How I Remember Everything I Read


Ali Abdaal


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- In this video, I'm gonna take you through the seven levels along the journey of trying to remember everything that we read. Hey friends, welcome back to the channel. If you knew him, my name is Ali. I'm a doctor based in the UK and on this channel, we explore the strategies and tools that help us live healthier, happier, more productive lives. And if you're anything like me and you're interested in personal development, lifelong learning, becoming a better thinker and all that stuff you'll know that reading is a very important part of this, but if you're anything like me, you've read a lot of books, but you've probably forgotten the vast majority of the stuff that you've read and probably haven't yet applied it to your life in the way that you'd liked. A few months ago, I realized that this was a big issue for me. And so I've been actively working to try and remedy it. And so in this video, I'm gonna share what I think are the seven levels along this path of trying to remember more of the stuff that we read and apply to our lives. We start off our reading careers at level one, the Muggle. This is basically where we read stuff, but we're just reading it. We're not highlighting it, we're not taking any notes. We're not really engaging with the material beyond just passively reading it. And when we're muggles and trying to learn about a new topic like entrepreneurship or whatever, we'll end up just reading loads and loads and loads and sort of hoping we're gonna passively absorb stuff by diffusion, by osmosis, whatever, but we're not like actively using any brain power to engage with it. This is fine if we're reading fiction, but for nonfiction, and when I read nonfiction, I kind of wanna get some insights from it. I want to learn stuff. I'm a dumb-ass and therefore, I just forget everything that I read and therefore, this isn't good for me. And it's probably not just me because there is a phenomenon in memory research called the forgetting curve, which just shows that over time, our memory for everything decays unless we find a way to engage with it or consolidate our memory of the thing. At some point, we might realize that our Muggle existence is pretty unfulfilling. And so we'll come across level two of the journey, which is The Squib. And when you become a Squib at level two, you're now reading stuff, but you are highlighting or underlining the things that particularly resonate with you. This is easy enough to do if you read on a Kindle or you can use one of these like old school things, I don't even know what the court anymore, because we haven't used this stuff. And this is what I was doing since I first got a Kindle in around 2008, 2009, all the way through to 2018. When I discovered that actually there were more levels along this path. And this is fine because highlighting stuff is kinda nice. And it's kind of fun to use one of these old fashioned antique devices. But the problem with highlighting stuff is A, we actually don't remember the stuff that we highlight and there is a mountain of evidence that shows that highlighting or underlining does nothing to actually improve our memory of the stuff. And we also run into the issue that we've got all these highlights, but they're sort of hidden away inside our book or inside our Kindle and we don't really have a reason to go through them. So that was me from 2008, all the way through to 2018. Those were the dark days. But then in September, 2018, I reached level three, which we're calling Hufflepuff. And level three, Hufflepuff is when you have a systematic system for reviewing your highlights. So in September, 2018, I discovered this amazing service called Readwise. Link in the video description. And what Readwise does is that it automatically connects to your Kindle account and it pulls in all of the highlights you've ever highlighted from all the books that you've read. And what they do is that every day, they send you an email with five random highlights. So I started using read wise in September, 2018, and I've been getting this email every day. And for the first few months, I was religiously reading this email and I found, oh wow, this thing that I highlighted five years ago is now very relevant to me today and the Readwise email has surfaced it for me, which was really awesome. But over the last two years, I've kind of become less and less religious about reading my five daily things in the read wise email. I still get it. I still open it from time to time, but it's a bit too passive for my liking. And that is when we get to level four. And we're calling level four Ravenclaw, because I couldn't think of anything else. And I deeply apologize for playing into the stereotype. I didn't mean it. I'm work, trust me. But level four is what I talked about in my video about the magical Insight Logging Framework, which will be linked to somewhere up here. And basically this is a system whereby you automatically pull in your highlights into a central note taking app. And so we can see here, I've got my Readwise database, which has all the books and it shows all the highlights I've made in each one. So I can look at the books and we can see I've got 126 highlights from "Tools of Titans", all of which are gonna be in here. And it also links very nicely to the location and it opens it up in the Kindle web app if that's what I wanna look at. We also have articles over here. So this is taking all of my highlights from Instapaper and we even have Tweets. So these are tweets that I've saved to Readwise that are automatically coming into Notion. And we have podcasts that this is podcast air quotes that I've taken through the app Air to IO. Again, a lot more details about the system in my magical Insight Logging Framework video, which will be linked up there. And so this is level four. This is where we've got a tool that automatically pulls in our highlights. And because I use Notion for absolutely everything in my life, pretty much, it's all very convenient when it's sitting there. But level four is still a little bit problematic because this is still very passive. All we're doing at this point is we're bringing in highlights and we're hoping that our future selves will at some point revisit the highlights just because we want to. And again, I've been doing this for a few months now, but I found that inevitably other things were coming up and I was not finding the time or making the time to actively review the highlights of the stuff that I'd read in Notion. And this is where we start to get into the fun territory, because now we have level five, which is Dumbledore's Army. And when you're at level five or a member of the DA, you engage with books by taking quick notes on the stuff that you've read. Now I'm gonna show you how I do this in Notion. So I've got this book notes database that has all of the books that I read, fiction and nonfiction. And for each of these categories, fiction and nonfiction, I've created templates that I use for my very quick book reviews. And so if I've just read a nonfiction book, I will put a nonfiction book template here. So it asked me to give the title of the book. I can select a genre so let's say productivity, philosophy and magic. Why not? And I can say the date that I finished it, let's say that was today. And basically what this Notion template does is that it creates these categories for me. So firstly, the book in three sentences, impressions, how i discovered it, who should read it, how the book changed me and my top three quotes from the book. So this is actually very quick. And this level, level five, is what I regret not doing with everything that I've ever read. Because if you can just summarize a book in three sentences, that's like a really fantastic way of actually engaging with the content. And as someone like Richard Feynman would say, it's a way of actively ensuring that you actually understand the concepts in the book. And so here are some notes that I took on "Show Your Work" by Austin Kleon. The book in three sentences, share your thoughts and your process and your work online for free. You don't need to be an expert to share your work. Beginners can easily help other beginners and three by sharing your work online, you'll attract an audience of people who care about the same stuff as you do, and this can change your life. So that was kind of my three sentence summary of the book. Then I've got impressions where I just sort of write subjectively what I thought about the book. I have who should read it. Occasionally I have how I discovered the book, if I remember how I discovered it, and here's some notes on how the book changed me and my top three quotes. Now the point of this system is that it does take a small amount of time to actually think about, but it's not a large amount of time. And like, I really wish that if I'd done this for every book that I've ever read, I know I'll be like today, I'd be infinitely more knowledgeable about all this stuff than I am just because I just never considered engaging with this stuff. So level five is I think a good sweet spot between the amount of effort it takes to do this, i.e it doesn't take that much effort, but I think it also gives you a lot of value when you can start summarizing books in three sentences. And if we're doing it for fiction, this is what the template looks like for that. So we've got a section about what it's about, how I discovered it, general thoughts and who would like it. So again, all of these templates are linked in the video description, so you can check it out. And if for some reason you don't yet have a Notion account, you should follow the link in the video description and get it for free. Notion is an absolutely amazing app that I've been using since early 2019 and I think it's fair to say that it's probably changed my life. I organize my entire life around it. I organize my whole business. I use it to take notes at medical school and to prepare for a number of my medical exams, used to track my workouts. I use it to write book reviews. I use it to script all my videos and to work with my team. It's just got so many different use cases and I've got tons of videos about Notion that will be linked in a playlist over there. And best of all, it is completely free. You only pay if you're going for one of the team plans or if you need like additional bonus features, but most people can use Notion completely free of charge basically for as long as you want. So hit the link in the video description if you haven't got an ocean account for whatever reason. And if you do, there'll be a link to my kind of book notes, template thingy so you can duplicate that into your own Notion of workspace and then you can start taking notes from books, which will kind of get you to level five. But yeah, thanks Notion for sponsoring this video. Let's not move on to level six. Now this is where we start to get really interesting because level six is the Order of the Phoenix and the only difference between level five and level six is that in level six, you're still doing all of this stuff. You're still writing kind of book in three sentences, the impressions, how it's changed your life. But we also have a section for a summary and notes on the book itself. So what I'm trying to do with all of the books that have particularly resonated with me over the years, books, that I would write five stars or books that I think have changed my life. What I'm doing is I'm going through them again and I'm writing literature notes. I'm sort of creating my own mini summary of the book, but I'm focusing on the points that have particularly resonated with me or points that I found particularly interesting or insightful or surprising. And I think this is just a really great way of engaging with the book, but it does take absolutely ages. So for example, the other day it was one o'clock in the morning and I was in bed and I couldn't sleep. So I got up my iPad pro. I switched everything to dark mode and I had Kindle on one side of the screen and Notion on the other side of the screen. And I was taking literature notes from the "E-Myth Revisited", which is a book about how to kind of build a small successful business. I first read, I think in July, 2019 and that book completely blew my mind. And so I was revisiting it and relearning some of the lessons from it. And as I was, as I was doing that, I was taking my literature notes. I was sort of summarizing bits in my own notes. And although it took absolutely ages and I still have finished it, I'm still only halfway through the book, it's actually giving me a lot of new insights because it's so rare to find a book that's genuinely sort of actually life changing. And so when you do like, or now when I do, I'm gonna make a point that I'm gonna write my own summary of this book so that I can really consolidate the points for me. There's a few things to keep in mind about this. So firstly, there's a very good book called "How to Take Smart Notes" by Sönke Ahrens. And I've actually done my own summary of this. Yeah, here's a summary that I've done using the toggle feature in Notion where I've basically written like a whole lot of stuff and even drawing my own diagrams and tables and things about, oh my goodness, that's quite a lot of stuff here. How many words is this? This summary, plus some of the highlights it's 6,851 words. So I've spent a very long time taking book, taking notes from this meta book called "How to Take Smart Notes", but this is really good. And this book talks about the Zettelkasten method of note taking, which is kind of what inspired this video and sort of one level of this is as you're reading stuff, you're taking literature notes, but the idea of literature notes, like these summaries that we're making for ourselves is that we want to avoid copying and pasting quotes from the book. We wanna actively try and rephrase things in our own words, just to make sure that we understand the concepts and the other benefit of taking her own book notes is that if you are interested in sharing your work online, you can actually publish your book notes. The first person I saw do this was Derek Sivers, who I've been following since 2016 and who featured in a deep dive on this channel, very kindly of him. And he's basically been taking these detailed notes on every book that he's read. And he's got like hundreds of these on his website Again, that'll be linked in the video description and also many friend, Nat Eliason who again was featured on the Deep Dive, has this amazing website. His blog generates six figures a year for him in revenue. Maybe even more than that. And a big part of his most popular posts are his summaries notes and reviews from books that he's read. So this is kind of the level where I wanna get to where, you know, in the future, on my website,, you'll find all of these summaries of books. And I think this is just like an incredible resource. And if anyone's considering starting a personal blog or a website or a YouTube channel, taking notes from books is such a big value add because a lot of people don't have time to read or think they don't have time to read. And there are also so many good books out there that if you can act as the curator, something, someone like Matt or Derek or what I'm trying to do, if you can curate the best books, "Antifragile" by Nassim Taleb, for example, he's got his notes on here, he's got a podcast episode about this. This is such good content. And this is the sort of stuff that really kind of helps you build your own brand as a sharer, as an educator. And it's just a pretty fun thing to do. So this is where I'm kind of aiming with level six, but then we come to level seven, which is Dumbledore himself. And this is where we're really going full ham on these Zettelkasten Method of note taking. This is sort of where I'm hoping to go, eventually. I've only really done it for a handful of books, but every time I've done it, I found the exercise to be quite useful. And the idea behind this is that once we've taken our literature notes about the book, what we're gonna do is we're gonna turn them into permanent notes as in these Zettelkasten Method or an Evergreen Notes as Andy Matuschak, who's this also kind of note taking guru on the internet. That is sort of the vibe. I prefer the phrase Evergreen Notes, because I think it sounds a bit better. And so for example, I have got this database on again on Notion of Evergreen Notes and the idea behind Evergreen Notes is that they're notes on topics that you find interesting or that particularly resonate with you, but they are atomic notes in their own right. Like the note is self contained and very heavily linked to the other notes you've got in your system and the slip box, again, Sönke Ahrens talks about this in "How to Take Smart Notes". This is, I think Zettelkasten translates to slip box. It was like a method that this German, called Lumen used to use back in the day. And he churned out like loads and loads and loads of manuscripts and publications and books because he had the systematic way of taking notes from the stuff that he read. And so, for example, what I've got is I've got these different sections, life happiness, meaning work, reading luck, improvement, relationships, marriage, helping people, decision making, money, lifestyle, writing, et cetera, et cetera. So like all of these are topics that I'm interested in. And as I read stuff in books, articles, podcasts, tweets, whatever, what I'm trying to do slowly, very slowly over time is turn these into Evergreen Notes and then having like this index for Evergreen Notes. So for example, "The 4 important things in life", what's in this one. This is money, love, relationships, mental health, wellbeing, happiness, and physical health. And I found this from a episode of the Samantha Ryan podcast, that Naval was on. And so I turned it into an Evergreen Notes. I linked to the source and Notion now has back links. And so for example, if I want, I can see what links to this page. So the idea money leads to happiness links to this page. So that is related to the note and we can see using the back links, how this all kind of relates together. This system, this kind of level seven, Zettelkasten slip box, Evergreen Notes, Dumbledore note taking, whatever you wanna call the system. This is a little bit niche and I'm not entirely sold on the power of it yet. I can see from reading "How to Take Smart Notes" and from reading the work of other people on the internet who have done this sort of thing, people say it's really useful. Like me personally, I'm very slowly starting to head in this direction, but I don't think I've given it enough time or stuck with it for long enough to actually be able to comment on whether it's actually helped me. It is kind of nice in a way, because it helps you consolidate your thinking on all sorts of different subjects, especially if you have a lot of interests, it can be kind of hard to keep track of all the stuff that you've read, but this is one layer of abstraction above the things that you read, figuring out a way to consolidate the insights from them, for example. So coming full circle, if I were to give advice to my previous self, I would say that it's really, really useful to be at least a level five of the system. It is very, very easy to get to level five. Basically you get to level four by following the magical Insight Logging Framework linked up here, and for level five, all you have to do is you can use my Notion template if you want, but you don't have to. All you have to do is just write a summary of the book in three sentences. Three, because it forces you to be concise and it doesn't take very long. And just write a few words about what you thought about the book. This is the stuff that we used to do when we were in primary school, where teachers would say, write a book review of this, this book that you read. And again, like if I could give a single piece of advice to myself, when I was like 12, I would say, "Look, Ali me. You need to just write summaries in three sentences of all the books that you've read and just write your thoughts on them. Because in 10 years time in 20 years time, you're gonna be so incredibly grateful that you've got this treasure trove of knowledge inside a system other than your brain, because you're a dumb ass and you're gonna forget everything that you read otherwise." If you like this idea and you haven't yet seen the video about the magical Insight Logging Framework with which is this automatic way of capturing highlights from books, articles, podcasts, and tweets, then click the video over here. That will be the video about the magical Insight Logging Framework. Thank you so much for watching. Do check out my Notion template in the video description, and hopefully I'll see you in the next video. Bye bye. (pleasant music)