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A system to help you remember more of what you read (robertheaton.com)
371 points by robheaton on July 1, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 74 comments

I find that simply sitting and thinking while -- and after -- reading nonfiction (or fiction, if it's got good ideas) burns the facts and ideas in as well as anything. I don't think most people allow as much time for reflection and mind-wandering as they ought to; expecting yourself to remember fact after fact without taking time to really absorb, reflect, and expand on them doesn't seem realistic.

It's not unlike a memory palace -- rather than just read the fact, think on it, expand on it and give it context and a place to live in your brain.

I've tried this and failed - I don't retain much a few months down the road with this method. And as with false memories, what I do retain is often not quite right.

My process is not as involved. I take notes in a notebook while reading. Then I make blog posts out of them. This way I can review/consult any time, any where.

This really does slow down my process, though. I used to read several books in the time it now takes to read one. Writing blog posts is time consuming (and my notes are very rough).

I like your method because it shares what you learn with others while helping you repeat and process the material.

And what good is it to plow through book after book if we remember little or nothing? Quite a few universities also don't give people any time to reflect between courses so modern schooling and many people's reading habits are geared more to the initial stimulation of reading and less to memory.

I'm a firm believer in taking notes, reflecting, and explaining the ideas to others for anything we really want to remember or master.

Completely agree. I generally take an awful lot of time completing a book. And it's not that I'm a very slow reader. It's just that when reading non fiction, I often Google something from the book, or think about something a bit more and sometimes just flip back to reread a few pages and improve my understanding.

It's also about applying what you learned and creating those neural pathways. I love reading about space and physics but without applying it in my life or having in person conversations about it I don't retain the information as well as other subjects that I practice and discuss regularly.

So true! For that I like taking quick notes of what I'm reading or at least highlighting points that stand out and then later go over the notes alongside the book. The highlighted bits can even be somewhat arbitrary, as it still helps to make different parts more distinguishable and aids recall.

This is exactly what I do, however, it makes reading really slow. I could never match Alan Kay's 20,000 books in my lifetime in this way.

Underlining and highlighting have a mechanical failure for recall — they do not exercise the output circuits even once.

Instead, if you want to remember the thought you were about to highlight or underline, write it out long hand, and from short term memory not copying rote, in a note book.

This exercises the full path: reading, comprehension, decision you’ll need to recall, storage, retrieval, and output from mental storage back into physical world.

Plus, the notebook then provides a hook for refreshing the information geography in your storage. Reskim the notes and you refresh the larger narrative and how it hangs together. Revisit the notebook on a periodically decreasing interval, you’ll still recall the narrative decades later.

Just skimmed the article but underlining only seemed to be one small part of the method.

Understanding by summarizing into Anki cards and then making sure you remember it trough spaced repetition (both "output") seemed to be the most important part.

Distributed learning, practice testing and Interleaved practice all seem to have some scientific backing.

What is distributed learning? Is it spaced repetition?

It just means distributing your learning trough time, so basically the opposite of cramming.

I guess spaced repetition can be seen as a combination of distributed learning and practice testing.

I got the terminology from here


Here is a nice summary of the results


Highlighting works however don’t highlight as you read. Instead, once you have read a page, think about what on the page needs highlighting and highlight.

Relevant: http://www.paulgraham.com/know.html

> What use is it to read [hundreds of books in my life] if I remember so little from them? [...]

> Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists.

While I agree that the author's method likely helps comprehension and retention, I disagree with his premise that it is necessary for these, or even particularly time-efficient. His key factor seems to be "Learning comes from repetition"; though important to he learning process, repetition is neither the sole, nor even the primary factor. When it comes to retention of concepts, rather than raw data, comprehension and connecting to other knowledge is crucial.

In the author's method, these are reinforced with marginal notes (for comprehension) and a post-reading writeup (to connect concepts). I suspect this to be significantly inferior to more in-depth note-taking, as a significant amount of information may be lost in the time between reading chapter one and finishing the book, whereas complete notes should allow for immediate relation and processing. A high quality book will be organized to assist the reader in relating concepts, and waiting until book completion to prioritize this defeats the purpose of reading a book rather than a collection of disparate articles.

Still, the author is absolutely correct in that active reading is a worthwhile habit, and you should try to find an optimal method for your learning tendencies; While for me focusing on repetition and post-read review is brutally inefficient, everyone learns differently, so it may be perfect for you.

The author mentions writing down a summary after every chapter in the book itself. The final notes are prepared from each chapter's annotations and handwritten summaries. If anyone is interested in reading to retain more, try How to Read a Book [1] by Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler. Reviews and summaries of the boook [2, 3].

[1] : https://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Book-Classic-Intelligent/dp/...

[2] : https://fourminutebooks.com/how-to-read-a-book-summary/

[3] : http://oxfordtutorials.com/How%20to%20Read%20a%20Book%20Outl...

I have a somewhat similar system but without writing anything in the book, because I use ebooks, and it's not quite as intensive.

An example is here[0] but basically I keep notes on:





Nothing too long and it's all filled in in a few seconds in an Evernote notebook/note as I read along.

The main reason this is effective for me is that I can very quickly look up a character/place/plot in one single place in just a few seconds.

Often I don't need to re-read the whole thing, just the 'recent past' bits to quickly remember where I was in the plot after I put the book down for a week or two.

It ends up looking like a lot but it's more a consequence of doing a little a lot of times rather than a large amount of burdensome work.

I'm not sure if it helps long term retention, but it does help short term and it certainly helps comprehension when I've forgotten some characters significance or minor but consequential plot point.

[0] https://www.josharcher.uk/blog/diaspora-greg-egan-book-revie...

I decided to do something similar after reading a Chinese Sci-fi novel (The Three Body Problem) it was a really cool novel but I found it difficult to retain a lot of the characters' names, I had to go back in the book several times looking for names and that made the reading a little tedious.

Kindle has this as a feature called XRay. Can click a name for instance, and quickly see relevant info so far.

I don't really want anything to do with connecting the Kindle to the internet. Mine has never been off airplane mode and books are transferred by USB so xray isn't very useful to me. Also it means I can't simply scan over the notes to see catch up.

I only record facts that I read in non-fiction (the mark-as-Q method from the article). I highlight them in Kindle while reading ebooks. I then transfer them into Anki flashcards after I'm done reading it.

I don't highlight analysis and commentary. I don't highlight how the author reached a certain conclusion, just the end result.

Some examples of what I am highlighting while reading On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins:

"This is the neocortex, a thin sheet of neural tissue that envelops most of the older parts of the brain."

"the neocortex is about 2 millimeters thick and has six layers,"

"Stretched flat, the human neocortical sheet is roughly the size of a large dinner napkin. The cortical sheets of other mammals are smaller: the rat’s is the size of a postage stamp; the monkey’s is about the size of a business-letter envelope."

I wish there was a good way to transfer these highlights from my Kindle into Anki flashcards automatically (if someone knows a way to do this, I'm happy to hear from you). It feels like a chore right now, so I often forget to do it.

Just a suggestion:

If you download Kindle Mate (kmate.me), you can import your Kindle highlights to your PC and export them as a text file. Then you could make a script that parses this file line by line and saves it as a csv-file. Then use Anki csv-import.

EDIT: fixed the link.

Thanks for the tip. Unfortunately, kmate.me is PC only and I'm on a mac.

I don't own a kindle but it looks like it's possible to download your highlights.

You could then bulk import them, possibly after some minor formatting manually or with a script


You would still have to go trough them and add cloze delitions.

If it's possible to add notes to your highlights you might be able to specify delitions there and then parse them.

I might actually do this myself for fun :)

That's right. Adding to Anki is more straightforward than downloading from Kindle.

There are two ways to download my Kindle highlights. Either I can scrape it from read.amazon.com, or I can mount the device as a usb disk and parse the notes file from there. Neither is ideal for set-and-forget automation.

Keep me posted on your progress if you decide to tackle this problem.

> I wish there was a good way to transfer these highlights from my Kindle into Anki flashcards automatically

Wouldn't the result be actually opposite from anticipated? It's exactly writing about the stuff by yourself a way for remembering it. It won't stick if you just automate the process. Or rather it will, for long enough to deceive you into thinking you know it, but you'd probably forget it after a while anyway. Writing anything by yourself, or ideally handwriting, makes it stick. At least it works for me. I spoke with some friends of mine and this system seems to work for them, either.

That's a good point. I'm not sure because I haven't been doing it regularly enough because of the friction of adding cards into the system.

I do want to note that once the cards are added to Anki, it will force you to review the card at the right times automatically to keep retention high. This is assuming you have a system that forces you to review Anki content daily. I am not sure how big of a difference it will make to keep retention high if you're not adding cards manually.

Here's a slightly silly way to keep your brain switched on while reading:

Set an alarm to go off every few minutes. When the alarm goes off shut the book and summarise what you read in the past few minutes. Writing it down helps keep you honest (if you do it in your head its very easy to fool yourself). After you summarise start reading again.

Forcing yourself to practice recall helps memory. Being interrupted helps memory too. You don't need any fancy software, just a timer.

Interesting, where did you learn that interruptions help memory? I would like to read about it a little more.

This sounds a little like Pomodoro method, but for reading.

My reading changed after adopting a similar system. Reading on a Kindle and with a new Google doc created for that book, I:

1. Highlight the passages that are important along the way

2. After each chapter I try to summarize its important points and any challenges I have to them.

3. Over multiple chapters, I have a section at the top "Key Ideas" with the top 5-10 points over the course of the book.

4. After the book is done, I edit the doc to include a "My Thoughts" section and gather all my critical thoughts into one place. This is probably the most valuable.

Overall, even if I don't remember the details of a book, now I have a collection of summaries that I can pull up to remind myself about each book if it comes up again later and I need a refresher.

As a bonus, it's super easy to write a review of the book afterward because you have all the pieces almost already in place.

If this article is your cup of tea you might also be interested in "Learning How to Learn" a Coursera course by Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejnowsk. It boils down to a similar system but gives more background, science, and detail.


Inability to recall what you have read maybe is not that all is lost.

Reading changes your brain; in brain connections are continually created while synapses that are no longer in use degenerates. Or in other words you are a very different person today just by reading all those books in all those years, that you don't remember anything of now.

Just like what Ralph Waldo Emerson said: "I cannot remember the books I've read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me."


I don't want to remember more of what I read; I want to have access to a breadth and depth of ideas I can justify with evidence.

Repetition and flashcards will help you remember the content, but it won't help you understand it. That's only done by actively engaging with the content and connecting it to and comparing it with other facts and ideas.

The summarising, keeping lists of questions, and writeups will help you understand the content, and I think is the only valuable part of this process. Why rote memorise when you have lovely writeups you can refer back to.

I find Luhmann's Zettelkasten method, as described in 'How to Take Smart Notes' more persuasive. As you read make bibliographic notes in your own words (on page X it says Y), store these in one place for everything you read. Also note down key ideas as you read with cross references to the bibliographic notes, and to other key idea notes that are relevant; store all these notes in another place. When you're filing a key idea have a look for similar ideas already noted; is this the same? Supporting? Contradictory? These questions help engage with the content. Over a lifetime you can amass a treasure chest of ideas that you can refer back to at your leisure, as Luhmann did.

>I don't want to remember more of what I read; I want to have access to a breadth and depth of ideas I can justify with evidence.

That's bad, because without remembering you don't have the ability to quickly know where to look for those ideas and how to evaluate them. Nor do you know how to justify them with evidence (because that depends on remembering domain knowledge of evaluating, classifying and using the evidence itself).

Even if we assumed that you kept a working memory of "first principles" of every knowledge domain you're interested in, and only cared to search and evaluate ideas on demand, you'd still be at a disadvantage to anybody who remembered not just first principles but also higher level information about the knowledge domain -- and thus could skim through tons of BS or bad ideas and sources of information and quickly pick and evaluate only what's relevant.

> Repetition and flashcards will help you remember the content, but it won't help you understand it.

I use flashcards in a very similar fashion to that described in the article, and what I have found is that it is something of an art form. Done poorly, it's an exercise in rote memorisation. Done well, with well phrased and thought provoking questions, it helps you understand. Moreover, it periodically engages you with the content and key ideas.

Trying to improve my own knowledge management, and looking into how regular people who specialize in this area (people who read tons of non-fiction books) handle this stuff, extract and conserve knowledge, I've stumbled upon methods like "Zettelkasten". Does anybody here have experience with it?

I've tried maintaining a zettelkasten (zettelkasten?) Using software, but all available software just seemed overly convoluted and weird.

Another huge problem was that I read everywhere, anywhere and anytime. Maintaining a zettelkasten required me to be at home, near my desktop.

I've tried many, many, many things, and have written like 5 different note-taking programs over time, nothing ever really worked for me. Even keeping a notebook with me at all times wasn't working out well, I always lost my pen, realized too late that my notebook was full, etc (adhd forgetfulness ;c)

Now I own a remarkable tablet, and while it's not the perfect note-taking system, at least I I always have the pen with me, it has all my notes, and it's this weird mix of being simultaneously sort-of analog and digital.

Interesting, I was eyeing the reamrkable as well, but for drawing. It's hackable, it runs Linux right? So it might be possible to hack into a portable Zettelkasten with good UX! :)

Oh yes definitely, it comes with root-access by default (and Vim preinstalled!). And there are interesting open-source libraries available to hack in new features: https://github.com/canselcik/libremarkable

To digress from the main point: the suggestion of writing in (physical) books makes me cringe. Once you do so, they become absolutely worthless to anyone but you. Trying reading a book that someone else has underlined and/or annotated - it's highly distracting and annoying.

I used to be a professor of American Literature. I literally owned thousands of books in the margins of which I wrote copious notes for research and teaching.

When I left academia to move cross country, I had a yard sale and at the end of the day a few hundred books were left over.

A young man who had come by earlier still had some interest in the books and so I bequeathed them to him.

Then I moved cross country.

Over five years later, I received a FB message from someone who asked if I had ever taught English in Ohio, and I confirmed that I had.

He replied he wanted to thank me because he was the recipient of those books. He was a Ph.D. student in Math and he read many of the books he got from me and said he learned so much about literature and writing that he never would have as a result of the notes in my margin.

I was humbled that he found my scrawlings worth reading and even more humbled he was able to learn something from them. I honestly think his intelligence was the real key driving his learning, but I am beyond grateful that whatever notes I left in the margins of those books provided enough information to encourage a self-motivated learner to think deeply about the works he was reading.

So while some may find annotations distracting and annoying, there are some that can find those same annotations to be pointers to a fuller understanding of the material so annotated.

EDIT: Change "and" to "to be" in last sentence.

> So while some may find annotations distracting and annoying, there are some that can find those same annotations to be pointers to a fuller understanding of the material so annotated.

The problem is that there's no guarantee that your marks/annotations will add value for the next reader. It depends on who you are.

Of course, such value is subjective, so it depends on who the second reader is.

Because of this, my preference is to have an unmarked book.

Also, the way in which you mark is the book makes a difference. Using the margins is fine - I can live with that. But when the body text is underlined en masse or seemingly arbitrarily with pen and by freehand, I think it's really hard to argue that value has been added.

Strongly disagree. There is nothing quite like the pleasure I get from a used book which someone has thoughtfully annotated. I would pay a premium for it, in fact.

I stated my view rather strongly. Thoughtful annotation is fine; annotation that means little to anyone but you or messily underlining the body text isn't very helpful, IMO.

That an approach minimizes utility to others of an instrument it uses does not rebut the idea that it is a valid means of maximizing utility for you.

Perfectly correct. However, my comment was not about the approach to learning - hence me labelling it a digression.

Incremental Reading[1] is a related tactic that coverts reading material into facts preserved via space repetition software.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incremental_reading

I also find it useful to organize my notes by topic rather than by book/author/time. Over time, I will build a master reference for topics that I'm interested in.

OneNote/Evernote is especially helpful when you use handwritten idea maps (e.g. https://1drv.ms/u/s!AvGG5UqSCqXTnjq9_pD_gb7SJPce). I can't run out of space on my page and I can easily modify the contents if I find better material down the road.

If anyone is interested in a deep dive on this topic, I highly recommend 'How to Read Book' by Adler and Doren. It is a fantastic how to on learning and understanding new ideas.


Here's a nice summary of the algorithm: https://pastebin.com/wGFMM1pZ

I’ve been doing something very similar to this for about ten years. I did experiment with using Anki for it, but ended up with a more manual approach involving wiki software and manually rescheduling when I’d read a chapter again. Anyway, can highly recommend.

Can anyone recommend software to help generate quizzes, preferably with a spaced repetition component? So, instead of a single card that associates "agua" with "water", a set of cards like "____ es mojada" or "vaso de ____ fría". It might have a multiple choice interface where the order of the choices varies, and maybe the wrong choices vary as well.

Anki calls this cloze deletion: https://apps.ankiweb.net/docs/manual.html#cloze

I remembered enormous amounts of what I learned in college and grad school. My friends are often shocked (or claim to be) at how much I can recall years later.

Now, I did take notes and we did write papers but I think the key to it is really: I explained it to other people. Either in class or socially (probably some people considered it boring but it was a nerdy school and it wasn’t uncommon.)

My question: if great none of the essayists, thinkers, writers, etc. have used and endorsed such a method, why am I going to care enough about the method to even read such instructions? If they have, why isnt this explained in the introduction?

Isn't this article 10 years too late?

Today people need youtube tutorials to show them how to edit a 10 line configuration file. A (video) tutorial explaining to them how much time they lose watching videos instead of reading would be more appropriate.

"prefer" != "need"

Most of that is what they are used to.

This reminds me of this 15-minute break period[0] that was recently featured on HN.

[0]: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16364423

it's unnecessary to remember the whole book just for explaining it to someone what you've read. that isn't worth another 4 hours.

for a non-professional book, it's the idea behind the story or the art of writing or both, that values. if you can't explain what you've read, i think it's most likely you haven't catch the main idea of the story rather than the story itself.

Compared to doing nothing anything is better if you want to remember more. Dunno if this one is better than others.

Can you recommend any of the others?

I’m aghast at how little I remember about the books I read! I’m very interested to see other approaches.

I only read on a kindle, so obviously the marginalia system is out of question. Here’s what I do: I highlight the passage, write a note where I summarize it with my own words. That’s all. But I also have a (physical) notebook where I write using the Feynman technique. On top of it all, I read at least 1 hour a day where I’m fully focused (or at least at 80% capacity) and you know what ? Good shit sticks: I trust my brain to capture what it deems valuable. If I forget something I don’t sweat it, it’s more likely that I don’t need it.

I agree and also if I read similar concept in other book, even if I did not "remember it", I feel often dots connecting somehow in my brain and "ahh I just read that in other book". So it is more like gathering concepts than explicitly remembering that concept so I can quote it back when woke up past midnight.

If someone wants to quote book from his head go for Anki and drill, most of books I just want to internalize concepts.

I've heard some good things about https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn

To get a quick overview try table 4 p. 45 here


I try to follow

* Distributed learning/practice

* Practice testning

* Interleaved practice

Read too many books, can’t remember.

The challenge this days with remembering anything is the fact that we no longer train our mind to remember or store anything. We are slowly learning how not to remember anything. The convenience tools such as Alexa or Google will one day make us even forget our own home address. Convenience is the Evil of Everything. (yep just made that up on the fly).

David Krakauer of Santa Fe Institute has expanded on the same concept with some great Youtube videos.

Everybody I meet today has some memory loss, the younger the worse it gets.

In the future there may be "Mind Gyms" for exercising our mental processes to keep them fit.


Like the orly shorthand. I've used less polite versions for years in the margins.

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