13 Sep How to remember more of what you read
On 9/24 I’ll be teaching a course on how Supercharge your Productivity using Notion.
The digitization of information is a double-edged sword. It’s an unassailable benefit that every bit (and byte) of knowledge resides on the supercomputer in our pocket. Yet, the unintended consequence is that we’re bombarded with information: Kindle books, blog posts, podcasts, academic journals, videos and much more. The New York Times estimates that we we consume 34 gigabytes of content a day. That’s the equivalent of 25% of War and Peace every single day.
There’s the old saying “in one ear and out the other.” Isn’t it a damn shame (dare I say a travesty) that so many of the things we read seem to vanish into thin air? Yet that anecdote from Sapiens might be a killer opener for your next talk; that statistic from Thinking Fast and Slow may act as the tipping point for your research report; and that satiric scene from Breakfast of Champions might enthrall your dinner party guests.
Yet these ideas disappear into the digital ether as quickly as they arrived. How can we remember more of what we read? And how can we harness and leverage digital tools to tap into this information both quickly and precisely?
“No-code” tools (such as Notion, Airtable and Coda) make it easy to create custom systems and templates for all of your professional and personal needs. In this tutorial, I’ll use my “go-to” tool Notion to show you how you can:
- Create a customized note-taking template
- Import your Kindle notes
- Organize your library of notes
1. Getting Started
The tools are simple and free. The key first step is to download Notion (available on mobile, desktop and all on operating systems). Next, install a little browser “extension” bookcision. This tool will live as a browser bookmark and facilitate the process of exporting your Kindle Highlights.
2. Determine your note-taking strategy and templates
But first, some real talk. A system is only as good as its user’s commitment to using it. By itself, no system will change your behavior. So how do we set ourselves up for a system that will actually stick?
Enforce “light” consistency
There are hundreds of methods one can use to remember more of what you read. One approach that’s stuck with me is by Shane Parrish from Farnam Street and is inspired by the Feynman Technique. As Parrish reads, he does the following:
- Writes down the main points and arguments (per chapter)
- Explains the core ideas, without looking
- Lists the connection to other ideas
Let’s look at three ways Notion can facilitate this approach. First, like any note-taking app, it’s got a mix of formatting options to make the right information stand out. Let’s use the book The Soul of Money by Lynn Twist (which is fantastic, btw) as an example:
And while formatting options are table stakes, it’s worth pointing out that Notion has a clean and minimalist interface that is focused on driving your creative output.
Next, let’s examine two features that separate Notion from the pack: toggles and in-line linking. These subtle features are a force multiplier in letting your ideas compound. Let’s check em out.
Whether you’re taking notes, working on presentations, or conducting research, your ideas grow from fragments into fully-formed text. But the creative process requires you to bounce between high-level ideas and the minutiae to support them. Toggles are a basic Notion feature that enable you to switch between these two creative modes.
But toggles too have their limitations. Eventually, a book review would span 12 chapters. It would become unwieldy to have to expand/hide twelve different sections. Now, meet: in-line linking. This a fancy way of saying, you can create nested links within a document. Exactly like a webpage, but with one bonus: there’s no file system to manage. Watch the magic unfurl as these same toggles are quickly transformed into stand-alone (yet linked) web pages:
Because each section of text is its own atomic unit (in Notion parlance, a block) you can instantly switch between the two without interrupting your creative process.
Furthermore, as we take notes, we find ourselves using repeating document structures. In this case, we’re using the 3 sections:
- Main points
- Good passages
Since our book notes will repeat this structure for every chapter, Notion lets us memorialize this by letting us create a document-specific template buttons. In the example below, I’ve created a template to ensure that all of our chapter notes retain the same structure.
Now this is some powerful sh*t! Think about how you could use this for your research papers, meeting agendas, and client proposals. The list goes on and on!
3. Add these notes to a collection
Hopefully you can see the power of incorporating structure and consistency into a word-processing document. But that’s just the tip of the spear. We’re not reading just one book – we’re reading hundreds, spread across genres, time periods and with different levels of personal impact. How could we categorize each note accordingly?
Tables are a “game changer”
Tables are a fancy way of saying a database. And if the term’s unfamiliar to you, think of it instead as a spreadsheet on steroids. We can now take our notes on the Soul of Money and add meta-data such as: classification (fiction or non-fiction), rating (1-5 stars), tags (money, biographies, self-help), and date read.
Adding your Kindle highlights
Let’s step out of the Notion ecosystem for a brief second, to grab your Kindle exports. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, Bookcision can download your highlights into a text file (as can Readwise.io and clippings.io and klib.me).
In this video, you’ll see how quickly you can download the highlights and export them into your Notion Bookshelf:
4. Selectively sharing your workspace
But what’s the point of reading books if you’re not humblebragging to others? Notion also makes that easy 😉
The bedrock of the web’s content ecosystem is known as a “CMS” (or Content Management System). Tools like WordPress or Squarespace take a bunch of content (typically posts or articles) and organize them for consumption by the public.
Because it’s a database, Notion can moonlight as a CMS (which IMO is one of its most unheralded features.) And since all of our book notes now have meta-data and tags, we can use the powerful “gallery view” to showcase our bookshelf either publicly or to specific individuals (say our colleagues).
A Unified and Comprehensive System
The beauty of no-code software engineering is that ordinary people can create powerful tools that match their unique workflow. Customize your personal CRM with the tags match your contacts, create a portfolio tracking system with your own stress testing, and a landing page for your next business idea.
The possibilities are endless and only limited by your ability to “think like an engineer.” And on September 24th, I’m excited to teach you how to Supercharge Your Productivity Using Notion.