Here’s How I Retain What I Read Online

retain what you read online

“It is what you read when you don’t have to
that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
~Oscar Wilde

I read a lot of articles online. Supposedly reading online makes retention a lot more difficult. I believe it.

When I’m reading online, I have a hundred distractions vying for my attention all at once. Tabs, ads, CTAs, email, you name it.

If I’m reading the good ol’ fashioned printed page, it’s in a comfy chair, unplugged from the world. Books don’t have ads or links (thank goodness) and I certainly don’t have multiple books open at once.

Recently I was fed up with not remembering what I read online. I figure, if I’m going to take 10-15 minutes away from work to read something, I better at least be able to use it later or recall it. Otherwise that time is blatantly wasted.

So, I want to share with you some tools and systems I use for retaining what I read online.

Sharing (Usually Twitter)

Twitter_logo_blueI took a critical reading class in high school. I think I was nudged towards it by my English teacher. The class was all about boiling down anything we read into one complicated sentence that summed up the point of the essay, story or article.

Journalists are great at this. In most newspaper articles, you’ll notice the first sentence or two tells you the who, what where, when and why of the story. The rest is just details and background, but the meat is delivered in what is called “the lede”.

So when I finish reading an article online, I want to share it and instead of using the pre-written share message that comes with the click of a button, I try to write the main point of the article. Or I try to craft the most important takeaway I took from the piece.

This not only gives me a good tweet that people want to actually click, but it helps me think through the point of the article which in turn improves my retention of the piece.

Here’s an example.

I turned Belle Beth Cooper’s original title into a description of what you’ll get if you read this. It helps me remember that this was a blog post about three exercises to try to improve your focus.

I could have taken this a step further and included a truncated list of the three steps.

I like to use Twitter for this because it forces you to be succinct. It’s a great way to practice summing up what you just read. Plus it’s like giving yourself a little reward for actually finishing an article.

Bookmarking (Usually Pocket)

pocket logoSaving articles for later or archiving them for future reference is hugely important on the web.

During the work day, I’ll come across articles I just have to read but don’t want to stop what I’m doing to read. I’ll save them and batch read all my articles later when I can focus just on reading.

Pocket is my bookmarking tool of choice. I tried Instapaper for a while, but Pocket’s app makes tagging and archiving so much easier and I like their distraction-free font selection a lot better.

The archiving portion of Pocket is hugely important for me. I usually tag my articles with at least two tags: one more general one like “seo”, “house”, or “writing” and then include a more specific one like “linkbuilding”, “painting”, or “writing exercises” respectively.

adding tags in pocket
Adding tags in Pocket

This way, when a thought pops in my head later and I’m trying to recall where I read it or what the context was, I have a better chance of looking it up in my Pocket archive.

The challenge with a bookmarking tool is not letting your queue build up for too long. I’m trying to get better at setting aside time each week or each day to read through my queue.

Highlighting (Diigo)

diigo logoDiigo is another bookmarking tool but has some useful functionality that makes it different from Pocket. I generally use Diigo when I’m deliberately researching a topic and want to keep all my articles and notes organized.

Diigo functions like any other bookmarking tool. You can get the nifty Diigo Chrome Extension and bookmark any webpage and add your tags without leaving the page. You’ll notice when you use the extension though that there a more tool that just saving a page.

Once you click “Save” on a webpage, you can add tags, a description (great for retention, and add it to a Diigo Outliner.

The real fun begins after you’ve saved the page. Now you have the option to highlight text and add sticky notes. Any time you visit that page in the future, your highlights and notes will reappear for your to review. They will also be saved in the Diigo library for you to review there as well.

diigo chrome extension
Diigo Chrome Extension

This tool comes in handy with long form content when you want to highlight important parts and remember what whole section were about without going back and re-reading.

Note Taking (Evernote)

evernote logoIf highlighting isn’t working for you, old fashioned note taking is probably the most effective strategy for retaining what you read online.

Taking notes on what you’re reading while you’re reading it allows you to think through the ideas in the article. You’ll notice you start to make connections to other ideas outside of this piece. With each bullet or thought you put down, the article will stick with you that much better.

Obviously you can use any tool for note taking: physical journal, post-its, word doc, email. I use Evernote religiously for all my note taking.

I have a “Stack” in Evernote called Articles and a “Notebook” for various topics that I read about: Marketing, Business, Writing, Design, Fitness, etc.

Each article I read gets its own note. This is important because I want to tag each article’s note differently. The tags are very important because over time it makes it easier to draw correlations between different pieces. Like Pocket, I try to limit my tags to just a few and I try to be consistent. If you have four different ways that you write “housework” it’s going to be challenging collecting all of them down the road.

One very handy Evernote hack I’ll share with you is Note Links. In the desktop version of Evernote (this likely works with the cloud version as well, but is probably more intuitive), you can link to other notes. Just view a list of your notes, right click and choose “Copy Note Link”. Now you can hyperlink text of one note and link it to another or simply paste that link into your new note.

How to link to notes in Evernote desktop app
How to link to notes in Evernote desktop app

Here’s a quick tutorial from the Evernote blog on Note Links.

Over time you’ll start to build a web of connected stories and notes of the articles you’ve read online which leads us nicely into our final strategy for online reading retention.

Reviewing & Connecting the Dots (Blogging)

So now that we’ve got a few tools and systems in place for capturing what we’ve read and what it meant to us, it’s time for the cornerstone of online reading retention: Reviewing and Connecting Dots.

It’s great to have notes on what you’ve read, but if they just sit in your Evernote collecting digital dust, you’re still not using that value you pulled from those articles.

We learn new things everyday online, offline from our relationships and from ourselves. If you review what you’ve read on a regular basis, you’ll find new meaning in those notes and takeaways and make new connections you hadn’t noticed before.

The final surefire way to keep retaining all the information and make it apart of your inner philosophy is to write (or blog) about it. Curating and creating new value from multiple pieces of work will not only cement those ideas in your brain but it makes you a part of the conversation. You’re putting your own spin on things just like you did when you took notes or tweeted out your thoughts on an article. Presenting your own take on a piece of content is the ultimate way to make sure you remember it.

Closing Remarks

So I hope this was somewhat helpful for you. I hope you took notes or will tweet out you big takeaway so you don’t forget what you just read. It probably took you about 5-10 minutes to get through so make those minutes count.

What tools do you use to improve your reading retention? Does anyone print out articles to read offline? I imagine that could work pretty well. Let me know in a tweet or in the comments below!

Author: Scott Taft

Scott Taft is a digital marketer, a writer and husband. He lives in Philly with his wife and dog. They love to hike, check out new restaurants and watch scary movies.

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