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Leader Newsletter November 2017 | Part I

How can I remember what I've read?

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

It's not about what we read, but rather how we read. Passive readers forget things almost immediately after reading it. Active readers remember the bulk of what they've read. Passive readers who read often are no better off than passive readers who don't read much at all. For active readers, things are different. They develop a framework on which to hang ideas, which improves their memory dramatically. They learn to distinguish good arguments and structures from poor ones. They take better decisions, because they know how the basic structure of how the world works, fits together. The more they read, the more they know what to look for.

Even today we still remember things we learnt at school. The details are vague, but we remember the lead characters and important themes. We didn't read those books passively; we read actively and had class discussions about it. You need a purposeful strategy for everything that you spend time on. Most people don't purposefully try to make the most of what they read. To get the most out of a book, you should have a plan. How do we do this?

1. Quality is better than quantity.

2. Speed reading is a waste of precious time.

3. Services that summarise books miss the point. These summaries are often written by young people with little life experience. The point of reading is to use it as a source of facts and details. Nuances, in this sense, means that you come to understand a bit more about why things work the way they do.

4. Wonderful apps and instruments aren't necessary – a pen is just a good.

5. We don't have to read things we find boring.

6. We don't have to finish every book we read.

7. Choose your books wisely.

It is not a class in school. There is no prescribed reading list. Focus on a combination of books that:

  • Stood the test of time

  • Interests you

  • Matches your current situation

8. Find the context.

Do a spot of research about the book before reading it. It is also good to know something about the life of the writer.

Let's now turn to our scheme for reading for better remembering:

1. Know why you are reading the book.

Is it merely for pleasure? Or is it to learn something you didn't know? To learn a new skill, perhaps? You should have an idea of what you want to achieve by reading the book. You don't want to collect an endless list of useless facts. You'll never remember everything.

2. Skim the contents page, the contents of the book and the preface/introduction

The bibliography will also help to establish what type of book it is. Once you've finished reading, go back to the bibliography and make a note of the books you'd like to read in future.

3. Let the book match you place and situation

This isn't always possible. Books resonate better with you when they are part of an experience and not only an accessory to it. When selecting a book, look for something that will help you solve your current challenges. No matter what your situation, someone before you already found themselves in a similar situation. Someone, somewhere, had the same feelings and the same thoughts. You only need to find their book. Books can be just as effective as medicine.

Now we can look at the act of reading. Here are a few things that we can do:

1. Make notes

This is probably the most important point if you want to remember what you've read. You should develop your own system. No system will work for everyone. Start by writing a short summary of each chapter. Find the essential elements. Underline important paragraphs and write notes in the margin.

2. Stay focused.

While you read, focus on the book and on nothing else. No cellphones or emails. No staring into space. Focusing is hard work!

3. Mark the book

As children we learnt that books were near-holy objects that had to be protected. We were told not to fold the corners, not to make any marks, not to write in the margins. Write! The more you write, the more your thoughts are engaged.

4. Stop and build an image

If you come to an important part or concept, stop and visualise it. This makes the image clearer and more striking.

5. Build links in your mind

Building clear links in your mind is an effective may of remembering anything. Each concept can be linked to several others. Books don't exist in a vacuum.

The bond between book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiriting new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer's work. It gives the author confidence to explore new forms of expression, to blaze difficult and demanding paths of thought, to venture into uncharted and sometimes hazardous territory. (Nicholas Carr).

6. Put it down as soon as you get bored

People who like reading never finish a bad book. Close the book and start with another one.

The basic process of learning consists of reflection and feedback. We learn new ideas through experience. These ideas are not challenged unless we reflect on them. If you read but don't make time for reflection, your conclusions can be misguided.

Effective thinking

Do you have a decision-making process? Do you use big ideas from different disciplines? Do you take precautions to eliminate biases? Did you identify the problem, and do you know what success looks like? Some of us are better thinkers than others. Why?

We often think brilliant minds are born that way. In some mysterious way they produce brilliant ideas. There are certainly genetic exceptions, but the majority of people that we consider to be brilliant, just use their thoughts in a different way. They use learnable habits of thinking that enable them to see the world in a different way. Eliminating stupidity is far easier than seeking brilliance.

It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like US have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent – Charlie Munger.

Edward B Burger and Michal Starbid's The Five Elements of Effective Thinking describes practical ways of improving our thinking.

Let's look at these five elements in more depth:

1. Gain a thorough understanding

Don't barge into intricate issues. Develop a deep understanding of simple ideas. Understand what is truly important. Be very honest about what you do or don't know, identify the gaps and then fill them. Abandon your biases. There are different degrees of understanding, and you can always improve yours. Solid understanding is the foundation of success.

2. Make mistakes

Mistakes are the biggest teachers – they emphasise unforeseen situations and gaps in your understanding. They also point you in the direction you should be heading and ignite your imagination.

3. Ask questions

Always ask questions to clarify and expand your understanding. What will help you make connections that you've never noticed before? What is the real question? Working on the wrong question is a waste of time. Ideas are in the air. The right question will reveal them.

4. Follow the flow of ideas.

Look back to see where the ideas came from, and look forward to discover where they might be leading. A new idea is a beginning – not an ending. Ideas are scarce. Following the consequences of small ideas can lead to big results.

5. Change

By mastering the first four elements, you can change the way you think and learn. You can always improve and learn more. Change is the universal constant that allows you to make the most of your life and your learning.

Reduce you stress levels

It looks like modern life was designed to induce stress. Most people develop their own ways of handling stress. This includes:

1. Willpower

This method is commonly used, but not very effective. Some people eat when they feel stressed. All that happens then, is that their feelings of guilt also increase.

We need to go to the place where stress lives – in your brain. Willpower takes work, and right now you stress levels are too high to add work to the mix. We need something simple that is supported by neuroscience.

2. Clench your face and then relax.

Communication between your body and brain is a two-way street – there is a feedback loop. If your brain doesn't calm your body down, then use your body to calm your brain. If you stress, your muscles contract. Your muscles send messages to confirm that you experience stress. You should interrupt this loop. When you clench your facial muscles before relaxing them, your send a message to your brain that the stress has ended.

In order to remind your brain to relax your muscles, it is often a good idea to contract the muscles first. The most important muscles to relax are your facial muscles, because they have the biggest influence on your emotions, but the muscles in you tummy and hands are also important.

3. Breathe deeply and slowly

The vagus-nerve is one of the most important emotional highways in your body. It sends messages to your heart and up to your brain. It plays an essential role in controlling the fight or flight system. Controlling your breathing is one of the easiest ways of changing your emotional condition.

Breathing influences the brain by sending signals via the vagus nerve. This nerve sends signals to the heart, but also to your brain. When you breathe slowly, the activity in the vagus nerve increases and you calm down.

Breathe in slowly through your nose while you count to six. Rest for a few seconds and then breathe out slowly through your nose. Count to six again.

When you are anxious, your breathing speeds up. Fast breathing makes you nervous – and also more excited. Sometimes this is good – like when you need energy.

4. Cold water in your face

Splashing cold water in your face will stimulate your vagus nerve and slow your heart rate. You brain will register your slower heartbeat and realise that it is no longer necessary to stress.

5. Play music and do a little dance

Music influences how you feel. Fight the blues by listening to music that you like. Your favourite song becomes a central feature of the limbic system, such as your hippocampus. That is why you enjoy it. And it helps to control your emotions. It may be comforting and helps to reduce both stress and blood pressure. Dancing is important, because it combines music with exercise and social interaction.

Research shows that owning a dog can reduce stress. Even watching videos of cute animals can reduce your heart rate and blood pressure within a minute.

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