How I Learned to Read Faster and Remember More

"A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one."
― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

"It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it."
― Oscar Wilde

speed reading eyes

After barely trying – and narrowly making it through high school — I suddenly became obsessed with learning as an adult. This means that I’m constantly bookmarking ever more websites, saving more magazine and newspaper articles and buying more books, with very little time to read everything!

And, for me, most of the commonly mentioned speed reading tips (such as not “mouthing” the lines, grouping words into chunks, leading my eyes with a pencil or finger so that they can’t stop moving, and resisting the urge to reread material), didn’t help but merely turned the joy of reading into torture.

Here, on the other hand, are 6 tips that have helped me to become a better reader — and learner of information that really matters:

1) Read less

For books, I start by checking amazon for the ones with the most and best reviews. Then, I take advantage of the “look inside” feature to get an idea of whether the book really appeals to me.

But… far better still, I often find that a google search can turn up one or two page summaries that others have written. After reading several of these summaries I not only have a very good idea of the main takeaway ideas but I’ve also saved myself hours of reading as well as the book’s purchase price. (For instance, here is a book I considered reading for this post… before I found several summaries like this one:

2) Read more

Like most things in life, the more we practice, the better we get. If you want to become a faster, better reader, 1) read often, 2) read a wide variety of challenging materials, 3) build your vocabulary and 4) never stop learning. The more background knowledge you can apply to what you’re reading, the quicker you get through material and the more information you will retain.

3) Preview before you read

Become familiar with what to expect by scanning the table of contents, chapter headings, tables and charts, bolded text and any end of chapter review questions, if offered.

4) Once you start reading, skim through the bulk of the content with an eye out for the most important concepts.

Many books, it seems, spend 80% of the time merely supporting the main gems of interest; so I like to scan the pages quickly and then slow down to read the key concepts more thoroughly. Tip: pay particular interest to the first and last sentence of each paragraph when skimming.

5) Find your optimal location for reading

It’s great if you’ve identified favorite places to read (a library or almost any secluded corner of Barnes and nobles, works for me) and locations to avoid — where you’re likely to daydream or become distracted (Starbucks in my case). However, you may find it helpful to change up where you read and study. New scenery helps our brain make new associations with what we’re reading. And this can make absorbing and retrieving information much easier.

6) Stop cramming

By reading something today and then revisiting or, better yet, testing yourself on what you read a few days or weeks later, you’re indicating to your brain that this material isn’t just incidental — but rather it is important and should be retained. (After reading material, ask a friend to glance through what you read, pick out occasional lines and quiz you or have summarize what was discussed in that section. Or, write questions as you read, so you can quiz yourself later.) In fact, the longer you spread out your learning process of reading and reviewing information or testing, the longer the information is likely to be remembered.

Studies have shown that if you read material today and take a recall test on it tomorrow, you have a pretty good chance of retaining that information a week from now. Spend the same amount of time, but spread it out over a week and you’re more likely to remember the information a month from now. Spend that same amount of time — but space the learning events over 6-12 months — and there is a better chance that you’ll remember the material for many years! (The key is to space learning events far enough apart so that you’re likely to have forgotten some of the information (called the forgetting index), but not too much.

calvin and hobbes on reading

The very best way to remember what you’ve read

Of the 10 most common learning techniques (such as underlining or highlighting, working in study groups, rereading material, writing notes, summarizing what you’ve read, etc.), recall testing combined with corrective feedback has been found to be the most effective way to learn. (And, for the absolute optimal odds of remembering what you read, you can even add a delay between the reading and testing… but also a delay between the testing the feedback!)

Lastly, recall tests not only help you to better learn the particular information you’ve read, this feedback may also help you to sharpen your overall reading skills.

7) Put your reading/learning into practice

Since we hopefully agree that “reading faster” is not our real objective but rather, “learning more” is what’s important, do something with what you’ve read: 1) make a list of the many ways you can incorporate what you just read into improving your life or business and 2) write a blog article about what you read or share your new knowledge with others. (Remember the old adage, “the best way to learn a subject is to teach it.”)

8) Don’t skimp on sleep

Relaxation time helps the brain process and retain what you’ve read.

If you have suggestions for how you’ve trained yourself to read faster and remember more, I’ve love to hear them. Please share them in the comments section below.