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.