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Category Archives: Reading

The Top 3 Most Effective Ways to Take Notes While Reading

Taking Notes While Reading

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Before you get started: Filter the book by reading the preface, index, table of contents, and inside jacket. This tells you where the author is going to take you and, importantly, the vocabulary they will use.

The three steps to effectively taking notes while reading, which I elaborate on later, are:

  1. At the end of each chapter write a few bullet points that summarize what you’ve read and make it personal if you can — that is, apply it to something in your life. Also note any unanswered questions. When you’re done the book, put it down for a week.
  2. Pick up the book again and go through all your notes. Most of these will be garbage but there will be lots you want to remember. Write the good stuff on the inside cover of the book along with a page number.
  3. Copy out the excerpts by hand or take a picture of them to pop into Evernote. Tag accordingly.

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Dear Shane,
Can you tell me how you take notes while reading?

— Jeff

I’ve been asked this question a lot. Everyone wants to know how to read a book. Well, one of the best ways to better filter and connect ideas is to read with pen in hand so you can take notes while reading. This Marginalia — the tiny fragments that come into your head while reading — is a dying but important art that helps you remember what you read.

Like almost everything in life there is no magical answer that fits everyone. I can speak to the three-step process that works effectively for me on up to 150 books a year. However, you’re going to have to see if that works for you. While this sounds like a bit of trial and error (because it is), it’s the only way to create lasting habit changes, improve your recall, and be able to easily find that passage you’re looking for.

Taking Notes While Reading

Step One.
The first thing I do when I pick up a book is read the preface, the table of contents, and the inside jacket. Often, I’ll glance over the index too. This doesn’t take long and often saves me time, as a lot of books do not make it past this filter. Maybe it doesn’t contain the information I’m trying to gain. If it seems crappy, I’ll flip to a few random pages to verify.

This filter is a form of systematic skimming. This isn’t my term, Mortimer Adler, a guy who literally wrote the the book on reading, came up with it. Adler says there are four levels of reading. I tend to blend inspectional reading and analytical reading together for most books.

When I start reading the book, I have an idea what it’s about, the main argument, and some of the terminology involved. I know where the author is going to take me and the broad strokes of how they will bring me along.

While reading, I take notes. I circle words I need to look up. I star points that I think are critical to the argument. I underline anything that strikes me as interesting. I comment like a mad man in the margins. I try to tease out assumptions, etc.

Essentially, I’m trying to engage in a conversation with the author. Maybe my questions will be answered on the next page or in the next chapter. Maybe I’ll need to find another book to answer them. Who knows. But I write them down.

At the end of each chapter I write a few bullet points that summarize what I’ve just read. When I’m done, I let the book age. I put the book on my desk and I won’t touch it for anywhere from a few days to a week.

Step two.
When I pick the book up again, I re-read every scribble, underline, and comment I’ve made (assuming I can still read my writing).

I’m not the same person I was the first time I read the book, two things have changed: (1) I’ve read the entire book and (2) I’ve had a chance to sleep on what may have seemed earth-shattering at the time but now just seems meh.

If something still strikes my interest, I write a note in the first few pages of the book, in my own words, on the topic. Often this is a summary but increasingly it’s ways to apply the knowledge. I index this to the page number in the book.

Sometimes, and this depends on the book, I’ll create a sort of mental summary of the book’s main arguments and gaps. Sometimes I’ll cross-link points with other books.

Step 3 (optional).
Wait a few days. Then go through the book and copy out excerpts by hand and put them into your repository or common place book.

***

If you liked this article, you’ll love these four. 

The Feynman Technique: The Best Way to Learn Anything — Nobel winner Richard Feynman shares his secret to learning anything, which also works as an excellent framework for thinking and identifying gaps in other peoples knowledge.

A System for Remembering What you Read — The system I use for non-fiction books that enables me to remember quite a bit. And when I can’t remember I generally know where to look to find the answers.

The Art of Reading — We literally created a course to help people learn to read better and more effectively.

The Most Effective Way to Retain What You Read — Become a more effective reader with these simple tips from Nassim Taleb and psychologist Robert Cialdini designed to help you retain more of what you read.

The Most Effective Way to Retain What You Read

“Nothing so much assists learning
as writing down what we wish to remember.”
— Cicero

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One of the keys to getting smarter is to read a lot.

But that’s not enough. How you read matters.

But reading is only one part of the equation. You need to remember what you read.

We’re going to borrow tips from Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Antifragile, to make our reading go deeper and stay with us longer.

Cialdini revealed a trick that he uses, to a reader of Farnam Street, who was kind enough to share it with me.

While on the flight to Omaha, he was reading. He took notes on the material itself, and every time he completed a chapter he pulled out a sheet of white paper and wrote a single page summary on what he had just read. He places the paper in another folder. This is how he gets his learning deeper and this also enables him to refer to summaries in the future.

This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about this. In his book, The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, Daniel Coyle writes:

Research shows that people who follow strategy B [read ten pages at once, then close the book and write a one page summary] remember 50 percent more material over the long term than people who follow strategy A [read ten pages four times in a row and try to memorize them].

But is there something more we can do?

Nassim Taleb says “Don’t write [a] summary, write bullet points of what comes to mind that you can apply somewhere.”

***

Still curious? Check out my system for remembering what you read. And read The Little Book of Talent and Influence. Also, if you want to learn to read better, see The Art of Reading: How to Read A Book.

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

read what everyone else

We’ve all been there. At the bookstore trying to figure out what to read.

On one side of the store is the safe bet. The best-selling books that everyone else is reading. These are (generally) the mediocre books that time hasn’t yet filtered for us. When time casts its shadow, most of these will fall away into the night. And yet we read them anyways. Why? Because one of the six principles of persuasion is social proof.

Not only does this often waste time and money but it gums our our brains. If we’re reading what everyone else is reading it’s harder to think differently about problems, decisions, or life.

This excerpt form Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami perfectly encapsulates a core truth about reading.

And so we became friends. This happened in October.

The better I got to know Nagasawa, the stranger he seemed. I had met a lot of strange people in my day, but none as strange as Nagasawa. He was a far more voracious reader than I, but he made it a rule never to touch a book by any author who had not been dead at least thirty years. “That’s the only kind of book I can trust,” he said.

“It’s not that I don’t believe in contemporary literature,” he added, “but I don’t want to waste valuable time reading any book that has not had the baptism of time. Life is too short.”

“What kind of authors do you like?” I asked, speaking in respectful tones to this man two years my senior. “Balzac, Dante, Joseph Conrad, Dickens,” he answered without hesitation.

“Not exactly fashionable.”

“That’s why I read them. If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. That’s the world of hicks and slobs. Real people would be ashamed of themselves doing that. Haven’t you noticed, Watanabe? You and I are the only real ones in the dorm. The other guys are crap.”

This took me off guard. “How can you say that?”

“’ Cause it’s true. I know. I can see it. It’s like we have marks on our foreheads. …”

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