I don’t know about you, but as I get older I find it harder to retain information.

I read loads, at work and for leisure. I remember the information for the short term, but it doesn’t stick over time and I have to go back to the information I need again. And again.

When I was younger, at school, I used to have regular tests, like loads of other kids. A lot of the tests were vocabulary tests, for different languages. I would cram, learn the words by rote, regurgitate them in the test, score well, and then forget many of them over time. Later, when I started taking the kind of exams where you couldn’t learn something by rote – you had to learn how to do it, like a solve a maths problem a certain way or learn how to do an income statement – I struggled.

When we need to retain information or knowledge, it has to happen regularly over time, as we absorb the new information or methods and learn the patterns that help us embed them with repetition and practice.

Something else needs to happen, though. We need to listen or read actively. We need to be engaged. It’s like saying hello to someone new for the first time and engaging the brain actively to remember their name. If we don’t pay the right kind of attention, the name is gone in an instant. If we listen actively, it stays for years, decades even.

There are lots of books and courses out there that help you remember names and other more involved concepts by figuring out connections and stories that make them memorable. But to me they’re more developed ways of engaging the brain for retention.

So it’s not really my getting older that’s the problem. It’s more that I live in an era of information overload and I’m scanning everything, rather than reading it properly.

The difference between read and retain is the difference between passive and active.