How to retain what you read

We rarely suffer from a lack of information. We live in what Tiago Forte calls an age of abundance: with a few clicks, you can find out something about just about anything. No, the problem is rarely a lack of information. It's more making that information useful.

That's why a strong knowledge management system is valuable. A strong knowledge management system can be characterized by three principles:

1) It's easy to capture information and ideas 2) It's uncluttered by irrelevant information 3) It helps promote connections between informations from different sources

In other words, an effective knowledge management system helps you easily capture and transform ideas into new ideas.

Capturing ideas

The objective of "capture" in a knowledge management system is twofold. First, it should store information so that it's accessible in the future. Second, it should bring ideas from different sources into contact with one another.

I recommend that if you want to retain what you read, you embrace a digital workflow.

In the past I would take notes from what I read in a Moleskine or Leuchtturm notebook. I enjoyed the tactile sensation of writing on paper with a nice pen. (And I still do.) I also liked the immediate feedback of seeing pages fill up with text. And, I've heard that writing notes by hand can aid long-term memory.

However, once a note made it into my notebook it tended to stay there. I had to remember that I had notes on a topic, and then find the note somewhere in my several notebooks. If I'd taken the note a long time ago, I may as well note have taken it at all. Plus, I already do most of my reading on digital devices. I read articles on my laptop, and I read books on my Kindle.

Today, I capture notes in Evernote, with a boost from Readwise.io. Evernote is far from perfect, and Evernote 10 has been, in many ways, a step backward. But it remains for me the most effective tool for enabling the ubiquitous capture of information.

I read on my Kindle and make highlights. Readwise automatically sends these to an Inbox folder in Evernote. I save online articles to Instapaper. I highlight those and Readwise sends the highlights to the same Evernote inbox. Everything is in one place that's easily searchable and accessible on any device that has a web browser.

If I read a paper book, my process is note all that different. I take notes in my own words on small slips of scrap paper. When I'm done, I transfer those notes to Evernote in a new note in the same Inbox.

Curating ideas

If Evernote only held on to my highlights, my system would quickly become cluttered by information that I don't really need to retain. That's why I take the time to review my highlights and distll articles and books to their key points or ideas. The process is the same for a book or an article.

I apply a technique called "progressive summarization." I read through my highlights and I bold any especially interesting ideas. If it's particularly salient to me, I'll also highlight it. When I'm done, I scan through looking for my highlights and then try to distill in my own words the core ideas of the book. I I write those notes at the top of the file so I can find them right away without having to ever read through the rest of the highlights again.

Then I write a brief summary of the entire book—just a few sentences.

My distilled notes are often personalized: they emerge out of my own personal interests and reasons for reading the book. But, I strive to write them so that anyone can clearly understand the idea. In the future, I will inhabit a completely different context than the one in which I'm making the note. It's important that future me is able to understand my note, so clarity is key.

Evernote works as long-term cold storage. I don't do much creative work there.

Connecting ideas

The next step in my knowledge management system is to try to connect ideas or information from different sources. For this, I move out of Evernote and into Obsidian. That's because Obisdian makes it much easier to link different notes.

Obsidian acts as my digital zettelkasten. Each distilled note from my work in Evernote acts as its own atomic thought and therefore becomes its own note in Obsidian. By making my notes atomic like this, I can pull them out of context and introduce them to new ones. With Obsidian, it's easy for me to scan the existing notes in my library and create links between then. I make sure to add a bit of an explanation for the connection to ensure I don't leave myself guessing in the future.

Those connected notes start to form little constellations of information that inspire me to draw my own conclusions and insights on the material I've been reading. Because It's unlikely that anyone else has an identical collection of notes to the one I've put together, there's a good chance that I am creating new knowledge that reflects my unique perspective on the subject matter.