How to Grok Everything You Read

New year, new resolutions. And a very popular and recurring item on everyone's list is the desire to read more in the new year. Reading more books, not Facebook statuses.  I now find it a bit peculiar how most people focus on quantity when it comes to reading. And to quote from Napoleon (while completely butchering the context), "quantity has a quality of its own". But I am yet to find someone who wants to increase the quality of the book reading.  Quality in this context can be a complicated topic, but let's try to narrowing down by focusing on memorization and understanding.

Let me start by asking you "Do you know the books you read last year?". If you are like most people, this question alone will trip you into opening your Kindle, Audible, thinking about the paper books you have on the nightstand etc.  What if we were to step it up a notch and I would ask you to summarize the main ideas from one of them. I did that a few times with some close ones and all I got back was blabbing. Ask about a book from 3 years ago and very few people can recall reading the book in the first place, let alone the content that they remember. We want to read more but even if we do, we seem to forget most of it anyway. Why bother then?

This was one of my personal frustrations. I read a lot, listen to audiobooks, watch all sorts of documentaries. But I seem to forget most of it pretty fast.  So I had to invent a system to improve my memory. I will try to outline it below. It is work in progress and I expect to tweak it in the future.  

Fundamentally, my system revolves around being mindful about the info I absorb and taking smart notes. Here is a diagram:

Vladimir's Grok System

Vladimir's Grok System


Allow me to dive deeper into each topic:

Purposeful reading

Reading for me is an immensely pleasurable, hedonistic, activity. But there is so much content that gets thrown at us that finding your way in this information blizzard is a very reactive undertaking. We jump from an article on Facebook to the podcast everyone's raving about, we watch the documentary with lots of votes on Reddit and we read the book we borrowed from our parent's shelf when we were visiting on Christmas.  And is all fun, but if the goal is to absorb the data and evolve as a human being in the process, this chaotic method is nothing more than a distraction.

The system I am advocating for is one of purposeful information consumption. One in which selecting the books and articles you will read are a deliberate practice. It is about having a plan that will guide your decisions and not be pulled in all directions by all the noise that you are bombarded with.

The concept I have invented for myself is called Themes. They represent specific areas that I want to improve my knowledge on, broad topics that have importance for me. They could be subjects you are passionate about or ones that will improve your career.

Example: Personally, I have lots of themes that cover my interests. They are quite broad but this is on purpose. I am interested in Product Design, History, Strategy, Learning, Personal Development, Business Culture etc. Some I am actively pursuing while others I treat like a hobby.

The themes are not set in stone and can be changed or expanded at any time. If you find yourself a new hobby or decide that you need a new skill at work you should add them to your areas of interest. These topics should evolve with you.

Having themes has some huge benefits:

  1. They allow for a mindful perspective of information absorption. You gain a system to guide you through the noise.
  2. They will help you transform reading from a procrastination activity into a learning exercise.
  3. They give you a sense of progress. As you consume more in more information in a certain area you will become more of a field expert. And you will have mountains of notes to prove it. 
  4. It allows for deeper understanding. You will be able to get perspective on a topic, make connections, discover analogies and so on.

How can you model these themes? You can make each theme a OneNote or Evernote notebook. You can treat each theme as a tag and tag your notes the right way. You could have a paper notebook for each theme but I find this to be the worst method as it is less editable. It's completely up to you.

Dynamic structure

Themes are your placeholder. What should you put in them?  Notes of course. These notes can come from any source that you want. The medium is quite irrelevant. They can be based on:

  • Books
  • Movies
  • Articles
  • Documentaries
  • Podcasts
  • Etc

Example: The American Civil war is one of the topics that I became interested in. In my case it was not the school that peeked my interest. But a fantasy book called "Abraham Lincoln, the Vampire Hunter" In case you are in shock and closing the tab, let me explain. The book was pretty entertaining and told the biography of the great American president .... with vampires. It was good enough to make me read the Wikipedia page for Lincoln and take some basic notes. The notes were expanded after I watched the excellent Civil War documentaries by Ken Burns. 3 books and 1 movie later my notes expanded to the point this became a chapter with multiple entries. It is just an example of something that started small but grew into something meaningful.

The structure of these notes should model your mental model. At start they should be basic, based on limited information.  If you start with a book your model will be very simple, consisting of your highlights or thoughts derived from that book.  As you read your second book, you may gain a new perspective to the topic and tweak your original notes, or create a new hierarchical structure. And so on.

Wide Notes

Let's talk about the notes themselves. Most people tend to save very granular notes: Did you notice an interesting quote? Save it as a note. A cool fact, add another note. Interesting picture, click and save it as a note. It is an easy process, no doubt about it. But I am yet to meet any person who is doing this and constantly reviewing the notes.

I like to think of notes as topics. Whenever I come about something that I want to write down I usually expanding an existing topic, rather than creating a new unrelated note. If the interesting quote is related to a topic from a theme I am interested in I add it there. The picture can be labeled in another one and so on.

Example: You can do it anyway you want but I am a big fan as OneNote. It's the main reason I switched from Evernote. The ability to have complex notes was a key value propositions for me.

Think of your notes as infinite canvases. You can put anything you want on them: pictures, text, audio, video. You can move them around, connect them as you wish.

Schedule some time to review everything

All above is useless in the absence of reviewing sessions. Taking notes is already a huge aid in helping you remember what you read, but without deliberate reviews you will only go half way. This could be as simple as just browsing through your notes when you are in the subway, or during commercials breaks.

Granted, the review sessions I am proposing are not super scientific. I know there are a lot of smarter ways to do it but I found they require significant more effort in the note taking process and for this reason not really fit for me.

That's pretty much it! I appreciate you getting this far. I swear I had no intention to write another novel. Please leave a comment if you have a cool new system to share.