I could read when I was three years old, thanks to my mother. From that point on, I have never been without a book. When we had no money for books, I went to the public library, leaving with many books. I was devastated when I had to return them, so I was often late. I promised myself that when I had enough money, I would buy books, owning them outright.
Some of the more important books have stuck with me, and I know where I encountered certain ideas for the first time. But I never took notes on what I read, and if I had taken notes by hand, I wouldn’t have been able to read them anyway. However, I saw value in taking notes so I could easily review them to take a quick look at what I learned without having to read the book a second time. With so many books in the world and roughly 4,108 in the average human lifespan, there is only so much time for reading.
To improve your retention and gain more from everything you read, taking notes in a certain way can help you use the knowledge you have acquired.
Step 1: How to Choose What You Read
There may be nothing more important than what you read. It’s easy to read what everyone else is reading, but that isn’t always the best way to decide what to consume. You are often better off following your own interests, even if they lead you to something that isn’t the most popular book on social media.
It is enough to read a book simply because you want to, but you may also read a book to learn something that will help you gain a new skill or competency. Right now, I am reading three dystopian novels, Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), 1984 (George Orwell) and Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury). I fell onto this path after reading Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, who believes that, in the future, we are going to be drugged to be happy.
If you are deeply interested in something, read several books on the same subject. This approach can give you a fuller understanding of a topic by offering different perspectives.
Step 2: Read the Book
I read the entire book before I take any notes. As I read, I mark the ideas or passages I eventually plan to include in my notes. I use something called page nibs to mark what is important because I don’t like to write in hardcover books. Page nibs are small copper markers that I can attach to a page to mark key passages. I mark words I know the meaning of but that I don’t use often. I also do the same with words I don’t know.
Some ideas and passages you mark might make it into your notes to provide a second look at what struck you as important. You may also want to leave the book alone for a while before processing your notes.
Step 3: Process Your Notes
You might have 50 things marked in an average-sized book, but not all of them will make it into your notes. For example, something that seemed important early in the book may not be worth noting because the concept has been fleshed out throughout the book.
You are looking for the ideas and passages you will want to refer to later on, the things you most want to remember. Even though you marked fifty areas of the book, you may net 10 notes worth processing. If you are uncertain about a passage, process the note.
There is a process called a Zettelkasten, created by a German sociologist named Nicklas Luhmann. Zettel means slip of paper, kasten means box. Luhmann used this process to write what he called “literature notes.” After creating your Zettlekasten, you select the best and most important notes and rewrite them in your own words to create a permanent record of what in the book was most important to you. By writing the idea in your own words, you increase your ability to retain and recall it later.
I spent a half an hour processing the notes I marked in David Hackworth’s Steel My Soldier’s Hearts, one of my favorite books on leadership. Hack turned the worst battalion in Vietnam into the best, even though they had a bounty on his head when he took over.
Step 4: Connecting Notes
As you continue to read books and articles, or YouTube videos or podcasts, something you read or hear will remind you of something you have explored before. You can use tags or key terms to tie the ideas together. If you use a digital platform to keep your notes, you can also use backlinks to link one note to another, increasing your knowledge about the subject.
It is easy to build and use your knowledge by connecting notes. If you are disappointed that you can’t recall what you read in the past, taking notes, processing them in this way, and keeping them in a place that is accessible will make it easy to use the knowledge you acquire through your reading.
Step 5: Making Time to Read
To make time for reading, the best strategy is to read for an hour before you go to sleep. It will prevent you from spending the last hour you are awake scrolling on a screen. If you start to get sleepy, go to sleep.
In a world dominated by technology, where it is easy to read a summary instead of the book, people who read deeply and understand it will have a base of knowledge greater than others.
Soon, I will provide a program for people who want to read important books that will help them understand the world and that will help them succeed. Sign up for the newsletter here if you want to be notified.