How to Digest Books to Improve Recall

information recall learningIf you read a lot of books or blog posts, listen to sermons, or even watch documentaries, you are exposed to a lot of information. But whether you are learning a lot of  information is another matter.

While the mental click of processing a new item of information feels great, we often find ourselves unable to remember simple facts or ideas in the days after we learn them. It’s frustrating to just remember that you learned something relevant to the problem you’re working on, but not be able to actually recall what that helpful info is. This happens with actor’s names and book titles all the time.

Lately, I’ve amped up the amount of non-fiction I’m reading. While information consumption is something that lights my brain up and registers as an accomplishment, I’m really interested in trying to improve my ability to recall my new reading.

If you invest 10 hours of reading into a 200-page book (or 40 minutes into hearing a lecture), you don’t get that time back.

One way to maximize that 10-hour investment is to improve your recall. Better memory also improves the chance you’ll recall the information when you need it to make key decisions–and making better decisions with new information is the best kind of return on investment.

So how do you improve recall?

What Doesn’t Work (probably)

Somewhere in the middle years of my education I was taught that the way most people learn things is largely ineffective.

The idea goes like this (typically attributed to William Glassser):

We only remember:
10% of what we READ
20% of what we HEAR
30% of what we SEE
50% of what we SEE and HEAR
70% of what is DISCUSSED with OTHERS
95% of what we TEACH TO SOMEONE ELSE.

Whether or not this is true, it strikes me as fundamentally right on some level. It’s the idea of active recall: the greater your active engagement, the better your recall.

Many common studying practices, like highlighting, are largely a waste of time according to some sources. I suspect that only holds true if you passively highlight, meaning never return to those sections. Highlighting and underlining (as well as simple rereading) can promote false confidence, because the “click” of passive rereading might be misconstrued as true understanding, without actually improving recall.

In other words, the higher rung you climb on the ladder of engagement, the better your recall. 

Your Brain is a Network

Active recall matches with our understanding of how the brain encodes things.

Your brain doesn’t just store information in little cordoned brain boxes. Information spreads out across networks of neurons throughout the brain. The more you engage with an idea, the more the densely that idea is represented in your brain, as it connects to other ideas. Effectively, when your brain exercises an idea that idea becomes more muscular.

This is why you remember new acquaintances’ names better if they have the same name as your sibling–the network of associations for that name is already dense. It also explains why it’s so difficult to remember foreign names: you don’t have existing networks for those names, and often don’t even have strong patterns for those combinations of sounds, so your brain has to work harder to recall them.

Learning actively forces you to build more neural connections for new ideas. If you do a relevant science experiment instead of just reading about a new concept, you create a whole bunch of sensory experiences and associations that strengthen your recall. If you teach a concept, you’re forced to recall the idea and then communicate it, probably in a format you didn’t receive it in the first place.

Actively Digest Books

Here are three ways I’m trying to digest my non-fiction reading to improve my return on the time invested:

  • Read comprehensively. Read in topics that interrelate, instead of reading scattered subjects. For me right now, that means a lot about business, nonprofits, psychology and persuasion. Often, you’ll run into the same case studies from a different light, which reinforces your learning. Try to take time to integrate new knowledge with your old understanding. All this strengthens your neural connections.
  • Create a quote bank. Stick tabs into the text when a thought strikes you as especially important or profound to the overall message, and worth being able to remember later (if you aren’t as old fashioned as I am, use whatever the e-book analogue is to tabbing a page). Then, once you’ve finished the book, go back through the tabs and decide if they still seem as important–they might not! If they do, though, type them into a quote bank in Google Docs (so you can access them wherever) to increase your engagement. Then go back in the coming weeks and review the quotes in the quote bank to reinforce your new connections. (A quote bank will also help you be more willing to get rid of old books.)
  • Write/Teach.  Use the above points to create a new thing that integrates your knowledge. I write and blog in my work life, so I have an organic opportunity to teach and process new information in creative ways. This allows you to get an immediate return value from your reading things, in addition to improving your long-term recall–since you have to have pretty high engagement to articulate new knowledge to others in a different way than you consumed it. This blog post is an example of writing to improve recall.

What  ways do you  improve your recall of important information–whether it’s blog posts or sermons–instead of just consuming it and crossing your fingers? I’d love any suggestions.

[Image source: Inclued]

Arguing with People is Always a Waste of Time

Arguing with People is Always a Waste of Time

Entertaining, yes–but probably not helpful.

Dale Carnegie said that “the only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.”

You might not agree with him–that’s ok. You’ll have a lot of fruitless arguments and occasionally even feel like you’ve won, just to find out later the other person still believes what they started out believing, except now they don’t like you.

Disagreement and discussion are healthy. They imply that each party has a desire to risk having to learn, be corrected, or maybe even change themselves.

Arguments, though, are dead ends.

Both parties know where they stand and need to justify themselves. In an argument, what’s really on the line is each person’s ego. And the only rewards for winning are the loser’s resentment and your own self-satisfaction. You are best off avoiding arguments if you actually want to change people, and bridge the gulf between the other person being logically convinced of something vs. persuading them to really act upon it.

Let me clarify the title a little more:

Arguments are always a waste of time if your goal is to try and change someone and improve your world.

On the other hand, arguments about who has the best sports team or why the White Album is better than Sgt. Pepper’s are fun. The goal is to entertain, through a kind of public verbal jousting.

Arguing about politics is genuine fun for many people, either to affirm their own views even further, or because they like the intellectual stimulation. But let’s not pretend many of these arguments are had to try and change the other person for their benefit. The argument is all about you.

If you care enough about someone to change someone’s mind, stop arguing.

Put your ego aside and listen intently instead. Prove you care about the other person–after all, that’s why the stupid argument matters in the first place.

[Image source: Tumblr]

4 Scenarios to Test Your Awesome Level

Here are four scenarios:

a) You’ve been laid off from your job. You knew the company was going through changes and other people have already, sadly, been laid off. You didn’t worry too much about it because you were doing a good job. But then you were laid off anyway.

Honest appraisal time–pick your response:

1) I hate that company. Why didn’t they appreciate the value I was offering? I did all I could do.

2) Why was I fired? What could I have done differently to not be the kind of employee/position that got eliminated?

3) Well, times are tough. Better people than me got fired and I shouldn’t be surprised. I couldn’t have done anything to avoid that.

4) Time to get a new job and see if it sticks. I’ll try again and see if it works out better.

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Boredom is a Sign of Complacency

Wayne Shorter jazz composer

This guy composes free-form jazz. Figure that one out.

I was listening to NPR earlier today and overhead this enlightening interview with jazz composer Wayne Shorter. Just heading home after getting a beer with a friend, I listened to Wayne talk and answer questions:

Something I say is that boredom is just a sign of complacency.

He was talking, of course, about Jazz. People who listen to something new, like free-form jazz (or classical music, or whatever offends the palate–for me, it was actually Top 40 pop music that set off my alarms for a long time), they might be confused or offended, or more likely, just plain bored.

Change the radio station. Find the comfort zone. Don’t be willing to doubt your first reaction.

Embrace your skeptcism and protect it. It keeps you safe and warm and unchallenged, like the ugly threadbare blanket from your childhood. That blanket is cherished and sentimental–sure, but is it really keeping you warm? Or are you just afraid to grow?

Wayne Shorter went on to say ridiculous things during the interview, like talking about how when he played with Miles Davis and his band, they never rehearsed or talked even about music. They just talked to each other. Listening to the way the other person said a phrase was enough to riff off of later: they could hear something in the cadence of the other’s voice that was echoed in their improvisations, if the other musician cared enough to listen really closely.

Jazz isn’t about safety. It’s breaking out of a form, not fitting into one.

That quote was  taken from my memory, not from what Wayne’s own mouth. It might not be exactly right. Call it jazz, if you like. Here’s a direct one:

No one really knows how to deal with the unexpected. How do you rehearse the unknown?


For me, the word ‘jazz’ means, ‘I dare you.’

Full circle:

Boredom is just a sign of complacency.

If you are bored at work, bored by your coworkers, bored by your boss–are you just being complacent? Have you given others permission to like you? More importantly, have you given yourself permission to like them? To enjoy the work and push yourself beyond the work’s less compelling exterior to the truly interesting, human bit hidden inside of it? It might be in there. Look for it.

Some of the music I most love I didn’t like the first time I listened to it.

Love at first sight is the happy exception, not the rule.

I didn’t love any of Rufus Wainwright’s albums wholly, not at first. It took me awhile to warm up to Fleet Foxes’s self-titled album. I didn’t understand Sigur Ros’s ( ) well enough the first time through to say much other than “I don’t think I like this. But it’s interesting, in a weird way, maybe.” Thanks goodness for the latter part of that first impression. Listening to Sigur Ros has taught me something new about being a human being, but it didn’t until the 3rd or 4th listen.

The same goes for the other people around you. Everyone has a superhuman ability. The difference is whether their environment has nurtured that superhuman ability or not. If it’s been stomped and tamped down, or if someone has watered that ability with a refreshing draught of encouragement and support.

You can focus on a person’s flaws and all the things they do that are stupid. Many people do. It’s easy to dismiss people. It’s risky and strange and often hard work to find the gem of talent, insight, or worthiness (C.S. Lewis would call it “glory”) that’s enbedded deep in the geode of neglect and self-doubt that encases many people’s talents.

Not being able to see and encourage the best in someone isn’t realism or being a straight shooter or the other person’s fault.

Your boredom with others is complacency.

My boredom with others is complacency.

And while it’s a tragedy that we aren’t there to offer the (literally) transformative  word of encouragement and support and belief, it’s a far greater tragedy that we can’t learn something from that person. When you can’t see through the haze of superiority, you’re losing something.

“Every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not that we should expect to be perfect at appreciating people right away. It takes time and practice to develop a skill, and listening to people and learning from them is a skill. I have a lot of learning ahead of me, and an embarrassing amount of needless boredom behind me.

But it starts with a change of mindset.

If you aren’t willing to do battle with a first reaction when you listen to a weird song, you might not be missing out this time. But if you adopt a mindset of not being willing to listen, you will miss out, eventually. It’s easy to believe all of Katie Perry’s songs are trash. (and some might be–but do you know about the ones that aren’t?) It’s easy to believe Les Miserables is too long a book for you to enjoy. You’re not really “a reader.”

The point is people, music, books, and causes are far too interesting–and matter way too much–to be bored by them.

Mastery comes after practicing (and being uncomfortable).

Boredom is a sign of complacency.

Delight is a sign of engagement.

[Image source: Murphys Law]

Never Lose Another Scarf: How to Automate Good Habits

Everyone loses things.

I lost a perfectly good acoustic guitar when I took a Greyhound bus to Minneapolis: to date, bringing that guitar along is still probably my biggest life regret (I know, I have an easy life). The guitar disappeared somewhere during our hour-and-a-half layover in Omaha from below the bus. I hope a talented homeless person is making a living thanks to it.

I think I’ve lost more scarves than any other item, other than maybe gloves. In the Midwest, you need winter gear to fight off the brittle cold, but winter gear is really lose-able because you need lots of it and then it has to be taken off inside otherwise you’ll succumb to Wicked Witch of the West syndrome and become a pool of sweat on the floor.

Because of this deadly combination, I’ve owned probably a dozen scarves and today have a total of: 1.

However, I’ve successfully kept that scarf around for 1.5 winters–which is only impressive when my churn rate is usually 3 per year–thanks to the same principle that keeps me from getting t-boned backing up my car in a parking lot, saves me time unloading silverware, and keeping me challenging myself to grow personally.

The secret is automating good habits.

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How to Get Someone to Not Listen to You

Barnes & Noble Author Banner Cafe

A few Sundays back, I was at Barnes & Noble for afternoon coffee and magazine reading. I was standing under the B&N painted banner of canonical authors lounging in a Parisian café (almost exclusively mythological white males), figuring out what kind of drink to order.

Nothing sounded great, so I decided I’d order something new, hoping that creating a super frou frou drink might result in something delicious.

So I waited until we made it to the counter and ordered, combining as many adjectives as seemed prudent (Tall Skinny Vanilla Bean Latte Skim etc.) and feeling pretty great about forging boldly into the great unknown territory of caffeinated beverages.

The barista asked me something about whether I wanted sugar-free and I confidently said, “yes?” Beside me, my companion (with, I imagine, a scowl and head-shake) loud-whispered, “ASPARTAME” with the voice you’d use to point out a woman in her third-trimester chain-smoking Marlboros in the parking lot.

Well, shoot.

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Why Telling Stories is Important

Why Telling Stories is Important

Everyone tells stories.

While I was in Peru an orphan boy told me all the ways not to piss.

Lesson one: Don’t stand waist deep in the river if you’ve got to relieve yourself. That’s what the bathrooms are for. Parasites in the river will wait for little boys to wade out into the green water and take a leak. They’ve evolved to smell the urine, and that’s when they swim up into your intestines. The boy sets his a face in an expression of hard-earned solemnity, as worn by old men who want to forget all the bad things of life.

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