Everybody hates that feeling when you spend three weeks reading a book, and a month later somebody asks you about it and you can’t remember a damn thing you read. Not only does it make you feel stupid, but it also makes you wonder why the hell you wasted a couple dozen hours of your life on a bunch of words that didn’t stick.

There are better and worse ways to learn. And interestingly, despite all of the babbling that goes on in school when you’re a kid about what you need to learn, not much is said about how to learn effectively.

And when I say “to learn effectively” what I mean is A) to not just accumulate knowledge but B) to be able to apply that knowledge effectively at some point in the future.

By this definition, much of what you did in school was not learning. It was temporary exercises in memorization. By this definition, most of the seminars and courses and books and conferences people spend money on is not learning either.

Something is not truly learned until it changes you in some way, no matter how subtle or simple.

1. Memory is Based on Relevance

Since my book came out last year, I’ve done probably 500 different promotional things for it. But one of my favorites was participating in this online book club called Mentor Box.

Like most book clubs, Mentor Box sends you a couple books each month and you’re supposed to read them. But what’s cool about Mentor Box is not only do they send you the books, they send you study material related to the books, as well as video interviews with the authors. But their study materials, instead of being like school, where it asks you to repeat information in the book to help memorize it, are designed to force you to apply the lessons to various areas of your life.

That’s because memory works based on relevance. We’re selfish creatures by nature and we only remember what our brain has deemed important to our own lives. You can learn the coolest thing in the world, but if you don’t find a way to make it relevant to you and your well-being in some way, your brain will conveniently forget it.

If you want to remember information, then you need to stop and take a second to ask yourself, “How is this relevant to me?” or “How can I apply this in my life?” You basically have to get personal with it. And if you’re not willing to get personal or think about your own life critically in that way, then most of the information you consume will just wash away.

Mentor Box is a great tool, but you can do this on your own when you’re reading at home. You can go out and buy a notebook (or keep a folder on your computer) and every time you come across something interesting in a book, write down its application or relevance to something in your life — how you can use the concept, how it explains something in your past, how it can help with your problems, etc.

Basically, you need to approach whatever material you’re studying with a clear purpose in your mind. You can’t just read a book to say you read it. That’s like dating someone just to say you dated them. It’s empty and pointless and soon you’ll forget it ever happened. Go into everything you read with a clear purpose of what you want to get out of it, then do the extra mental steps to make sure that happens.

2. Memory functions by association, not by blind recall.

We’ve all had that experience of watching a documentary or something, and then when we try to think back a couple days later, not remembering what was in it.

That’s because blindly recalling information out of the blue rarely works, and is not an efficient way for our brain to work.

Our memory works via associations. For instance, I saw a documentary a few years ago about the Soviet Union hockey team. It was one of those things that I not only forgot what was in it, but forgot that I had even watched it.

Then, a couple months ago, I was talking to a guy who was writing a book about teamwork. He mentioned something about hockey and the documentary immediately shot back into my head. I started describing it to him, and suddenly flashes of various scenes and interviews started returning to my conscious memory.

The information had always been in my head, it just hadn’t been accessible because it wasn’t associated or relevant to anything I was discussing.

Understanding that memory works in this way is useful though because it means you can become more economical in what you choose to remember and what you don’t.

In this day and age, where we can Google and Wiki everything, sometimes just remembering the core idea or general principle behind a book or article is useful enough in and of itself. I couldn’t tell you the studies or statistics about men’s job prospects and college graduation rates, but I do know they’re declining and I do remember there’s a famous article from The Atlantic (and book) that I could easily look up if I wanted to know all of that stuff (I just did, it’s here). I remember the principle point is that new technologies are creating an economy where the skills that men excel at are no longer as useful as those that women excel at. I couldn’t tell you anything else about the article, but I know enough to find it, pull it up and grab whatever facts I may need and then move on.

3. Reading Does Not Have to Be Linear

Another mistake a lot of people make is assuming that they have to read everything, line by line, one after another. This is not only not true, but it’s often a waste of time and energy.

If you’re reading a nonfiction book and you already understand the main idea of a paragraph, skip to the next one. If you’re reading a study or story that you’ve heard before, skip it (unless you want to reinforce it, of course). If a book is kind of bad and there’s really only one chapter that sounds appealing, just read that chapter and put the rest away.

Better Learner - Old Strict Teacher
Life isn’t like school where you’ve got to read everything top-to-bottom and memorize it perfectly.

When you buy a book, you’re not buying the words, you’re buying the useful ideas. The job of the writer is simply to convey those ideas as efficiently as possible. If the writer is doing a poor job of that, then take it upon yourself and act accordingly.

The point of a book (or article, or video, or podcast) is to glean the information that is relevant and important to you. Not to finish it or to understand every word. What matters is the principle or key idea. Everything else is merely a vehicle designed to get that principle or idea to as many people as possible. Once you’ve received that principle/idea, there’s no reason to feel obligated to sit there and read/watch/listen to the rest (unless you want to).

4. Thinking Critically and Asking the Right Questions

Everything you read should be questioned. You should question the author’s biases, whether they’re interpreting information correctly, whether they’re overlooking something.

One thing I try to force myself to do, especially when I’m reading something I agree with, is ask, “How could this potentially be wrong?”

You’ll be surprised how often you come up with stuff.

Other useful questions to ask after everything you read include:

  • “How does the author benefit from writing this?”
  • “Is this something relevant to my own life and happiness? Is it worth remembering?”
  • “What’s the underlying principle here? How could it be applied to other areas of life?”

The truth is, there’s little that we know with absolute certainty. Most models and theories have little empirical support for them (looking at you personality tests), and outside of the hard sciences, much of the academic research out there is flimsy at best, and outright misleading and wrong at worst.

Everything should be taken with a grain of salt (including what I’m writing right here), for the simple reason that almost everything is largely uncertain. And it’s the ability to navigate those uncertainties effectively that will determine the depth of your knowledge and understanding, NOT the simple ability to memorize a bunch of facts and numbers.