How to Actually Remember What You Learn, for Engineers with Long Reading Lists

Who says you need the terminology of the Zettelkasten process? Here’s how I’ve learned how to learn and how to apply new ideas to my daily work.

If you’re reading this, you probably make your living on what you’ve learned that other people haven’t. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a written system to keep track of new ideas, you’ll probably unlearn everything in a few years.

Most people think reading = learning.

Here’s why reading isn’t enough.

  • Our brains are best at linking concepts, not at remembering them.

  • Writing doesn’t help us learn; it IS how we learn.

  • You can’t learn to swim by reading about it.

If reading isn’t enough, then what should you do instead?

Step 1: Consume

The first step is to consume content, but selectively so.

Content could be a book, a video, a podcast, an article, or even a conversation. Take notes on the author’s main points.

Example: Shape Up is a methodology emphasising iterative cycles, “betting” on work to be done, and building fully integrated slices of work.

Step 2: Redefine

Next, go beyond facts and add your thoughts.

Think about the broader picture of what the author might be saying, and supplement it with your opinions. Example: Shape Up is an Agile methodology concerned with the limits we should apply to different stages of work.

Step 3: Contextualize

Think about what the content means to you, specifically– how does it stack with other things you’ve learned? Where does it fit into your interests? Accept that your context, and your notes, will change.

Example: Shape Up’s idea of fully integrated work supports the notion of context-switching (see: Continuous integration, Multithreading) but could be in contention with productivity concepts like deep work (David Allen), batching, and Productivity Momentum.

It’s your brain!

In the end, nobody can tell you the “right” way to learn.