Have you ever read a book that inspired you to take action, only to have your motivation fizzle out a few days later? Or have you ever tried to explain a concept you recently read about only to discover that you can't recall more than a few vague ideas?
For the number of hours it takes to read a book, you would hope to have a better return on your investment. But books are, without a doubt, still useful for learning new concepts and developing new skills.
So why is it so difficult to remember what you read?
How to Remember What Your Read
Perhaps the issue isn't the books you read, but rather, it's the passive process of reading that makes learning inefficient. If your objective is to optimize for understanding, then reading is still valuable, but it's only one piece of the process that comprises your reading workflow. According to Readwise, transforming what you read into actionable knowledge and creative insight requires you to follow these steps:
While you can perform all of these steps manually, Readwise is a tool specifically designed for avid readers who are seeking to get the most out of what they read. If you’re a casual reader who prefers only fiction for entertainment purposes or if you think e-books are a disgrace to the medium, then Readwise may not be for you.
But before I explain what all Readwise can do, let me break down my reading workflow both before and after I started using Readwise.
My Reading Workflow
In the first step, I am only concerned with selecting information I consider to be the most interesting or useful. My traditional way of capturing ideas was by marking up a physical book with a highlighter and pen. While not the most efficient, it was an effective way of filtering for relevant information.
Thankfully, capturing has become more efficient due to the invention of e-books. Reading books on a Kindle or other e-reader device has made highlighting passages as simple as a swipe of the finger. While this feature alone has greatly improved my capture efficiency, the note-taking function on the Kindle still leave a lot to be desired.
My capture phase also isn’t exclusive to just physical books and e-books. I am also interested in capturing ideas from the articles I read online and even audiobooks. But pulling notes and highlights from multiple medium can be messy when done manually.
Readwise helped solve this problem by becoming the sole platform for aggregating highlights from all of my information sources while creating as little overhead as possible. Let me explain what this looks like:
- Kindle: Reawise automatically syncs my highlights to its platform.
- Instapaper: Anything I read online that has information I wish to remember, I will send to Instapaper. Anything I highlight inside of Instapaper is automatically synced to Readwise.
- Physical books: I haven’t discovered a way to automate this process, but Readwise allows me to manually input highlights into their platform. Typing into Readwise is quicker than my original approach of creating physical flashcards by hand.
- Audiobooks: You can’t actually highlight an audiobook, but Readwise does allow you to add your audiobooks to your library. Once added, Readwise will auto-suggest highlights from those books based on other reader’s highlight history. It’s far from perfect, but I haven’t found a better solution.
The next step is to review the information I've captured. After all, what's the point of investing a lot of time highlighting and taking notes if I never plan to do anything with it. But going back through a book to review it is tedious work and where I usually fail.
My original review process was flipping through a book a week or two after I had read it to jot down any highlights I still found valuable onto flashcards. As you can guess, reviewing a book took serious time, effort, and self-discipline. It wasn’t long before I started to neglect this process by pretending that I had absorbed all of the necessary information I read while moving on to my next book.
My review process provided a lot of value, but it was too much work to maintain on a consistent basis. The friction to review was too high so my system became useless since I wasn’t following through.
“Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.”
Readwise solved this problem by simplifying my review process down to something I could easily stick with. It makes reviewing books easy (and fun) by sending daily emails of past highlights (more on this feature later) so the highlights I care about find me instead of me having to go search for them.
I customized the email feature to send me a daily email of five highlights from past books I’ve read with an additional bonus highlight of a book I might find interesting. The highlights are hyperlinked to their location in their respective e-book so if I need more context, I can click on the highlight to return to the page its found on.
The final step is interested in transforming the ideas you read about into tangible knowledge you can use. Originally, my only process for integration was taking the books I found most valuable and writing a summary of their ideas for my Book Notes page. Writing a summary of the ideas forced me to grasp the concepts so I could effectively communicate it back to my readers.
Writing books notes has vastly improved my retention of the ideas read about, but it takes several hours to review one book. Due to the heavy time commitment, I have to be highly selective of what books I choose to review since I don’t have time to review every book I read. Books that don’t make the cut are likely to be mostly forgotten since I had no other effective method for integrating their ideas.
Readwise improved my integration phase by providing additional methods for transforming the ideas I consume into useful bits of knowledge. Their most powerful method for integration is their Mastery feature which turns my highlights into digital flashcards that utilize active recall and spaced repetition for optimizing retention.
The Mastery feature makes it easy to integrate any book I read since it takes a fraction of the time it would take to write a book review. Since I have control over which highlights become flashcards, I can focus on the ideas that are the most important to me.
My Readwise Review
Readwise is software built on top of existing reading platforms - such as Kindle, iBooks, and Instapaper - that allows you to conveniently capture all of your highlights so you can review them later. While these reading platforms have their own highlighting feature built in, Readwise's features are designed to improve every stage of your reading workflow.
Let’s dive into what some of these core features are and what they do:
Here is a quick rundown of some of Readwise's features:
Readwise syncs all of your highlights into its dashboard in a matter of seconds. Instead of having to search for past highlights by flipping through every page in a physical book, you simply open the web app, and are two clicks from having all of your highlights organized before you. This feature alone will save countless hours of review time. Being two clicks away from all of your highlights also reduces any friction associated with following through with the review process.
Tagging & Categorization
Readwise gives you the power to organize and connect your highlights with it’s tagging feature. Use the search function on the dashboard to find a highlight instantly, give it a tag, and even add your own notes to it. This feature is particularly useful for performing a deep dive on a particular subject when you need to organize ideas across multiple books and articles. No more having to search for a specific idea by jumping between multiple books and web pages.
If you're a fan of Evernote, then you will be pleased to know that all of your highlights can be exported directly into Evernote. I use Evernote for creating outlines for future blog posts by taking notes alongside my imported highlights. Having my highlights saved in Evernote has helped streamline my idea creation phase since I have all of the information I need right in front of me.
Readwise helps you stop forgetting what you read by surfacing your best highlights for review with their automated email feature. To help you stick with your review process, Readwise gives you direct control over how often (if ever) the emails are sent, what time they are sent, and even how many highlights you want displayed in each email. The highlights in each email are chosen by their resurfacing algorithm of “probabilistic spaced repetition” to maximize your retention.
The Mastery feature combines the learning principles of active recall and spaced repetition to your notes and highlights. Used together, these two principles will significantly improve your memory of the ideas you read. Readwise incorporates active recall by converting your highlights into Q&A and cloze deletion (aka fill-in-the-blank) digital flashcards to maximize retention (think Anki, but automated).
Once you have reviewed a highlight using an active recall method, it will prompt you to select how often, if ever, you wish to review the highlight again. Having the ability to manipulate the frequency of each highlight ensures you're reviewing more of what matters most. You can also manually tune how often you see notes and highlights from each article and book you've read.
I've been using Readwise for a year now, and it has quickly become one of the few emails I open and read every time. Knowing that my Kindle highlights will resurface in the daily email has encouraged me to be more proactive with my highlighting and note-taking. As a result, I end up retaining more of what I read while simultaneously being able to organize the concepts and ideas I'm interested in learning.
While Readwise has become one of my favorite productivity tools, it is not without its flaws. As of this published date, Readwise does not have an app for Android (it does for iOS) but it does appear that they are in the works of adding it in the near future. Also, the full version (which includes the Evernote export and Mastery features) is a bit pricey at $4.99/month.
Readwise does offer a lite version for $2.99/month if you don’t need the additional features with the ability to upgrade or downgrade your subscription at any time. But if you’re still hesitant about the price, you can try it out for free for the first 60-days (affiliate link) to decide if it’s worth it to you.
If you're only looking for a way to resurface past highlights, then the built-in highlighting features in Kindle or iBooks should suffice. But if you’re looking to improve your entire reading workflow to make the most of your self-education, then I recommend you check out Readwise for yourself.