The Triple-Pass Method to Remember What you Learn, Forever

You read books. You watch videos. You listen to podcasts. There is a firehose of high-quality information available at your fingertips.

But how much do you actually get out of your media consumption? How much do you remember? For a long time, my answer was “not a whole lot”. I was often shocked at how few key points I could recall from material I had read only days or weeks earlier.

To me, this is unacceptable. Why bother doing so much reading if I’m just going to forget it all? Sure, if reading for entertainment, then no big deal. But most of the material I spend my time on is highly relevant to my professional and personal life. I want this knowledge to compound.

I’ve spent years experimenting, testing, and tweaking systems to get more value out of the media I consume and remember key points forever. I’ve eventually landed on a solution that I want to share with you: the “triple-pass” system. Using this system, I’m confident I’m getting everything I can out of my reading, and not a moment is wasted.

High-level Overview of the Triple-Pass System

At the highest level, the triple-pass system consists of the following stages:

  • First Pass: Active Media Consumption. Take notes and highlight important points from the media you consume (e.g. books, articles, videos).
  • Second Pass: Consolidate and Summarize Notes. Export notes and highlights from the first pass to a central note-taking system, then review, refine, and consolidate. This pass produces what Tiago Forte calls your “second brain“: an external system storing your knowledge in a format that can be easily searched and retrieved for use.
  • Third Pass: Commit to Long-Term Memory using Spaced Repetition. Add the most important parts of your notes from the second pass to a spaced repetition system. This stores the information efficiently in your long-term memory so you can access it in-the-moment when needed.

I go into each of these three stages in more detail below, including the technologies I use at each stage.

First Pass: Active Media Consumption

At this stage, you consume the media that you want to absorb. The key feature about this stage is that it is active media consumption, i.e. highlighting and taking notes as you read.

Here are some tips for getting the most out of the first pass:

  • Err on the side of more highlighting rather than less. It’s good to have a lot of context in your highlights. You can always eliminate things that are redundant or unnecessary in the second pass.
  • Highlight chapter titles. Titles provide useful context for organizing your notes and understanding the broader picture for an excerpt.
  • Prioritize the new, useful, and the interesting. There is no need for anything useless and uninteresting to exist in your knowledge base. Also, avoid including things you already know well.
  • Look for scaffolding. Keep an eye out for material that provides a “platform” to tackle more advanced concepts. For example, I always highlight definitions of important terms I’m unfamiliar with. I also like information about people, places, or things, since I can use these as context to learn related topics faster.

Technology I use for the First Pass

The tools I use at this stage vary depending on the type of media I’m consuming. There are two main criteria: i) the tool must allow me to record highlights and notes digitally, and ii) the tool must allow me to export materials to my note taking system (Roam) with little effort.

  • Books: Usually I purchase books on Kindle, which has excellent highlighting. I then use Readwise to automatically sync highlights to Evernote, and can copy and paste from Evernote to Roam (apparently Readwise now has a direct export to Roam, so it looks like I can cut out the Evernote middleman). For physical books, I use the Readwise mobile application, which has an OCR feature that lets you take a picture of the page you are reading and highlight it.
  • Articles / Blogs: I try to read all articles and blog posts on Instapaper, which allows me to highlight and take notes on articles. Again, Readwise allows me to import these notes into Evernote, which I copy / paste into Roam.
  • PDFs: At the moment I don’t have a good solution for PDFs. Since I can’t highlight them easily, I’ll often just take notes directly to Roam as I read, with the PDF open in one window and Roam open in another.
  • Videos: Typically I’ll sit at my computer when watching videos. So, I keep Roam open while watching the video and take notes, with timestamps. Here’s an example of video notes I put together for a Jeff Bezos Lecture on innovation.
  • Podcasts: I do listen to some podcasts (especially Conversations with Tyler), although I haven’t found a great tool for taking podcast notes. I usually listen to podcasts when I’m on the go, so note taking in the browser is typically not possible. Usually, if there’s a podcast that I listen to that’s really good, I’ll just revisit it and take notes while I listen at my computer desk.

Second Pass: Consolidate and Summarize Notes

In this pass, edit the highlights and notes that you’ve exported to your note-taking system. Activities here can include:

  • Deleting irrelevant or redundant notes
  • Summarizing excerpts into key points, while keeping some direct quotes from the material that is notable or quote-worthy
  • Reformulating material into your own words
  • Bold-facing the most important points so your notes are “glanceable”
  • Creating commentary on the material, expanding on points that you liked, critiquing points you disagreed with, filling in missing arguments, creating connections to other material in your knowledge base, or creating a high-level “book-review” style summary
  • Marking particularly important material for long-term memory

A key advantage of the second pass is it produces a valuable digital asset that you can draw on the rest of your life: you now have a searchable, quick-to-read summary of what you have read. The knowledge is now part of your “second brain” for easy access and connection to your existing knowledge.

Yet another advantage of this second pass is that the act of editing helps you absorb the material. This is because it requires elaboration and recall, which are both well-known to foster learning and memory.

Technology I use for the Second Pass

My note taking tool of choice is Roam. It is a fantastic piece of software, although it’s difficult to explain its value in words (you really just have to try it). I recommend looking into it if you are not already heavily invested in an existing note taking app. I find it allows me to easily make connections between knowledge, and its incredible functionality has led me to ditch Evernote, Asana, and 90% of Google Drive.

Third Pass: Commit to Long-Term Memory Using Spaced Repetition

In this third and final pass, add material material flagged “long-term memory” in the second pass to a spaced repetition system.

Spaced repetition is reviewing material at increasing intervals of time, allowing you to remember material with minimal effort. I won’t go into more detail here, but I highly recommend this overview by Gwern Branwen. You can also subscribe to my Spaced Repetition Newsletter.

The advantage of this third pass is access to your knowledge in the moment, when it matters, without any external note taking tools. This is useful for the many situations where it’s not feasible to consult your notes. For example: job interviews, meetings, or creative work where speed of thought is important and you need lots of in-memory scaffolding to make progress.

One nice feature of this third pass is you’ve thoroughly vetted the material in the first two passes. This means you’ll be less likely to add things you don’t need to your spaced repetition system, and you’ll only add information you understand (see rule 1 of flashcard knowledge construction: do not learn what you do not understand).

Technology I use for the Third Pass

Personally, I use Anki, which is probably the most popular spaced repetition software tool today. Some examples of other options include Mnemosyne, SuperMemo or even paper flashcards if you’re a technophobe.

Examples of the Triple-Pass System in Action

To get a feel for what the end result of this system looks like, here are a couple of examples:

This Seems like a lot of Work…

It’s true that using this system will almost certainly mean you’ll take more time to consume media. Compared to just passively reading a book, the highlighting, summarizing, and spaced repetition all add time.

But before you dismiss it, ask yourself a couple questions.

First: are you a genius that effortlessly absorbs the materials you consume? I don’t mean this sarcastically. People like this exist, like Tyler Cowen. If yes, there’s no real benefit to you from this system. It would just slow you down.

Second: why are you consuming the media in the first place? Is it something you really want to remember? If the answer is yes, then I believe using a system like this is a no-brainer.

Yes, it takes some extra time. But if you are consuming high-quality material relevant to your life, the benefits of that extra 10-30% of effort is well worth it.

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