How to read faster and remember more

Reading is a skill I wanted to improve for ages. I wanted to read faster, because reading faster means I’ll learn faster. So, I tried to learn how to speed read many times in the past.

Speed reading wasn’t too difficult. The sad thing is, I can’t seem to remember anything I read, which makes the speed useless.

In 2017, since my theme for the year is experimentation, I wanted to see if I could improve my reading capabilities. This time, I found some success: I read 1.5 books and remembered most of what I read in three weeks.

I’m so elated by the discovery of this technique and I’m happy to share it with you!

Now, you may be wondering why I’m talking about reading as a skill on a tech blog. It seems hardly relevant. So, before I dive into the technique, let me share with you why I think reading is a crucial skill that we developers should master.

Why is reading important

As developers, we need to learn things quickly since our industry moves lightning fast. To learn things, we need to absorb information.

Of the information we come across, most of them come in the form of words. We read articles (like this one!), books and even documentations daily. Although you may also listen to podcasts and watch videos, they’ll still minor sources of information in the grand scheme of things.

Since information mainly come in the form of words, we need reading skills to decipher what’s written, what’s important and how to use the information presented. The faster we read through, the more information we obtain (provided we remember what’s said).

It’s also imperative we get the correct message from the writer. We have to understand the points the writer is driving at as opposed to what we concoct in our brains if we want to make sense of new materials.

Now that I’ve harped on how reading is crucial, let’s dive into the technique.

The Technique

The technique is divided into four phases:

  1. Pre-reading
  2. Reading
  3. Note-taking
  4. Review

Each phase is important and must be done in sequence. I’ll share more about each phase in the following sections.

In case you were wondering, I discovered this technique by reading “How to double your power to learn” by Eugene M. Schwartz. I highly recommend you grab a copy of the book if you want to boost your learning capabilities. (Unfortunately, there’s no kindle version 😢).

Pre-reading

The pre-reading phase is an essential phase in this technique I’m sharing with you. Please do not skip it. I’m speaking from experience since I thought pre-reading was crap before I learned about the technique.

We mainly read to extract information (unless you’re reading for enjoyment). To extract information, we need to know what’s important. But, before we read, we won’t know what’s important. How can you read quickly and remember what’s important if you don’t know what’s important in the first place?

That’s what the pre-reading phase is here for.

In the pre-reading phase, you create an outline of what you’re reading. This outline allows you to differentiate between important points and details, which allows you to read and remember faster.

To create the outline, you look at a series of signposts. For most articles and documentations, these four signposts should be enough:

  1. The title
  2. Section headings
  3. The intro
  4. The summary

An outline for this article might look similar to the following:

  1. Why learn reading?
  2. The technique
  3. Pre-reading
  4. Reading
  5. Note-taking
  6. Review

Then, you may want to convert your outline into questions, like this:

  1. Why learn reading?
  2. What is the technique?
  3. How do I pre-read?
  4. How do I read?
  5. How do I take notes?
  6. How do I review?

As you can see, the questions are quite straightforward. You can also construct alternate variations with who, what, where, when, why and how.

If you do, you may even ask more questions, resulting in an outline like this:

  1. Why learn reading?
  2. What is the technique?
  3. Pre-reading 1. Why should I pre-read? 2. How to pre-read?

It’s not necessary to always read the intro and summary paragraphs. Once you’re able to construct the outline, feel free to begin reading.

Reading

When reading, always remember you’re reading to extract information. The information you’re looking for can be found by answering the questions you’ve created in your outline.

It helps to know that you only need to remember the main points you’ve outlined to remember the entire contents of what you read. Most words are just details, and you’ll remember them along with the main points.

So, start reading by skimming through your content. Search aggressively to answer the questions in your outline.

When you skim, make sure you read every word at least once. I made the mistake of skipping words and found myself hopelessly lost, and as a result, had to re-read what I just read.

One helpful trick is to use only your eyes for skimming. Refrain from reading the words in your mind, with your mouth or pointing at the word you’re reading. These acts reduce your speed dramatically.

Here’s the important part.

Whenever you hit a main point, slow down! Reduce your speed (if only slightly) to find the answer to your questions. Once you found an answer, use a pencil or highlighter to highlight the main point with as little words as possible. These are the words you’ll use to remember the contents. This small act of highlighting helps you pick up and zoom in on the main ideas quickly.

Sometimes, it’s impossible to highlight the words, especially since we’re reading articles and documentations most of the time. In this situations, I found that a temporary highlight by selecting the words with a mouse is often enough to help me recall the main points.

One helpful thing I found is to resist the temptation to take notes when reading. (That’s what we’re doing next!). I noticed note-taking while reading often breaks my train of thought. I would forget the outline after taking notes for a small section, which means I had to redo the pre-reading phase again. 😢

When you’re done reading the article, it’s time to move on to take some notes.

Note-taking

You don’t have to take notes for everything you read. That’ll be too time consuming. You will, however, want to take notes for things you want to remember.

The note-taking phase happens right after you’ve finished reading. Taking notes at this stage has two benefits.

  1. It forces you to refresh your memory right away, which helps you remember things longer.
  2. It allows you to check whether you’ve remembered what you just read correctly.

Note: Taking notes (whenever you do it) helps you organize information in an orderly manner, which helps in memory retention. So, taking notes is helpful!

Now, let’s dive into note-taking process. There are five steps (generally):

  1. Put aside what you’re reading.
  2. Create notes from memory.
  3. Check if notes are accurate.
  4. Create notes again from memory.
  5. Check again if new notes are accurate.

First, you put aside what you’ve read. Putting aside what you’ve read helps you resist the urge to check back when you take notes. (This will make sense in the next step).

Second, you create notes from memory. Creating notes from memory forces you to recall what you’ve read immediately, which helps you retain the information for a longer period of time. It also has the added benefit of letting you check if you understood everything correctly.

I’m not sure if it matters if you choose to write or type your notes. I prefer writing it down because I find it easier to remember things I’ve written.

When you take notes, write only the main points. You may ignore the details as they’ll come back to you as you read your notes. You’ll want to keep your notes as concise as possible, so it’s okay to use abbreviations too. Also, one big tip when taking notes is to use numbered lists and indents. These two helped me remember most of my notes.

Here’s an example of my notes for the reading phase:

  1. Read with eyes only (no movement)
  2. Skim through details (read every word)
  3. Read main pts carefully
  4. Underline / highlight important points

Although this looks simple, it contains all the information that triggers a recall of all the details I need.

Third, you check your notes for accuracy by skimming through what you’ve read. Fill up what’s missing and correct what’s wrong. The highlights help A LOT at this point, especially if you read a chapter that’s 20-30 pages in a book. It’s not as crucial for articles or documentations though.

Fourth, you rewrite your notes again, from memory. This second repetition helps even more in keeping the content fresh in your mind. If you like more information, you might want to check out what’s known as the forgetting curve.

Finally, check your notes again. This time, check against the notes you’ve made in the first round. Everything should already be there so it should suffice. If you only had one or two errors this time, feel free to make the corrections directly on the note and keep it somewhere safe. Otherwise, you might want to rewrite your notes again. Personally, I use Evernote for the notes I’ve written this way. (Note: it’s a referral link. But don’t worry, Evernote is free).

Let’s proceed to the final step: review.

Review

Reviewing your notes is the fourth and final step of the process. It lets you remember things longer.

Since I’m only three weeks into the technique, I can’t say for sure if I’m doing the reviews correctly. So, I’ll share what I think worked for me so far.

There are three periods where you should review what you’ve read:

  1. The same evening
  2. The next day
  3. In one week

When reviewing the same evening, you recreate the notes you had from memory. This helps you burn the notes deeper into memory. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but being able to remember things is always a plus (especially when you’re short on time).

The next day, you briefly read through your notes to jog your memory again. This time, you’ll also want to ask yourself how this information links with whatever you know. A one sentence summary should be good enough to associate what you’ve read with what you know, which increases your chances of a memory recall at the right time.

Finally, in one week, you’ll want to go through what you’ve read and figure out how they link with each other or with what you already know. This further strengthens your memory recall ability.

One final thing that might be useful is to create a mind map of everything you know so far in your career. (I know, that’s a shit ton of work). This should help you consolidate everything you know. I intend to do this sometime this year, and I’ll report my findings!

Wrapping up

Reading is an important skill for us web developers since we need to obtain (and retain) information at an alarming rate. What you’ve read here is a technique to help you read faster and remember more. Apply these techniques and you’ll be surprised how much information you can remember without even looking them up. (I’m pleasantly surprised myself!).

Now, go ahead and maximize your learning! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article and what you intend to learn next with this technique!

Thanks for reading. Did this article help you out? If it did, I hope you consider sharing it. You might help someone else out. Thanks so much!

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