How to Retain More of What You Read

One of the most important things you can do to grow as a leader is to read voraciously. As I have written previously, “leaders are readers and readers are leaders.”

I love learning, so this comes easily to me. My dad is a great example. Growing up, I noticed that he was always picking up a new hobby: model airplanes, photography, computers, etc. He usually started by buying a book or two on the subject and familiarizing himself with the basics. I have inherited this same habit.

I have always underlined or a highlighted passages that I find particularly meaningful. (In a previous post I have detailed how I read non-fiction books, so I won’t repeat myself here.) I also write notes in the front of the book and in the margins. But this year I have taken my reading to a new level. I have learned a new technique for retaining more of what I read. Let me explain.

In January, I ?started a mentoring group with eight young men. This has been a fantastic experience. I am using a program called Next Generation Mentoring (NGM), developed by Regi Campbell, the author of Mentor Like Jesus.

As part of the program, we meet formally once a month for three hours. We share how things are going in our personal lives and work, recite scripture we have memorized, and pray together. However, the biggest chunk of our time is spent discussing a book that we have all read prior to the meeting.

In addition to reading the book, we have to write a one-page “Net Out” of the book. (Based on input from my initial commenters below, I have added an optional second page.) This exercise forces us to distill the key insights from the book and then determine what we are going to do differently in our lives as a result. Every man does his Net Out a little differently, but I divide mine into four sections, with an optional fifth.

  1. Bibliographic Heading. This includes the title of the book, the author(s), my name, and the date of my review.
  2. Quick Summary. This is a one-paragraph summary. It’s like an “elevator pitch.” If you had to tell someone what the book is about in a short elevator ride, what would you say? I usually find the book’s jacket copy helpful in distilling the essence of the book.
  3. Key Insights. As I am reading the book, I highlight it as usual. I usually find something worth highlighting every few pages. Then, when I am finished, I go back through the book, and record in my own words those items that particularly struck me. I usually end up with about two pages worth of insights. However, one of the NGM rules is that this document can be no more than one page—total. So I am forced to go back through my insights and cull the best ones. I also note the page number, so I can go back later and review the insight in more detail if I wish.
  4. Personal Application. This is the key. Some reading (like most fiction, for example) is purely for entertainment. However, this kind of reading is for application. I want it to change my life, even if it is only incremental. Therefore, I try to list two or three things I am going to do differently as a result of what I learned in the book. (I try to list no more than three.)
  5. Meaningful Quotes. In almost every book, the author says things in a way that are worth remembering. I like to identify these with the letter “Q” in the margin as I am reading and then and include them on second page of the Net Out. This isn’t a requirement, but I find it very helpful. I also enter these quotes into Evernote, which is my computer-based brain for remembering everything.

Again, the key is to distill this entire document into no more than a page (or, optionally, two pages with the Meaningful Quotes being on the second page or back of the first). The discipline of keeping it short makes the content easier to remember. As a result, I retain more of what I read.

Here’s an example (PDF file) from my most recent mentoring group. It is a Net Out for How to Really Love Your Child by D. Ross Campbell, M.D. I have also created an Apple Pages template, a Word template, and an Evernote template that makes the process easier. Once I have read the book, I can usually write-up the Net Out in 30–45 minutes.

I am not yet doing this for every book I read, but I can see the value of doing so. It is really a small price to pay to ensure that the content “sticks” and becomes more than a vague memory.

What techniques do you employ to retain more of what you read?

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