Speed Reading Non-Fiction Books and Remembering What is Critical to Success

Learning to Learn

If you are like most business professionals you have little time or energy after work for reading non-fiction, all those books you know would help your career, your life, your future. But, there is a way to read, and enjoy it, and even remember what you have read when you need it.

I still remember the overload as a first year cadet at the US Air Force Academy. It was hard physical work, lots of stress, and a full academic overload. Then, we were given a class that changed my life. The first week of this class I wondered why schools everywhere didn’t teach these secrets the first semester of high school or even middle-school.

The class taught us the basics of “learning-how-to-learn.” One of the skills in the class was how to read and remember a non-fiction book. I’ve been using those techniques and improving on them ever since. Last week I was reminded of that epiphany when I saw two similar articles in the Harvard Business Review. I thought you might find a synopsis valuable. I have also added tips I have found valuable.

Finding Time for Non-Fiction Books

Before we get into the details of how to quickly read and remember a non-fiction book, you need to make the time to read a book. The core here is from three tips in Hugh McGuire’s article, How Making Time for Books Made Me Feel Less Busy, in the Wall Street Journal.

1. No Digital After Dinner

For most of us it is rare for anything important to come over the digital threshold after dinner. The reason most of us keep checking email and Twitter is that our brain is looking for a dopamine fix. It wants to stay at that hyper level it has been at all day. Your brain needs a rest from digital-dopamine just the same as your muscles need rest from a workout. (Dopamine is a neural transmitter and epinephrine pre-cursor that jazzes you up.)

2.  Don’t Sit in Front of the TV, Facebook, or YouTube

Beware of dopamine-desire! It will lure you to TV, Facebook, or any glowing screen with moving images. Once the family settles down, then grab the book you have wished you had time to read. If you aren’t sure about taking the time to read, use the Pomodoro-technique. Pour a glass of wine or cup of tea, snuggle into a chair, and start reading. With non-fiction books, you don’t have to start at page 1! Start at the spot in the book that is interesting.

If you aren’t into the book after one “Pomodoro” of 20 minutes, try a different book for a second Pomodoro.

3. Take a Book to Bed, Not a Screen

Recent research has found the blue-grey light from tablet screens causes changes in the brain that make it difficult to stay asleep. Keep that Kindle or iPad for the train or plane and take your book to bed.

Read Non-Fiction Books Like You are Mining for Diamonds

Peter Bregman writes about a professor of Latin American history, Michael Jimenez, that taught him how to read a non-fiction book. Professor Jimenez’s advice was as good and as memorable for Peter as the “learn-how-to-learn” class was for me. Peter’s article appears in How to Read a Book a Week in the Harvard Business Review blog.

I’ve used a similar reading method to Peter’s for years. If you are not reading stories, then this method of reading is faster and will help you remember far better than normal reading or “speed” reading because you are not reading as much as searching for diamonds.

The following is a combination of Peter’s tips, the USAFA methods, and ones I have learned over the years.

1. Discover the Bias and Purpose

In his article Peter writes, “Who wrote the book?” Read about the author and get “a sense of the person’s bias and perspective.” Read the jacket cover, front flap, or the blurb in Amazon. What is the purpose of the book? Can you describe the message or purpose in one sentence?

2. Don’t Read Non-Fiction Books. Mine them for Diamonds.

You do not have to start at page 1. You can read just the part you need. However, be aware that this book was written to change you in some way, so jumping into the middle may give you information, but it may not impart the author’s wisdom or call to action.

3. Map the Framework

Look through the Table of Contents to understand the structure, which topics are presented, how much detail there is, and how the author leads you to her end purpose. Are there parts you can skip? Do you want to read in a different order?

4. Skim the Content

Skim through the headings in a chapter, then go back to the beginning of the chapter and skim through the chapter reading only the first sentence or two of each paragraph. Read the paragraph only if you need to. However, if it is a topic you are already familiar with you only need to know direction the author is heading.

5. Discover Diamonds

This is important! When you finish a page or major section, stop and think about what you have just covered.

What was the important idea on this page?

What was the supporting argument or counter argument?

Pausing to think about and capture the most important thoughts for each page or section helps drive the ideas into your memory.

6. Pick out the Diamonds

Write a few words, a note, or sentence in the margins about “diamonds” you discover. This is not a school book you have to keep clean and turn in. This book should be a diamond mine and it is up to you to dig into it. (If it is not a diamond mine, then you might want to spend your time digging in another mine.)

7.  Bag the Diamonds

At the end of each chapter hand write three to four succinct bulleted notes on one side of a 3” X 5” note card. (For non-USA readers, in the USA we have pocket-sized note cards known as “three-by-five cards” that are great for writing short notes on.) Keep each note short and crisp, maybe three to five words. Use them as primers to spark your memory. They work FAR BETTER than notes in your SmartPhone.

8. Cherish Your Diamonds

Carry your cards and review them over the next few weeks to refresh your memory. Before starting a new chapter, review the cards of the preceding chapters.

Remember Forever

Want to know how to remember for years the ideas from the books you read? The next article will show you how to “permanently” memorize the notes on your cards. The technique I will teach you is about a hundred years old, but works incredibly well. It’s a technique that modern science has tested and proven over and over and it continues to work. Remember forever!

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