How to Retrieve What You’ve Read—Almost Instantly

This is a guest post by Dwayne Morris. He is the author of The Outrageous Life, a speaker and consultant, who also serves on the staff of his local church. You can read his blog or follow him on Twitter.

“Readers are leaders and leaders are readers.” I can remember when and where I heard that phrase for the first time. It was at a Campus Crusade meeting on a Thursday night in Hardin Hall on the campus of Clemson University.

Word from a Book, Highlighted in Green - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #18259623

Photo courtesy of ©

I’m not sure why those words are burned into my mind, but this quote took my leadership to the next level. Soon after, I started soaking up anything I could find on the topic of leadership.

As I began this component of my leadership development, I reasoned, “Why would anyone read this stuff without the means of sharing and revisiting it from time to time?” I could not understand why anyone would read through a book without a pen and/or highlighter.

To read a book just to say you read it simply baffled me. I understand we all have different learning styles, but unless you have a photographic memory, there is no way you can retrieve what you have read in less than sixty seconds. I knew I needed a way to keep the golden nuggets of leadership within reach.

The next defining moment in my “readership journey” came when I met Steve Wright. Steve is an author, speaker, Student Minister and all things leadership. He shared with me how most of his creativity and teaching material came from what he was reading.

He also divulged his system of reading and filing. This compelled me to create my own methodology for capturing what I was reading and then put it in a format that would allow me to retrieve it quickly. Here’s the method to my madness:

  1. Read good books. This may be a no-brainer, but I don’t read arbitrary books. If someone hasn’t recommended a title or author, I don’t touch it. This is where crowd-sourcing is a key component to my leadership development. Hence, I’m currently finishing up Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World.
  2. Never read without a pen and/or highlighter. If you are reading good books and your intent for reading is to learn, then you need to be ready to mark those nuggets when you find them.I understand this might push some of my OCD friends over the edge, but trust me, the librarian will not show up on your door step demanding a fee for damaged books. Not to mention that studies have revealed that you tend to read faster when you use a pen to help pace your eyes along the text.
  3. Finish the book and rewind. When I complete a book, I’m only halfway to the finish line. My next step is to go back to the beginning and revisit the principles, illustrations, and examples that caught my attention the first time through.As I re-read those sentences or paragraphs, I search for a key word that would identify the topic it addresses and circle it. If I am not able to find that word, I will write a word in the margin.
  4. Create your own index. This is the extra mile. Now that I have done the work to read, mark and identify, I need a tool to help me get to it as fast as you can. I will ask my assistant, Vickie, to flip through the pages of my work and begin composing a list of the key words I have attached to the information.She will also attach page numbers to the key word. If I have used that word in several areas, she just adds those page numbers in sequence. In the end, I will have a list of key words and all the pages attached to those words and will arrange them in alphabetical order. (Note: I use MS Excel. MS Word will work as well.)
  5. Cut and paste. Hold on, you are almost finished. My last step is to look at the book I have processed and determine how many blank pages are in the front and back, covers included. I also measure the dimensions of those pages. This is critical as I want the pages of my index to fit inside the book.I will modify the settings for my margins to match the dimensions for the book. Once this is done, I determine how many pages my index created and make sure I have enough blank pages in the book. If not, I will adjust font size and even font type to make sure all of my index pages will fit. Finally, I’ll grab some rubber cement and paste these pages on the blank pages of my book.
  6. But wait, there’s one more step. As I began this process, it occurred to me that I needed a Master Index of the books I complete. This allows me to see all of the books I have read that mention a particular topic. So if I need material on Social Media, I can see which books and authors reference Social Media.

The bottom line here is that you must have a means to retrieve what you read. It helps you stay sharp and it elevates your value to others who know you are a disciplined reader and can share what you learn.

Question: Do you have a method for retaining and retrieving what you read? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Sonia Winland

    Thanks for the reminder because I haven’t used a highlighter in years. I am in the middle of reading a book now and I love being able to go back to key sections that I want to remember. There are sections I will go back and re-read all over again to make sure I understood the authors direction, but it has to be super good for me to read it all over again. 

  • ChadMillerBlog

    Mr. Morris,
    I found this post intriguing. I have to admit, I believe myself to be a slow reader, and my list of books I’d like to read continues to get longer and longer. I do average about 25 books a year, but I’m curious, with the amount of time you put into your process, how many books are you reading? How much time do you put into the average book?
    Again, fascinating post. Thank you for sharing.

    • Dwayne Morris

      Chad, thanks for the affirmation! We’re on the same
      schedule. My goal is two books a month. 
      This process varies based on how much content you mark in your books.
      The most tedious part is creating the index. It’s like a lot of things in life.
      If the cause is great enough, the cost is irrelevant. In other words, what I
      gain from this is well worth the time. 
      Hope that helps.

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  • Andypeck

    Some great tips here. I now deliberately buy a book via kindle, highlight parts and then go to to retrieve highights and copy into a Word document. Its great when I want to quote people directly in talks.

  • Rick

    Thanks for the information.I always hear something that I know I can reference in a book I read. Just finding the page is the hard task. Any thoughts on ways to do the same while listening to a podcast or audio book while driving, walking, etc? Thanks Michael. 

  • Victoria

    Thank you for the wonderful tips. Along with a highlighter,
    I always have colored tabs nearby when I begin reading. I highlight key phrases
    and then write the key word on the tab and place it on the edge of the page.
    This allows me to easily go back and find what I need when I need it.  This method applies only to books I own. If I’m
    reading content on my iPad, I copy and paste sections into Evernote where I have
    a notebook dedicated to each electronic book I read.

    • Rick Gray

      Thanks for great idea to copy and paste into Evernote! 

  • Andrew Chalmers

    These are some really great tips! Some of these things I already do but I really love the idea of even taking it to the next level by keeping a good resource within the book that I can go back to in order to find stuff on certain subjects.

  • Joespu

    I really enjoy this article, really give me a new perspective, thanks for sharing this great method

  • Micah Choquette

    I have to admit that I nearly gasped when I read the whole “never read a book without a pen and a highlighter” – I mean, what if I have loan it out? But as I began to think it over, I realized three things: 1) most authors would probably be thrilled to hear you were highlighting and studying their words beyond just skimming them over to get to the end, 2) Business books are primarily meant to read and used, not loaned out. 3) If I do loan them out, I’ve just helped my friend gain insight into the super important parts!

  • HMengoli

    My system is voice notes using an “old style” digital recorder.  I find this device easy to use and more practical than a phone with voice recording. It is great for that long walk we should take time for everyday.  I leave my phone at home.  I read the book either in paper form or e-book make voice notes and go back reread the section I where I was unclear and then bookmark it.  

  • TroyD

    I am assuming you build all your indexes on separate tabs within the same excel file.  This is the Master Index you speak of, where you can do a word search that would cover all index sheets….  I am early enough in my reading/learning I will definitely take on these ideas.  Thanks for sharing.  I wish I would have read Platform with a highlighter, the chapter titles don’t always direct you to the exact content you remembered reading, and there are several chapters that cover the same basic topic.  Loved the book for sure, guess I will have to read it again…  Do you use Pinterest to keep a library of blog posts as well, how would you suggest tracking and making these searchable?  The note you would put in the margin of an blog post may not be in the article itself to be found in internet search engines.  Just a thought, any ideas?

  • Tulio

    Great tips Dwayne! I liked a lot the Evernote comments from other readers as well.

  • Jesse Thomas

    Good topic. I’ve been guilty of reading just to say I read it. Not so helpful. What I do to remember now is write a statement from each chapter I read (or more if it’s helpful). Then at the end of the book I read through them all and write a summary similar to the one Michael talks about in his post “How to Retain More of What you Read.” It also helps to bring it up in conversation a lot. If I never talk about it I don’t remember it. 

  • Christopher Battles

    I always read with a pen.
    Thank you for these tips Michael.
    Utilizing the blank pages is a great idea.

    K, bye

  • Esi Mathis

    Yes, my method is much simpler, since I had brain surgery 3 years ago. Now that I can read again, I (1) underline (with pencil), (2) use a highlighter, and (3) make a list of words I don’t know.  Since I did not grow up with books, and I’m now able to read with comprehension, I set a goal to read 12 books by the end of 2012. My progress record is an Excel spreadsheet which lists: book title, author, # of pages, date completed and comments.  Your article gives me tools to make the reading & retention experience more meaningful.  Thanks!

    • Dwayne Morris

      Way to go Esi!  You could have made excuses, but you chose to rebound strong!

  • Brandi Clark

    Hi Michael,
    Do you have images of this process?

  • JustinRFoster

    Dwayne and Michael, thank you for this terrific post. I appreciate the practical tips. For me, this really serves as a much needed reminder. I have so focused on consuming great resources and knowledge that I know I have not made the most of what I’ve read. My plan is to begin to right the ship by the first of 2013 by processing some of the wonderful books I’ve read this year. In my work, having those tidbits, stats and quotes at my fingertips is most valuable. Thanks for the encouragement and to all who have commented for all the great ideas to help me develop an efficient system that works for me.

  • Pam Dean

    I love your idea of pasting the notes in the book on the blank pages.  That is powerful for me!  I highlight my books also and will revist them when needed but the extra step of having it posted would really help me retrieve the information.  Great tip! Thanks.

  • DS

    I have enjoyed this post and all the ideas and comments concerning the best way to keep track of what we have read or are reading.  I find myself reading more and more in the digital format because of the ease of use and the ability to take multiple books with me wherever I may travel.  

    It has been mentioned multiple times in these comments but I have discovered the best way for me is to take my highlights from my amazon account and copy and paste them to an evernote entry.  This way I have each book I have read in its own separate notebook in evernote and I am able to search it easier.  

    If you copy and paste from your amazon account it also provides the link from the section you copied from which enables you to click on that link and it opens your book to that area on your kindle app.  This is excellent if you desire to reread a section or see the context of the highlight you have selected.  

    Hope this made sense but it is the best way for me to be able to keep all that I have highlighted or commented on in the books I am currently reading in digital format.

  • Jgarner

    Great idea about adding the index to the inside of the book. However, I ask my admin to type up the notes I have hightlighted from my readings, and I keep them as “synopsies” on my computer. I also use a Kindle, so now as I highlight text on my Kindle, it keeps a record of those notes and hightlights. I can pull them up off the Amazon page (Kindle Highlights and Notes) and I can use them as I need them.

  • Glen Andrews

    Great tips Dwayne!

     I write in a journal as I’m reading. I place the title of each book at the top of a page. Then I try to pull as much useful information from the book as possible.

    When I want to recall any notes from the book I go straight to my journal. Although your tip on categorizing each book is helpful.

    I tend to waste lots of time trying to locate the book titles within the journal.

    These are awesome tips – thanks Dwayne!

  • Tufail Shahzad

    I am not a good reader, but I love to read recommended authors by my friends. Just taken your recommendations for making an index of keywords and books I have read and maybe one day I will be able to share what system I have created.

  • Michael Hyatt

    I have written on this as well: How to Retain More of What You Read.

  • prophetsandpopstars

    Absolutely Fantastic post. Thanks for the clear suggestions for keeping track of all I’m reading. Luckily I’ve marked up previous reads, but that’s alot of back tracking. I know it will be worth it. 

    Thanks for the help!

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  • Lynne

    Great ideas and information especially on ebooks.  I don’t do any of this and I’m always reviewing books I’ve read to find stuff.

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  • Mike Hansen

    Great post and great info! I have highlighters just about anywhere I might spend time reading-office at work, desk at home, center console in the car, in my computer bag.

    One thing I do that’s probably not nearly as efficient or systematic is to hand write a line, or paragraph into my journal. I then spend time thinking it over on paper to see how it might better help me.

    I will also take a picture of a highlighted portion and share it on Facebook for others to see.

  • Tracey L. Moore

    This was an interesting concept. I ususally highlight and write the insight that I get from the passage in the margins. However, I have not gone the extra mile and developed a way to organize and retrieve the information. Thanks for the tip.
    Tracey L. Moore
    Author of the upcoming book, Oasis For My Soul

  • Keith Godfrey

    Your ideas for retaining and being able to retrieve what you’ve read are outstanding.  Although a task that takes a lot of time, the process itself provides such an incredible amount of knowledge as you interact with the text.  I am curious about how you manage your reading time.  I have a tendency to pick up a book, read for a few days and then put it back down.  I am constantly going back and forth between books.  It seems the “busy”ness of the week takes it’s toll on my reading plans. There is always an interruption – the to do list, children’s needs/wants, other obligations, work, etc.  

    How do you manage your reading time?  What are some steps you have taken to build that habit into your life?  Do you have a set time each day that you devote to reading?

    Thanks for sharing!!

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  • CJ Fritsch

    Great article.  I do most of my reading on a kindle.  This allows me to make digital highlights and copy those into Evernote once I’m done reading the book.  I will peruse the highlights once I get them dumped in Evernote as a review of what I just read.  I will often add additional notes as I review.  Evernote also makes it easy to quickly find nuggets of information.

  • Leon Poplawski

    I remember the content better when I read it as if I were going to teach it to someone.
    Then if I actually do consider it worthwhile and teach it, I not only remember it but I frequently personalize my applications and illustrations.  This makes it life changing.

  • Sam Weisz

    With ebooks most things are searchable and markable.  This streamlines the process for me.

  • Coach

    yes Evernote makes this wisdom simply