Over the years of reading numerous books, I have developed and refined my process for absorbing information from books. It took me an embarrassingly long time to understand that the point of reading so many books is not to say that I have read x number of books every month or every year, but to make small improvements and changes in my life for the better.
So while at first, I started off proudly telling everyone and anyone that I knew that I was reading 50+ books every year, I started to really look at the books that I read to understand how my life was changing. And for the most part, it wasn’t, which meant that I had to think about how and why I was reading books.
I looked at systems that other prolific readers use including Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday and others, and started to try out some of those practices in my life. Here is a breakdown of the system that I use to help me get the most out of books:
Choose books carefully
The first, and terribly important lesson I learned was that I need to choose the books that I invest time into carefully. I’m a strong believer that I can learn something from every book I read, no matter whether the book is objectively good or not, but I also realized that there are some books that I learned a lot more from.
I tend to devote time and money into books that have been highly recommended from trusted sources – these include good friends who also read a lot or recommendations from the people that I follow online.
Once I have some of these books, I won’t read them right away but I will decide on a topic that I am interested in learning more about. For example, a recent topic that I wanted to learn more about was productivity and how to be more productive and do your best work.
Read books on one topic for the month
With productivity in my mind, I will then take a look at the books that are available to me and pick out the books that talk about productivity.
Previously, I would just pick up whatever books grabbed my attention. Even now, I am still reading a number of books in parallel, but at least this way, more books on the same topic are in my queue rather than it having numerous books on a variety of topics.
I then proceed to read or re-read these books with the purpose of learning more about productivity. That’s a topic for another post, but it is interesting how things pop up when you have a certain purpose in mind. Facts, quotes, ideas and observations will pop out from books, even books that are not even on the topic at hand, when you read for a certain purpose.
As an example of the selection of books I’m reading on productivity, these include:
- Start Finishing by Charlie Gilkey
- The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss
- Ready for anything by David Allen
- Get Sh*t Done by Jeffrey Gitomer
I also choose to read only the books on one topic during the month because the time allows me to broadly think about productivity through many books and perspectives.
Find commonalities and differences
One thing that I learned from The Art of Reading course created by Shane Parrish of The Farnham Street Blog is to read slowly and carefully. For him, reading takes a long time as it is about careful analysis and comparing of passages in different books. Although not as methodical, I take the same approach to reading these books, though much of the analysis is done as I’m thinking about the different ideas.
Since I’m reading books on the same topic, I get to see what different authors have to say about productivity. Often times, the authors say the same thing, which I take it to be something worth considering or looking at further. The more interesting times are when the authors have different perspectives or takes on something.
One example of this is Start Finishing by Charlie Gilkey. You may have heard the popular phrase of “eating your frog in the morning” which I took it as doing the most difficult and challenging task on your to do list first thing. The idea behind this is to do the difficult thing when your energy and motivation is the highest. Charlie takes the idea of ‘frogs’ as the admin work that you have to deal with that you really don’t want to. For me, I don’t see admin work as the ‘frogs’ that need to be eaten, I see frogs as picking up the phone to call a customer with bad news or developing the business case for a project you want to see get off the ground. It’s the important work that you know you need to do, but for one reason or another, are delaying or procrastinating on.
Is there a way to reconcile differences?
Seeing the different perspectives on what a ‘frog’ might be, I will consider what the authors say and then reflect on the difference.
While I originally thought that frogs were the difficult and challenging important work that needs to be done, I stop to think about what it means if it was admin work. How does that change my day? Does it change my routines for the better? Does it make sense to do admin work when my energy and motivation is the highest in the day?
In this way, I don’t think whether an author is right or not, but reflect on whether it has value in my life. An author can be absolutely correct about something, but it may not work for your life or circumstances.
Right after, or the day after, reading a book, I like to jot down from memory what I remember from a book. I’ll take notes in an Evernote folder that I have so I have access to the information on my phone or computer.
Once I have taken cursory notes from memory, I will then browse quickly through the books again, reading select passages to see what made me pause and reflect.
As I read books, I like to use post-it notes to note down the areas that I want to remember or explore further. I use post-it notes to save the following:
- Quotes I like
- Books that I should consider reading as a follow-on
- Passages that make me think of other books
- Passages that have great tactical advice that I’d like to use in my life
The books that are recommended by the authors are put onto my Amazon wish list for further exploration, but everything else is saved into Evernote, with my own thoughts about what it is I liked about the book or what it made me realize or think.
I would also note here that I like to read first thing in the morning after breakfast, and then I have a journal where I write down what I am reading and what I am learning so far which is separate from my Evernote account (but often covers similar things).
Evaluate and adopt takeaways
At the end of a month (I give myself a month to read a number of books on the same topic), I consider what I have learned from reading the books, taking notes, and the different takeaways that the books have to offer. In some cases, the takeaways reinforce what I am already doing. In other cases, they suggest new ways in doing things that I may not have considered or that promise great improvements in my existing system. For these, I experiment and try them out for a month (I mean, what better way is there to figure out if something is actually better or not).
Some of the things that I have experimented with in my life include:
- Intermittent fasting
- Plant-based diets
- HIT and Tabata training
- Exercising twice a day
In fact, many of the things that I experimented with have been incorporated into my life.
What’s your process for reading books? What systems do you use? How do you take notes and incorporate takeaways in your life?
One last note, this is the process that I use for my monthly newsletter. Previously, I would just summarize all of the books that I read for the month, with no theme or unifying messages. Each month, I explore a topic, read books related to that topic, take the one takeaway from each of the books, and then talk about what things have changed in my life as a result of reading those books. If you are interested in the newsletter which gets sent out every 1st of the month and exploring one interesting topic deeply, please consider signing up for my newsletter.