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How to use metacognition skills to remember 90% of what you read

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Thinking, Fast and Slow. Thinking in Bets. Skin in the Game. Great Thinkers. The Laws of Human Nature. The Intelligent Investor. Zero to One.

These are great books that require multiple reads to deeply understand the fantastic ideas the authors want us to comprehend.

Reading a lot of great books improves our knowledge, judgment and mental models. But many people rarely engage with the content of their books.

When you aim to read hundreds of books a year with no regard for absorption, you probably won’t get all the knowledge you need from the books. To improve your retention rate, you have to slow down and think deeply about the new ideas.

Reading to acquire knowledge requires deliberate attention. You can’t read great books in one sitting or a few days. You could, but you probably won’t remember a lot of what you learn.

Learning new knowledge requires focus and a lot of attention. If you hurry the process, you will miss out on the best knowledge. If you make faster reading a habit, you could miss out on the deep experience of a book.

Faster reading, “…will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings,” writes Susan Hill, the author of Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home.

The smarter you get, the slower you read.” Naval Ravikant said.

Some people are better at absorbing actionable knowledge than others. So the critical question is: why do few people read a lot better than others?

Successful reading requires metacognition

When you are metacognitive, you are aware of your own thought processes and think about your thinking. It’s a vital skill for learning and retaining new knowledge.

When you apply metacognition to reading:

  • You make time to analyze the content and reflect on what you are reading.
  • You ask critical, challenging, and analytical questions whilst reading.
  • You make time to figure out what you already knew before reading and what you want to improve.
  • You’ve thought about what to do to retain more of what you read
  • You plan on applying some of the ideas in the book in your life.
  • Successful readers use metacognition to understand what they want from books. They also use it to improve their reading experience.

Learn to read and think at the same time

“We can learn to pay attention, concentrate, devote ourselves to authors. We can slow down so we can hear the voice of texts, feel the movement of sentences, experience the pleasure of words — and own passages that speak to us,” writes Thomas Newkirk in his book, The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement.

Fast readers rarely benefit from the many books they read because they don’t give the brain enough time to learn, recall and think about new knowledge.

Knowledge absorption rate can drop significantly when you skim read. It’s even worse when you are reading a new topic or dense books.

Deliberate reading means you take your books seriously. It’s one of the best ways to acquire and retain new knowledge.

Most great books require an investment of 5–10 hours to absorb the content thoroughly. When you plan of spending a lot of your time on good books, it’s essential to make sure you are getting the most knowledge out of them without wasting time.

If you plan to get most of every book (mainly non-fiction) you buy, you must have a reading plan. And that plan should rarely involve skimming unless you aim to quickly move on to a better book from an average one.

To improve retention, many successful and deep readers:

  • Take personal notes whilst they are reading.
  • Highlight the best ideas, especially those that make them think differently.
  • Underline important ideas they can refer to in the future.
  • Summarise every chapter they complete.
  • Discuss the topic with others to learn more about what they missed
  • Teach the new ideas by writing about them.

Ideas to improve retention work for deep readers and people who are serious about knowledge absorption. It takes quality time to get the best of great books. You could take this habit further by building a personal curiosity exercise into your reading.

Analyze the ideas presented. Do they agree with your existing knowledge? If not, how has the author presented the new perspective? Can you connect the new knowledge with other knowledge from different domains?

“Readers must run their own feedback loops. “Did I understand that? Should I re-read it? Consult another text?” Readers must understand their own cognition. “What does it feel like to understand something? Where are my blind spots?” writes Andy Matuschak.

Analytical reading puts your mind to work. It makes you think about your own thinking. And the more you engage with new knowledge, the better you can remember it.

Reading for comprehension or pleasure means you are willing to slow down. I don’t use the same approach for every book, though.

Francis Bacon was right, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

Almost every book requires a different reading strategy. For great books, I don’t rush through them. I pay attention and think about the ideas deeply.

If understanding, retention and application of knowledge is not your goal, you can try a faster approach — it that works for you.

But if you want to remember 90% of what you read, make time for it. Slow down. Think about the ideas. Be analytical. And remember to summarise in your own words. Start every book with a goal. Some books are not meant to be read faster. Choose your reading style wisely.

This article originally appeared in Medium.

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