Why do you forget most of what you read?
Remember that book you read last year? Well, maybe you don’t. You probably remember reading it, but you can’t seem to recall much of what was in it.
Don’t worry. You’re not alone.
It’s a phenomenon called “the forgetting curve.” Basically, your memory of the information is dramatically lessened as time goes by unless you consciously review it or actively share it.
I was having a conversation with a guy who needed help in a variety of areas. In the process, I shared specific insights from various books and authors that were highly relevant to his situation.
For instance, he was a youth pastor and he wasn’t feeling particularly satisfied in his role. I asked, “What are you measuring? What does success look like?”
He said, “I guess I’m not really sure. We take attendance, but I don’t actually think much about it.”
I told him that he needed to come up with something to measure that is meaningful to him. If he didn’t do that, he would continue being frustrated in his role. After all, according to Patrick Lencioni, two of the three signs of a miserable job are irrelevance and immeasurement. Lencioni writes, “Without a tangible means for assessing success or failure, motivation eventually deteriorates” (Three Signs of a Miserable Job, p. 222).
It’s the same idea that Andy Stanley calls “Clarifying the Win” in 7 Practices of Effective Ministry. According to Stanley, “When you clarify the win, it is like marking a specific destination on a map – it’s easy to know when you win because you arrive at your desired destination” (p. 80).
The youth pastor asked, “How do you remember all of that? When I read a book, I can barely remember it a week later!”
That was a good question.
If you’re tired of reading and forgetting, then this post is for you.
If you want to start remembering more of what you read, then you’ll really benefit from the process I’m about to share.
I call it “Triple-Loop Learning.”
The 3 Loops of Triple-Loop Learning
Loop #1: Information-Encounter
The first loop is a simple encounter with the information. This could be reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching a video, or even having a conversation. I annotate books as I read them: underlining key statements, starring sections, and adding questions in the margins.
For audiobooks, I use the Audible.com app. If I hear something interesting or thought-provoking, I use the app to add a bookmark at that point and make a note about what’s being said.
For podcasts, I take a screenshot of that spot in the episode and make a note on my to-list to go back and listen to that part again. I do the same thing for movies, shows, or YouTube videos that I watch.
That’s where most people stop. And that’s why they don’t remember very much of what they come across.
Loop #2: Information-Review
The second loop is my second interaction with the material. When people don’t do this, their recall of new ideas is “like filling up a bathtub, soaking in it, and then watching the water run down the drain. It might leave a film in the tub, but the rest is gone” (TheAtlantic.com).
This loop consists of a review that can be done in a variety of ways. For a book, I go back through everything I’ve underlined or starred and I type those sentences or paragraphs (in their entirety) into a document called, “Trevor’s Book Notes.” As a side benefit of this practice, it also makes me a better writer because I’m internalizing how good writers construct sentences and convey ideas.
For a podcast or video, I create a note in Evernote and type the ideas or quotes that I think are worth remembering.
That second encounter with the material will drastically increase your retention of it.
Loop #3: Information-Sharing
For me, this might be the most helpful part of the process. This is where I synthesize what I’ve learned and share it with others. If you’re familiar with educational theories and Bloom’s Taxonomy, you’ll know that this is the kind of thing that is at the top of the pyramid.
This third loop is part of why I started blogging years ago. I needed an outlet to talk about everything I was learning. Blogging – even when no one was reading – gave me a chance to talk about new ideas and wrestle out loud with their implications. Ironically, I discovered that blogging wasn’t just a way to share what I was learning, it actually helped me learn things better because I was sharing them.
It’s also why I started writing books. I don’t write books because I’ve learned a lot. It’s actually the other way around: I’ve learned a lot because I’ve written books.
For me, going public is the key. I have to synthesize the material and share it publicly or else I’ll be tempted to give up on it too soon and settle for shallow thinking about it. When I’m posting about it, I know that someone might come across the post and push back on the idea, so I try to be more thorough. Or, when I share the idea with a friend, he might have some questions about it that will force me to clarify my thoughts even more.
According to Francis Bacon, “Reading makes a broad man, but writing makes an exact man.” He’s right. Writing forces you to synthesize the ideas for a new audience. That’s why it’s such a valuable step.
If you want to know how to write and publish a book on Amazon, I created a step-by-step course called, Write Now. It will explain everything you need to know.
However, if you don’t want to write about the new information, you should at least share what you’ve learned with someone else. If you don’t, the information will evaporate from your mind. That’s why you’ve read things or heard things and thought, “I need to remember that.” Then, two days later, you only remember that you came across something that you wanted to remember … but you can’t quite remember what it was.
With this Triple-Loop process (encounter, review, and share), I can easily recall hundreds of quotes, stories, and statistics that I read years ago. When you do it, you’ll find the same is true for you. It’s not a superpower; it’s just how learning works.
Bonus Step: Create a Goodreads.com Account
If you really want to supersize your retention, create an account on goodreads.com. I’ve used Goodreads for 10 years. Here’s my account. Let’s connect!
The site provides a way of keeping track of the books you’ve read, are reading, and want to read. As for me, I created a bookshelf for each year and then add new books as I start them.
What’s fascinating is that when I look back at my shelf for 2011, I see the covers of all 38 books I read that year. Beyond that, I’m able to recall the ideas from each book and even remember where I was when I was reading it. All of that just from looking at the cover again. It’s scary how interconnected our memories are with physical and emotional states.
In 1885, a German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus published a study about how forgetting works. One of his findings was that spaced repetition really helped people remember more of what they had seen, read, or heard.
It turns out that new information is solidified in our memories when it is actively recalled at various intervals after we encounter it. That’s part of the science behind why my Triple-Loop process works. Each loop provides a practical way to connect and reconnect with the material at appropriately spaced intervals.
In summary, the three loops of learning are:
Doing only two of the loops will boost your retention. Doing all three of them will make you look like a memory champion!
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