This article is all about getting the most out of your reading. I focus primarily on non-fiction books, but I'll also briefly mention fiction at the end.
Disclaimer: By no means did I invent the methods mentioned in this article.
I rather combined them in a way that made sense and worked for me.
I always thought of myself as a book nerd trying to be part of that miraculous group of people who somehow manage to read a couple of dozen books each and every year. But, in reality, I was barely able to hit double digits for almost my entire life. I simply couldn't do it and I didn't even know why. I would try many times only to find myself abandoning the books after a while. I've always been a slow reader and it was such a big effort to even finish a handful of books.
It definitely had nothing to do with the books themselves. Every time I actually managed to read I really enjoyed doing so. Most books held tremendous value and really inspired me, but that effect sadly never lasted for a long time. I barely remembered anything just weeks later. Now that I look back at it, it reminds me a lot of how students learn bulks of facts just to forget them minutes after the exam. After all, I wasn't doing anything with the gained knowledge and our brains are very rigorous with deleting irrelevant data.
Eventually, I figured out what the real problem was: I wasn't able to convert the insights into actionable takeaways that I could reasonably implement into my every day life. There was simply no long-term benefit and thus I subconsciously pivoted to do other things instead. But I really wanted to make it work, so I went on a quest to finally become one of those avid readers. The result is an easy-to-use system that completely changed the way I read. It consists of only three simple steps that everyone is able to follow. Let's go through each of them to understand how you can also supercharge your reading experience!
The first step is all about annotating text to highlight snippets and split relevant from irrelevant information. We did that in school and university already, but most people for whatever reason never think about doing it in their leisure time. Maybe it's due to negative connotations with studies being hard work and we most definitely don't want to "work" in our leisure time.
But there's a big difference: This time, we choose what to read and we get to choose what to annotate as well. Annotating is less about the actual practice of marking something in a text and much more about an active reading practice where evaluate and reflect on what we read and decide if it's interesting for us or not. The important aspect is that we make those decisions based on our interests, needs and goals. Two people might be reading the exact same book and yet annotate completely different things.
In our modern environment, books come in different media and therefore we have multiple ways to annotate them as well. Let's look at each of them and explore the options we have.
The classic paper book is still the most consumed format for leisure-time reading. We have two categories of annotation methods here: permanent and non-permanent.
You should all be familiar with this method as most of us learned it in school. We get a working paper and use a text marker, usually with bright neon colors, and directly highlight text on the paper.
I call this permanent annotating, because, well, the text marker leaves a permanent color on our text. What's great about this method is that it's very direct. We can mark exact words indicating that this particular word, line or sentence is of high importance for us and it'll stay there forever. Yet, being permanent is also its biggest downside.
Example 1: Text marker highlighting in Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther".
Permanent annotation is great for working papers in school, but not everyone wants to use a permanent marker in an actual book for different reasons. Maybe we want to resell it? Maybe we like the aesthetics of clean books? In the end it doesn't matter really, but for me the biggest downside is actually the fact that it stays forever. We might have certain interests right now, but what if we want to revisit a book in a couple of years?
That's where non-permanent annotation comes in handy. Instead of marking the paper directly, we rather put notes in them highlighting those parts instead. It doesn't really matter what kind of notes we use, but I'm a huge of thin sticky notes in different colours(new tab). We don't have to use multiple colours, but they can be a nice way to add even more context. We can write something on the note or leave it blank if we're sure that we'll remember what we wanted to highlight. I also recommend placing the note as close to the words as possible.
Combining sticky notes with an actual three-dimensional book comes with another advantage: Due to it's depths we have a rough overview of our notes at a glance which can help us navigate sections and notes even faster.
Tip: Color code your sticky notes to navigate them even faster.
For example, I like to use different colours for quotes, interesting facts and actionable takeaways. That way I can come back to a book even after years and still easily find that quote that really resonated with me.
Example 2: Two books with plenty of sticky notes.
With the invention of computers, a whole new world of publishing opened up. Instead of printing letters on real paper, we can duplicate and share written documents indefinitely for literally no cost. Since at least the introduction of high-quality tablets and e-book reader, digital books are more common than ever and more and more books are published in both paper and digital versions or even digital-only.
The good news: In terms of annotation, it doesn't really matter as long as we use a tool that allows us to highlight the text in some way. The only difference from traditional paper books is that we can combine permanent and non-permanent methods. Theoretically, annotations will stay for ever, but we're always able to go in and revert it at any point of time. This is definitely a big benefit of digital media. It might be harder to navigate the notes due to a lack of physical depth, but there certainly are tools that can help us with that as well. I'd be surprised if I'm wrong here.
Last but not least, let's talk about audiobooks. These fall into a completely different category, because there simply are no letters at all that we could mark.
Does that mean this system doesn't work for audiobooks? Not really, but the annotation process is very different at least. I prefer paper books, but I've done it with audiobooks and it works if you're willing to fully focus on the content.
Similar to the active reading that's required for the above mentioned formats, it requires an active listening with audiobooks. If you listen to audiobooks during your commute or while doing chores, it unfortunately won't work. But, if you plan to do that, I'd question the value you get out of in general.
The most convenient way to "annotate" audiobooks is writing down timestamps. Instead of marking it with a text marker or a sticky note, we mark the exact timestamp of when something was said. That way we can come back later and easily find the relevant information again. Whether you use pen and paper or a digital note taking tool is totally up to you!
Tip: I have also seen people listen to audiobooks while annotating an actual copy of the book. You could try that too, if you're willing to pay for both formats.
Extra Tip: This method also works great for podcasts and educational videos. After all, not only books hold very valuable knowledge!
Great work! Reaching this step means that we have started annotating our book. With that, we've already done most of the work. Active reading and annotating is the basis of everything that comes next. Therefore, let's continue with the summarising part.
I like to think of annotations as little reminders that help me navigate a chapter or even a full book so that I don't have to memorise everything until the very end. This gives me the headspace to really focus on every single sentence. Basically a fire and forget tool. Once I finished a chapter, I will go back to my annotations and start summarising the learnings. You could also do this at the very end of the book, but I simply prefer doing it right after a chapter, because the information is fresh and sorted in my head still.
Once again, it doesn't really matter whether we use a paper notebook or a digital equivalent. All that matters is that we finally gather all the relevant information together in a human-readable and easy-to-understand way. It doesn't have to be full sentences, bullet points are fine too. Just make sure that you'll always be able to understand it with little effort.
The best part: It doesn't matter how you annotate. Either method will give you enough context to summarise the information.
Tip: Given that there's a literal competition on efficiency these days where everyone tries to become more and more productive, you might catch yourself thinking that you can skip the annotate part entirely and rather take notes directly while reading.
Trust me when I say it's not worth it.
I've tried it before, especially with audiobooks, but I only found myself constantly losing my reading/listening flow. Additionally, you always have to be ready to take notes. Even when going for a walk, writing down a single timestamp is much less intrusive than having to stop to write down a couple of words and winding back 15-30 seconds.
With all chapters summarised, it's finally time for action! Let's turn these notes into long lasting, potentially life changing, takeaways. Presumably the most important step of the system, this is where the real magic happens and what most people forget to do. I'd even say the first two steps are merely a necessity for this final step to greatness.
Remember: No matter how much valuable information a book contains, it only matters if we actually make use of it!
Go through your notes and figure out the key takeaways for yourself. Ideally, we're searching for simple, low-effort actions that we can incorporate into our lives without causing havoc.
Here're some tips to get the most out of this step:
- Takeaways must be actionable: It's great to learn new facts and there's a place for those in our summary, but to really benefit from it, it needs to be actionable. Many non-fiction books offer these at the end of a chapter.
- Limit your takeaways: I usually go for 3 takeaways at most. The more takeaways, the more overwhelming and eventually we end up frustrated and not changing anything. This can be hard at times, because authors obviously want to deliver as much value as possible and often times overshoot that goal by presenting a very opinionated system that requires way to much effort to keep up with.
Sure, following that exact system might really transform your life, but often times they are too restricted to be followed by the majority of people.
Example: If you want to implement a new healthy morning routine, maybe start with a simple 10 minute yoga session instead of straight up going for the full 10-step protocol that takes 1.5 hours.
You'll be way more likely to stick to it and you can always add more to your routine later! After all, nothing is built in a day.
- Evaluate, verify & adapt continuously: Never blindly trust what authors tell you, no matter how well-received they are. Always evaluate their arguments, verify the sources and adapt those learnings to your very own situation and context. That way we mitigate risk and increase the likelihood of success even further. If a topic is controversially discussed, make sure to check out other authors and opinions as well - especially if you could damage yourself or others.
While I had over 50 notes and several pages of notes for it, those turned out to be the takeaways that I was actually willing to implement into my routine. Next time I check my notes, I might go for different ones.
I believe that everyone can be a great and effective reader. You don't have to read a lot, but you have to do it the right way. My 3-step framework offers a simple system that is both convenient and unintrusive. Yet, it gives you all the structure you need to really take the most out of your reading.
Annotating helps filtering out the important information while summarising cleans those notes up and makes them accessible and easy to navigate. Extracting takeaways and acting on them accordingly finally sets you up for long-term success.
Quality > Quantity
As I wrote in the intro, I always admired these avid readers that could breeze trough book after book. I pictured myself being one of them, because I always thought you have to read a lot of books to learn more and become wiser.
I can't even blame my younger self for that conclusion. After all, there's a lot of competition in our society. On social media it doesn't matter how much a book changed your life, but how many pages or books you read per year.
Goodreads(new tab) for example, probably the most popular social platform for readers, prompts you to set a reading goal and shows how your friends are doing compared to yourself.
Obviously, the pure number of pages one reads says very little about how much they actually take away from it. I wouldn't say there are good and bad books, but it all depends on your very personal interests, beliefs and goals. As with many things in life, quality is way more imortant than quantity. In the end, a single book could be all it takes to completely transform your life.
PS: I'm not saying you shouldn't use Goodreads. I use it too and I love the social aspect of it, but don't fool yourself with a meaningless reading goal. It can help to motivate you to read more in general, but that's about it. Although I would argue that there are better tools to motivate yourself, but that's a topic for another post.
Picking The Right Book
If a single book is already enough to transform your life, how do you make sure to find that specific book? There are millions of books out there and thanks to services like Amazon(new tab) or Audible(new tab), it's never been easier to access a wide variety for a very reasonable price. This is a unique privilege and I'm really grateful to have that opportunity, but it also makes it much harder to actually find relevant books that fit your personal needs.
Of course, there is no single right way to do that, but I want to share my rules that have proven successful many times in the past:
- Don't follow the hype: There will always be hyped books that virtually everyone is talking about. Often times those are indeed great books, but that doesn't necessarily mean you have to read it too. Rather think about what your current interests are and what areas and topic you want to explore and further dive in. If you're interested in quantum mechanics, there's no point in reading a book about longevity.
- Check 1-star reviews: While 5-star reviews rave about how great a book is, it's the 1-star reviews that hold much more value for our decision making process. They are more likely to give hints on writing style, structure and overall theme of a book. No matter how much valuable information a book contains, if it's rough and boring to read you're much more likely abandon it half-way through.
But: The first rule applies here as well. Just because someone else likes or dislikes a book, its writing style or whatever aspect, doesn't mean you will do as well. Always evaluate and put the reviews into perspective.
- Everyone is influenced: If you really like a particular author, you might want to check the people that influenced them. This is a great source to dig deeper and you might even learn something about the background of said author.
- Trust your peers: Find like-minded people and follow their recommendations. If you enjoyed the book your friend once recommended, chances are high that you'll enjoy the next one as well. Exchange that favour whenever you found a book that you really enjoyed. There's nothing better than getting a great recommendation!
- Ask an expert: Buying books online is super convenient, but comes at the cost of proper guidance. If you're unsure what to read next, maybe go to your local library or book store and tell the staff what you like and what you're searching for. You'll be surprised!
- Try new things: All those rules only matter until they don't. If you find a book that really sparks your interests, go and get it! You can always get rid of it and it most likely won't cause a financial crisis either.
Another method usually taught to university students, selective reading works really well for non-fiction.
Contrary to novels, you don't have to read a book from the first to the last page and you also don't have to read every chapter and every line.
It's definitely not a bad idea to do so as the author chose the structure with purpose and often times chapters build on information that was given earlier, but if you find yourself reading a chapter that's not relevant for you, don't feel bad about skipping it.
Remember: Your total number of pages doesn't mean anything and you can still mark a book as read in Goodreads even though you skipped forward.
No matter how careful you choose your books, sooner or later you might read something that really does not resonate with you. Even if it's a hyped one and everyone is talking about it, if it's not for you it's not for you. Period.
As soon as reading a book feels like work again, question why you're reading it in the first place. There's nothing wrong with a challenging book that requires all your attention and hard work to really inherit its teachings, but you should never push yourself through a "bad" book.
You don't have to abandon right away, sometimes pausing for some days or weeks is enough to regain interest in something. Here are some signs that you should consider abandon a book:
- Procrastination: You constantly find excuses not to read and as a result literally never finish. Light procrastination is normal, but if your productivity really hurts, don't keep pushing. Not worth it.
- Discomfort: If a book makes you uncomfortable or you really disagree with an author's thoughts or views. To give an example, an author could makes a sensitive joke that's fine for most readers but really triggers you due to past experience or beliefs.
- Change of interests: Interests can change and the book you started some weeks ago might not interest you anymore.
Note: Obviously, there are many more reasons. As long as you also remember that you're reading for yourself and that reading should give you a good feeling, you'll probably do just fine!
One might say, fiction, or novels in general, are more for entertainment purposes than for actual learning. I can't deny that it's a very different type of reading, but there's usually a lot of wisdom in those as well.
Ever since I started using this system, I wondered if it could also be applied to novels and if there're any benefits. The takeaways are usually more abstract and about moral, but I still use sticky notes to annoate catchy quotes, hidden wisdow and beautifully written scenes. The latter is especially valuable for me as I happen to be a fantasy author at night.
It definitely requires an active reading style, but as a result I also become much more engaged in the story. By no means is it necessary to enjoy a great story, but why don't you try it out yourself?
What I described in this article is my very own experience and my solution to a problem. I consider it universal enough to work for everyone, but never hesitate to adapt it to your very own needs.
Last but not least, never sacrifice the joy of reading. This system aims to make your reading more effective, but we're not machines and we don't have to function perfectly every single day. Happy Reading!