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How I’m changing my process to help me remember what I read

About 6 months I started reading this book (I didn’t finish):

Eve Dmochowska blog, Loonshots book

When I recently saw it on my shelf, I struggled to remember its essence. I know broadly what it’s about, and I vaguely remember the examples and references used, but there is no way I am ever going to be able to re-tell an anecdote from the book, or substantiate my recommendation for it. And I realised, that although I am a pretty quick reader (it would probably take me 2-3 evenings to finish that book), that counts for naught if I don’t remember what I have read.

I know from various dialogues on my social media timelines that I am not alone in this problem. In fact, whole business and complex work flows have been set up by various people to help readers deal with this issue (Readwise.io, for example). Unsurprisingly therefore, one of my short term goals is to find a system that helps me read effectively. I guess the first sub-task is to define what “effective” means in this sense.

As I refine this process for myself, I already know one thing for sure: the only way I am going to retain what I have read, is if I re-write the book’s essence myself, in my own words. It’s a form of the Feynman Technique: if I cannot explain it succinctly to others, I have not really understood it myself.

To be clear, I am not talking about book summaries. I think it’s quite possible to be able to summarise a book but not really understand it. I’m talking more about writing a blog post (or two, or three) about how a book has shaped my thinking, has changed or enhanced my opinions, what it has taught me, where I disagree with it, how it has changed the way I live my life and so on. Although these musings will almost definitely always be public, their purpose will be entirely self-serving: they will be written by me, to my own experience, and for my own personal growth. If another reader benefits from that in some way, that’s just an extra win.

For now, my reading process is as follows:

    • Read book and highlight. This is best done on Kindle or the Kindle app, although it can also be done in .pdfs or hard copies.
    • Import highlights, usually via Readwise.io, into Roam Research.
    • Re-read just the highlights. As implied above, this is rarely a fair representation of what the book is actually about, but it is a fair representation of what about the book resonated with me. I’ll tag the highlights and interlink them (these are Roam specific processes). This is important because it is how flow turns into stock.
    • From the highlights, compose some tweets, and schedule them for later via Hootsuite or Hypefury. This is great evergreen content, and it will pop up at unexpected times with little effort. This will help me share and show my work or my process. As an added benefit, these posts will link to my blog on the subject and maybe even an affiliate code for book, if I ever set that up.
    • Write a blog post not as a summary of the book, but about how it made me think, and about what. This could easily be more than one blog post. For example, reading Show Your Work this week has given me ideas for about 5 posts. I might outline them just as I finish the book, but I can write them later…the idea is that I need to think and process. Also, (very likely) future books will interlink with these themes, especially as in most cases any book I read will naturally lead me onto other referenced books worth pursuing.

Revisit. This can either mean re-reading the blog posts I have written, or/and reviewing my Roam page of notes on the book. With time, I am hoping that the tagging system will naturally force me to revisit old books as I read new ones, because themes will repeat and Roam will make that easy to identify.

What’s the goal here?

  • Highlighting while I read will keep me focussed, and will make it simple to consolidate the information or messages that I want to take away from the book.
  • Tagging these highlights in Roam will help re-inforce the message, but more importantly it will create the structure that will link similar themes from multiple books. That’s where the real power of reading lies.
  • Writing and explaining will force me to think and clarify concepts in my head, until they are so well refined that I can put hem into my own words in such a way that I am actually understood. This process will also help me remember what I’ve read, and will create a permanent record of my reaction to the book, which I can always go back to later and reference as needed.
  • Remember, and enhance. By having a system that both helps solidify concpts in my head and makes it easier to revisit those concepts in more detail, I hope to get a lot more value out of my reading time.

The process in practice:

A couple of days I read Show your Work, by Austin Kleon. It was a quick read, filled with little nuggets of gold. A perfect first case study for my new process.

Step One: Read and highlight
I did this in a .pdf version of the book. (You can use calibre to convert your digital book to a .pdf) because I wanted to test the process of manually cutting and pasting into Roam. (The process is ok, but takes time).

Step Two: Import into Roam.
In this case I did this literally by just cutting and pasting, but that can only work for a short book. It’s more efficient to first import into Readwise.io and then into Roam.

Step Three: Review and Tag the notes
This is a process that needs its own explanation/blog post if you are not familiar with Roam. I’ll probably write one as soon as I have refined my own work flow within Roam (I am pretty new to it), but it’s an easy enough process to Google and learn from others. Essentially, the tagging sstem allows me to build an index of references to specific topics.

In the example below, I knew I wanted to come back to the concept of Vampire Test, so I tagged it. I anticipate I will be using this tag in reference to other sources, comments and pages in my Roam system. When I do, I will be able to click on the blue “Vampire Test” tag and see every note I made about it, across multiple note pages. The theory is that by bringing in different sources, view points and notes on one theme, that theme becomes something bigger for you than the sum of its parts.

Step Four: Write, think, and write some more.
The tag system makes it easy to identify topics or themes I want to write about. In the above case, the concept of a Vampire Test is simple and quick, and one that I know I will want to reference later. So, using the process, I whipped up a quick post about it:

Eve Dmochowska

Eve Dmochowska

Thanks for reading! I am a web strategist, working on making healthcare information easily accessible to the South African patient. See synergies? Get in touch - eved@rehealth.co.za - or follow me on Twittter! @eved


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