A pair of glasses pointed at a book.

You Can Forget 90% Of What You Read

Here’s what to do with the other 10%.

I sat at my desk. My eyes were shut. I had just completed a chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls. And now, patiently, I reworked my way through the storyline. From the beginning all the way to my current spot. I recounted where it all started. What happened from there, what characters came in at what point, and what led to the events happening as of present. These were early days in my reading journey. I felt that I needed to remember as much as I could from everything I came across. Otherwise, I wasn’t a true reader.

Turns out, it was unnecessary. Today, a near-decade later, I don’t remember much of that book.

I remember it more than others I had read not using that technique, but not by much. In those early days of reading, I thought the point was to keep every word on file in my mind. To have complete retention. To be able to access it anytime I wanted. That was misguided. In reality, you don’t need total recall. You need to take what’s actionable, apply it, and move on. Forcing yourself to remember every little thing is unnecessary.

That is, depending on your objectives.

 

Reading to Learn

Last year, I completed one book a week. This year, I’ll end up doing roughly the same. I love learning. Thus, I read to learn. Sometimes that also results in my feeling entertained, or intrigued, or amused. Learning is the priority though. That doesn’t mean that I read textbooks. After all, I love fiction. What it means is that I choose books where there is something to be gained. I shy away from books that don’t possess that.

If you read books as a means of “something to do,” you’re probably not the type to worry about remembering every little detail.

It’s the lifelong learners that this article truly addresses. The ones that feel that each word needs to be internalized, processed, and stored for later use. To you, I say: don’t worry about it. Enjoy the book for what it is. Learn of it what you can. Then move on. You will forget the majority of it. That’s fine. That’s to be expected. You don’t need to remember 100% of the book to take advantage. In fact, you can go ahead and forget 90% of it. The 10% that survives is all you need. Here’s what I mean and what you can do to that end.

 

What to Do with the 10%

I have one Google Doc that houses all of my book notes. There I record every concept, quote, or idea that I learn from that book. When I’m finished with that book, I go through and review my notes. I used to take a lot more notes. What I found though was that I jotted down generalities that I was already aware of. For instance, I’d write: War is bad. Avoid war. Or I’d record something like: Put money aside from each paycheck for your savings. These weren’t new lessons though. They were simply things that I wrote down because I thought I should.

I wrote down every generic tip I could find in case it was “on the test.” But I’m not in school. To win the game you don’t need to memorize. You need to apply. It’s not about knowing how to spell the word but what the word means. And more importantly, when to use that word. So now, I am very picky about the notes I write down. Oftentimes, I’ll walk away from a book with maybe one or two things recorded. Especially if it’s not a new topic for me.

For topics that I am entirely new to, I’ll write pages and pages of notes. I have no issue taking notes so long as they’re things I didn’t already know.

With the notes reviewed, I then determine what’s actionable. This is the most important part of any reading experience. If you’re reading to learn, you need to apply those takeaways. Otherwise, you’ve wasted your time. I go through my notes. Point by point I determine what’s actionable. There won’t always be something actionable. Many books, particularly fiction, give you an idea to chew on. Nothing directly applicable. More like something to think about as you move through life. That’s fine. Mull it over and move on.

 

Put Theory into Practice

For those books with actionable lessons, put those lessons into practice. Literally, update your life according to what you’ve learned. Yes, it’s time-consuming. Yes, it requires adjustment. But if you don’t do it, it was all for nothing.

I recently completed a book on fasting. It was a new topic for me so I naturally took a ton of notes. When it was time to review those notes, I did so over the span of three days because there was so much to work through. I made adjustments to the foods I eat and when I eat them. I updated my nutrition plan. Much effort was involved to implement this system. But now it’s done. I can (and will) forget 90% of that book. For the remaining 10%, I’ve either taken action on it or have concise notes that I can revisit if needed.

I don’t need to remember what the definition of a carbohydrate is. I just need to remember how to address it in practice. That’s all you need to do as well.

Don’t feel guilty for forgetting the main character’s name. Instead, know that you got everything out of that book that you wanted. You learned from it. You applied those lessons to your life. And now, because of them, you’re better off. Of the many books I’ve completed, some stand out more than others. I can’t recall the single title of a chapter though. What I can recall are the big lessons that I learned. The lessons that have changed my life. That have moved me forward. That is the 10%. That is the part that truly matters. Forget the rest.