3 Simple Techniques to Optimize Your Reading Comprehension and Retention

Ever had the experience of reading a book and not feeling like you’re learning anything useful? What about realizing a week later you don’t even remember what the book was about?

What’s the use in reading if you don’t understand and don’t remember what you read?

You’re not alone… many people have difficulties fully comprehending and remembering written material. Fortunately, it’s easy to improve your reading comprehension and retention. Here are three simple techniques to get you started…

Set a Purpose by Asking “Why?” and “What?”

In 10 Days to Faster Reading, Abby Marks-Beale (of the Princeton Language Institute) recommends asking two simple questions before picking up any piece of reading material:

  1. WHY am I reading this?
  2. WHAT might I need this information for?

These questions are immensely important for two reasons:

First, asking why you’re choosing to read a particular piece of material helps determine your purpose: what you ultimately want to accomplish by spending your time reading. Setting your purpose is the best way to factor in the opportunity cost of your time and attention… if you don’t believe what you’re about to read will be useful, you can choose to do something different.

Second, asking why you might need this information primes your brain to make connections between what you’re reading and what you want to achieve. Our minds work primarily via pattern recognition – by reminding yourself of your areas of responsibility before you read, you’ll make many more connections than you would otherwise. (Be sure to keep a notebook and pen close at hand to capture your thoughts and ideas without breaking the flow of your reading.)

Create a Mindmap of Major Concepts

A mindmap is a non-linear diagram that makes it easy to capture key thoughts and connections between ideas in a graphical / visual format. Starting with an idea, concept, or question in the center, you capture information by connecting key concepts and thoughts to the central idea. More detailed information related to these thoughts is then captured in branches that radiate out from the key concepts, away from the central idea. (Here’s an example of a hand-drawn mind map.)

Mindmapping is a useful technique to use while reading, since the non-linear format allows you to view the entirety of your notes at a glance, then easily place new information in the appropriate branch or make connections between ideas. It’s also a useful technique when solving problems or planning projects: start with a question or project description, then capture all ideas or necessary tasks in the appropriate branches.

You can create mindmaps manually (with paper and pens or markers) or use software to create documents to share or archive. (I recommend checking out Mindmanager for computer-based mindmapping – it’s the best I’ve found.)

Capture Your Reactions by Using the “McDowell Grid”

One common mistake many people make when taking notes is that they focus only on the content of the text. The Personal MBA approach to education has nothing to do with classroom-style testing: there are no points for accurate textual regurgitation. Instead of simply summarizing key points, seek instead to capture the ideas and plans that the reading generates for you.

Your personal reactions to the text will comprise 80% of the value you’ll take away when you’re finished reading. (An example of Pareto’s Law at work.) This insight explains why it’s so valuable to build and maintain a personal library and re-read books over time: since your state of mind, priorities, and projects are different each time you read, the insights you generate will always be different and directly related to your current situation.

Tyson McDowell, CEO of Benchmark Revenue Management and one of my Personal MBA Coaching clients, recently taught me a brilliant format for capturing both key points and personal reactions while reading. This method, which I’m dubbing the “McDowell Grid,” captures key points and personal reactions side-by-side, making it easy to quickly revisit a summary of the text and remember your thoughts about the key points at the same time.

The grid is simple: using any word processing software you like, make a table with two columns. In the first column, capture a summary of a key concept or idea from the text. In the second column, record your personal reactions, ideas, and plans to put the concept into practice. When you’re finished with the book, you’ll have a archive-ready summary and action plan ready for use!

For those of you who prefer to take notes by hand, here’s a handy PDF I created to help you use the McDowell Grid for your own note-taking adventures:

Download the McDowell Grid Book Summary Format by the Personal MBA (PDF)


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