book, sat back, and thought, “What the hell did I just read?”

Reading and being able to use what you’ve read are completely different things. Without purpose and intention, the knowledge gained and ideas sparked easily slip away. Learning to hold onto them means understanding how our memory works.

For the purposes of retention, we can think of our memory as being basically made up of three components: impression, association, and repetition.

I’m going to run through how to make sure you’re using all three of these components while reading, and then look at how some of the best creative minds do it and use what they’ve learned to their advantage.

Impression: Read to Be Impressed (and to Impress Others)

When you’re impressed by something, there’s a much higher probability that you’ll remember it. This could mean a phrase or quote that catches you off guard or changes the way you think about a certain topic. Or, an interesting fact that you’ll want to teach someone later on.

Just like a teacher is able to master a subject because they know they’ll be teaching it later on, attacking a book with the same level of purpose means you’ll be able to recall information a lot quicker.

A recent study in the journal Memory & Cognition showed the effect that reading with intention and purpose can have. Two groups were given the same material—one was told they’d have a test at the end, while the others were told they’d have to teach someone the material.

In the end, both groups were given the same test. Surprisingly, the group that was told they’d have to teach the material (rather than be tested on it) performed much better.

Having a clear question in mind or a topic you’re focusing on can make all the difference in helping you to remember and recall information.

Association: Make Associations With What You Already Know

Association is a peg upon which you hang a new idea, fact, or figure. When you know where the peg is located, it’s a lot easier to find what you’ve hung upon it.

As you read and come across new ideas and thoughts, you’ll want to connect and associate these with familiar memories as a means of creating a bond between old and new.

There are many different ways to create associations in your mind, from pairing new thoughts with familiar objects to creating acronyms. Many champion memorizers (there’s such a thing) talk about creating a memory palace—a mental map in their mind where they store information. Each memory is connected to a ‘physical’ place in their mind, so as they walk through the palace they can ‘find’ what they were looking for, just like you or I would walk through the house looking for our keys. The information ‘sticks out’ because it’s in contrast to the ‘physical’ locations in your mind.

Our brain’s work much better with visuals than they do with words and abstract thoughts alone. Connecting a memory with a location or visual makes it much easier to recall.

Repetition: Repeat, Revisit, and Re-engage

The final factor influencing our memory, and the one that is most important for long-term memorization, is repetition. Without revisiting or re-engaging with the material that you’ve read, there’s a pretty low chance you’ll be able to remember and apply any of that knowledge in the real world.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to look through the book multiple times (although that does help). But rather, that you need to have a method for taking and organizing notes around the key parts you want to revisit later on.

Which brings us to…

How the Successful People Actually Read

The most successful creatives don’t just read for pleasure—they read to learn.

Reading with intention is the sum of all the parts that make up our memory—it means that you have a specific goal at hand (impression), that you want to connect what you’re learning to other information (association), and that it’s something you’re invested in and will come back to again and again (repetition).

Let’s take a look at how this actually works in practice:

Ryan Holiday: Author and Marketer

Ryan Holiday’s monthly book recommendation emails are one of my favorite newsletters to receive. Ryan is so well-read on a wide variety of subjects that I was incredibly curious as to how he organizes his thoughts.

Turns out Ryan uses a method he picked up from his mentor Robert Greene. Here’s the rundown:

  • While reading, write detailed notes in the margins and then fold the bottom corner of any page you’ve written on.
  • After a week or two, come back to the book and transcribe the notes you’re still impressed by onto notecards.
  • Each card gets a category or theme in the top right-hand corner (or you can use color-coded cards).
  • Organize the cards by category (or by chapter if you’re working on a book project). This way, you can move them around as you please and connect random ideas (the basis of creativity).

Maria Popova: Author and Founder of Brain Pickings

If you read Brain Pickings, you’ll quickly realize that Maria Popova either has a freakishly good memory or has devised an incredible way to store and organize thoughts.

Turns out it’s a little bit of both. Maria relies on making her own indexes of books in order to quickly scan what’s inside and connect it to what she’s writing. Here’s how it works:

  • While reading, highlight any passages or quotes you find interesting (making notes in the margin).
  • In the back (or front) of the book, create an index listing each page you’ve highlighted and what category the note should be under (This could be ‘C’ for creativity, or even the title of your latest project).

Austin Kleon: Artist, Author, and Poet

Austin Kleon leverages the fact that our brains respond better to visual information by taking notes in a mind map fashion.

Here’s how he explains it: “I’m trying to construct a 2-D memory palace on paper. By making notes in a non-linear manner, by arranging images and words in space, I can see connections that would otherwise be impossible with just words written in sequence.”

Josh Kaufman: Bestselling Author of The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business

While not as intricate or interesting as some of the other methods, Josh’s—named The McDowell Grid after Benchmark Revenue Management CEO Tyson McDowell—is an excellent way to connect new thoughts with your own opinions and ideas. Here’s how it works:

  • Create a simple two-column grid.
  • On one side, write the fact, thought, or quote you are impressed by.
  • On the other side, write your own personal reaction and thought.
  • That’s it! This way, when you revisit your notes later on, you’ll be able to put yourself back into the same frame of mind you were in when you originally read.

Reading is one of the great joys of life. And while it’s an incredible way to unwind from the busyness of our day-to-day lives, doing it with intention allows us to increase our skills and learn from the lives of others.

This article was originally published on Quora. It has been republished here with permission.

Photo of person reading courtesy of petrunjela/Getty Images

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