How to Read Faster and Retain More

How to Read Faster and Retain More

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Some practical advice today. I read a shit-ton. And I occasionally get asked about it, particularly from college students. “How can I read more? How can I read faster? How can I remember and use more?”

Although I’m technically a blogger, writer and internet marketer, I actually see my occupation as synthesizing and sharing information in unique and efficient ways. A big part of that is therefore reading a lot of cool stuff and then being able to share that cool stuff easily.

Most people don’t realize that the way we’re taught to read when we’re young makes us poor readers when we’re adults. There are practical and logical tactics one can utilize to read non-fiction material more efficiently.

In my book Models, a passage that surprisingly drew a lot of attention from readers was the section where I described how I challenged myself to read 50 non-fiction books in 50 days when I was 19-years-old. In the book, I described this experience as one of the most useful of my life. University courses became a breeze. My writing got better. My ability to consume information increased drastically. And I gained tons of new insights and perspectives on my life and the world around me.

What seems to catch people’s attention is that they assume it was some massive feat of will power. It was at first, but within a week or so, I adopted a few strategies to make the whole process more efficient and more enjoyable. Once you get the hang of it, consuming a typical popular science book should take no more than a few hours (exceptions if the book is either really good or really bad).

These are strategies anyone can use and require little practice. You can be up to speed and doing this stuff within a week or two. It will just take some conscious effort at first and a little bit of practice. For the most part, these tips are practical and logical, not some uber-speed-reading techniques.

But before we get into it, let’s start with a question:

“What is the purpose of reading?”

That sounds like a pretty stupid question. It’s so obvious that few people bother to think about it. But why do we even read in the first place?

The answer is the transmission of information. Written language has the magical power of taking an idea from my brain and inserting it into yours, regardless of space or time or whether we like each other or not.

But when we’re young, the purpose of reading is to learn vocabulary and proper grammar. Therefore the way we’re taught to read when we’re young is designed to do that efficiently, not necessarily transmit information efficiently. What we have to do, as educated adults, is re-orient the way we read to consume information and ideas efficiently. Grammar and vocabulary are pre-requisites for this, but not the ultimate purpose.

(Note: In the cases of good fiction or poetry, it’s often not desirable to read the book as quickly as possible, since the purpose of reading it is the artistic merit of the writing itself. For this reason, in the case of extremely well-written non-fiction, or when reading fiction or poetry for pleasure, I forgo most of these strategies.)

Step 1: Shut Off Your Inner Monologue

When we’re kids, we’re taught to read by sounding out every letter and then every word. As we grow older, we continue to read through an internal monologue in our head.

The problem is our eyes are capable of identifying words and sentences much faster than our inner monologue can make sounds. The first step to reading faster and more efficiently is to stop sounding out the words in your head. This requires some degree of mindfulness and I actually think meditation can help with this.

Mastering this, by itself, can double or triple your reading speed within a few days. And when you do encounter a piece of great writing (*cough* like mine *cough*) you can always turn the monologue back on to really enjoy it. I have a handful of favorite writers and bloggers that I always keep the monologue on for, because beyond the information I simply enjoy their style of writing. But most of the time the monologue goes off.

Step 2: Scan for Important words only

FYI: Kids suck at reading.

FYI: Kids suck at reading.

The other habit that is taught in grade school that slows you down later is to pay attention to every word in a sentence in order. But the mind has an amazing ability to fill gaps with appropriate information. So we may as well take advantage of it.

Once you get the hang of reading without sounding out every word in your head, you’ll find yourself beginning to chunk groups of words together into larger chunks of meaning. Instead of seeing “the” “cat” “was” “mad” separately, your mind will register “the cat was mad” as one single piece of information. Once that happens, certain chunks of words will stand out in paragraphs and your eyes will just glide over the filler words without wasting time or energy on their content.

For example, this sentence, “In effect, the cat’s biggest concern had not been the lack of food, but rather the demonstrated lack of care by his owners.”

Will soon register as this, “Cat’s biggest concern — not lack of food — but — lack of care — owners.”

You get 90% of the meaning with about 50% of the words.

I’ll use another example from an article I read last night. It’s from the Harvard Business Review and is about defeating procrastination. This is the first paragraph:

“A recent early morning hike in Malibu, California, led me to a beach, where I sat on a rock and watched surfers. I marveled at these courageous men and women who woke before dawn, endured freezing water, paddled through barreling waves, and even risked shark attacks, all for the sake of, maybe, catching an epic ride.”

But as I read that paragraph, this is what stands out as my eyes scan it:

“A recent early morning hike in Malibu, California, led me to a beach, where I sat on a rock and watched surfers. I marveled at these courageous men and women who woke before dawn, endured freezing water, paddled through barreling waves, and even risked shark attacks, all for the sake of, maybe, catching an epic ride.”

That’s 50% of what’s actually written. But you’ll notice that the relationships between those chunks are all already implied. In many cases the adjectives hint at the action taking place and so reading the verbs is unnecessary as well.

Scanning paragraphs like this takes practice. But this can double your reading speed yet again. And the beauty is that if you scan through a paragraph and don’t completely grasp the meaning, you just go back, slow down, and add the words back in until makes sense. Then take off again.

Step 3: Read only first and last sentences of paragraphs

If we accept that the purpose of writing is to convey information, and if we’re not reading something for the pleasure of the writing itself, then it makes no sense to read any more words or sentences than are necessary to convey the information. That means that there’s no reason to continue reading sentences that describe a concept you already understand.

The fact of the matter is that most non-fiction is not written well. It’s usually repetitive and long-winded. They’ll give example after example of a simple concept you already understood. There’s no reason for you to suffer through this. Especially if you’re a smart and selective reader.

Whenever I read an article, a section of a book, or a chapter where I feel like I already have a decent understanding of the subject matter and am merely looking for something new or something that stands out, I will read only the first sentence of each paragraph. By design, paragraphs introduce new ideas and new topics. And when you limit yourself to the first sentence of each one, you’re limiting yourself to sentences that introduce each idea in the piece of work. If I come across a sentence that piques my interest, THEN I will go back and read the entire paragraph or section. If I reach a point where I’ve lost track of what the author is talking about, then, and only then, I will go back and read the last few paragraphs until I’m caught up to speed, then I’ll move on.

Another option is to read only the first and last sentences of each paragraph. It’s actually startling how much information you can pick up just by doing this. Try it. Dig up a magazine article you’ve never read and go through it reading only the first and last sentences of each paragraph. Only read entire paragraphs if the you don’t understand the first and last sentences.

Then go back and read the whole thing beginning to end. Compare how much information you gained by doing the latter. It’s likely not that much.

Step 4: Skip entire sections, chapters or Even the book itself

I’m amazed by how many people persist in reading crappy books that they’re not learning anything from.

If you are consistently running into shitty ideas, things you already know, or the book is just extremely repetitive (like most self help books), then just skip entire sections. Right now I’m reading Phil Jackson’s new autobiography about being an NBA coach. He had an entire section of the book about his interest in Native American rituals. I’m not interested in Native American rituals, I’m interested in Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. So I skipped about four pages. I’m now halfway through the book and feel like I missed out on absolutely nothing.

As for ditching a book entirely, I usually give any book 10% before I decide whether to finish it or not. If it’s a 500 page book, I’ll give it until 50 pages. If it’s 100 pages, it needs to grab me within 10 or so. If it doesn’t grab me or I find I don’t respect the author, then before giving up on it I’ll check the table of contents and skip to the chapter that appeals to me the most. If that chapter still doesn’t do it for me, then I put the book down and don’t look back. I’d estimate that I end up putting down anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the books that I start and never read any more than 10-20% of them.

That may surprise some people. But I’ve found that one really good book gives me the value and information of 3-4 crappy books. So there’s no sense on wasting my time on books that are not transmitting the information I’m interested in.

Step 5: Relate any Important information to things you already know

How are you going to remember all of this stuff?

How are you going to remember all of this stuff?

When you start to go through a lot of books, you become concerned that you’re not retaining all of the information that you’re coming across. It feels weird because you can’t consciously recall everything immediately. So sometimes it feels like you read hundreds of pages for nothing. Sometimes you may feel the urge to quiz yourself on what you just read. But then you’re basically just replicating school all over again. And honestly, who remembers anything they learned in school?

The way the brain is set up, the majority of our memories will exist in our sub-conscious and only become accessible in relevant contexts. Ever been in a conversation with somebody and something they say suddenly sparks a memory you hadn’t thought about in years? Yep. They’re down there. They just need to be associated with something useful for them to come up.

This is why whenever you come across a new or useful idea, take a moment to relate it to something you already know, understand or use. For instance, I recently read a book on Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. Positive Disintegration is a theoretical psychological framework and reading about it was quite dense. It was fascinating, but I ended up having to take some time to relate each of his ideas to personal experiences or other psychological frameworks that I’ve studied in the past. As a result, his ideas are far easier to recall. Instead of trying to recall the theoretical specifics of Positive Disintegration cold, I can remember the social anxieties I struggled with for years and how that represents one of the processes in his framework. That then allows my brain to access the information from the book quickly.

Later when I studied Robert Kegan’s work — another developmental psychological framework that was dense — I then related it to Positive Disintegration. The frameworks are similar, involve five stages, and have basically the same endpoint. My memory of each reinforces the other now because I see how they interrelate. I don’t have to recall both in a vacuum, but I can recall parts of either and soon have the whole of both.

Step 6: Highlight, bookmark, keep a database

But even then you won’t be able to remember everything, or at least not accurately. So it’s important to be able to reference your knowledge.

(Note: This is where it gets nerdy.)

I believe as a study tool itself, highlighting or underlining is overrated if not useless. What it’s useful for is reference. I highlight/underline all important facts or ideas that I want to be able to reference in the future. If there’s a whole section that is important, I’ll dog-ear the page down (with Kindle, you can just add a bookmark).

This won’t actually help you retain anything by itself. The retention and usefulness comes from building a reference database of references.

When I finish a book, I go back and make notes on the parts I highlighted and bookmarked. I then write a short 100-200 word summary of the book and the points I took from it. This takes anywhere from five to 30 minutes. But it’s worth it. I also keep my database on Google Drive, so it’s accessible anywhere (even on my phone).

Some people are really into mind mapping. I never really got into them, but it’s the same concept.

I only do this with the best books that have important information, not everything I read. I’d say only 1/3 of the books I read make it into the database. But it’s been incredibly useful for me, especially in regards to my business. And the best part is, it’s there forever. There are books I read 10 years ago that I’m foggy now on a lot of the specifics. In 10 years, if I ever get foggy on Dabrowski’s theories, I can pull them up at any time, at home, on a bus or train, waiting in line at the airport, and refresh myself.

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69 Comments

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  • Reply

    Biju Koshy

    5 weeks ago

    Thank you Mark for the steps to read. I have just purchased my Kindle and gonna start reading..

  • Reply

    Andy

    5 weeks ago

    Your techniques make a lot of sense, especially the constructivist idea to constantly relate to what you already know.

    I am a pre-service elementary teacher, and in my 6 months of placement so far I have noticed that reading instruction is moving well away from mechanics and syntax and closer toward making connections and reading for meaning. There is still I believe a long way to go until students are able to read effectively and efficiently while retaining their passion for the topics.

    How early would you recommend instilling these values into young children? Particularly, switching off that internal monologue and scanning for keywords. There’s a balance between reading for pleasure (for which you say, it’s a bad idea to switch off that monologue) and being able to take the most amount of meaning from the shortest possible time. I don’t want to jeopardize childrens’ ability to persevere with heavy text, but at the same time if we taught them properly aged 5-12 they wouldn’t be seeking these techniques to retrain behaviors as an undergrad.

  • Reply

    Julius Easterling

    1 week ago

    Wow! That was a very refreshing article and I definitely needed to read that. Occasionally I’ll drift while reading books into parts of my mind that definitely doesn’t help me focus on what I’m reading. Being a comedian I always think about the funny in what I’m seeing. I’m taking some classes right now and I haven’t been in school for a long time. It’s pretty boring to say the least….but I knew what I was getting into.

    I’m so used to creating on my own I forgot how to slow down and absorb info others create.
    So like I said earlier (repetitive), I drift. So today I’m reading a PDF Book for class on my kindle (that unfortunately has Internet…drifting becomes easier) and I google “How To Retain What You Retain Easier and Faster” and guess who popped up! Thx Mark!

  • Reply

    Julius Easterling

    1 week ago

    Oops! That’s supposed to be “How To Retain What You Read Easier and Faster”

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