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How to Take More Effective Notes on the Books you Read

How much do you remember from one of the most recent books you read? If someone asked you to tell them what the book was about, would you be able to do it? When you learn to take more effective notes on the books you read, you’ll not only get more out of a book.

it will increase the likelihood that you remember and take action on what you read.

How We Learned To Take Effectives Notes

Because the formal education system focuses on rote learning, the way we’re taught to read in school was more for the purpose of writing book reports or for letter grades than it was for a genuine love for reading or learning.

Chances are you don’t remember much from most books you read in high school. This is what I remember from some of the great American novels:

  • Holden Caufield was angry (The Catcher in the Rye)
  • Jay Gatsby was rich (The Great Gatsby)
  • Holy shit this is boring (The Grapes of Wrath)

Given that these books have remained relevant decades after they were written, it’s likely that they contain valuable insights and wisdom. Because of how we learn to take effective notes on the books we read, we rarely remember much that’s of any value.

If you want to take more effective notes on the books you read, you need a process that lets you identify key concepts, filter out what’s relevant, capture what resonates, and apply it to your life.

Physical Books vs Digital Books

take more effective notes
notesPhotographer: Alfons Morales | Source: Unsplash

Physical Books: Advantages and Disadvantages

Physical books have several advantages over digital books.

  1. They’re distraction-free by default. On an iPad or digital device, there are a thousand other things competing for your attention.
  2. When you read physical books, you retain more.
  3. It’s easier to be discerning about what you capture.

As somebody who reads a lot of books, I’ve found two main disadvantages to physical books.

  1. They take up a lot of space. Managing shelf space is an ongoing challenge for me.
  2. Converting the ideas that resonate with you into a digital format can be tedious and time-consuming.

But the most successful writers I’ve ever spoken to all swear by physical books. So I think the trade-off is worth it.

Digital Books: Advantages and Disadvantages

There are two big advantages to digital books:

  1. They don’t take up much space.
  2. Converting the ideas that you resonate with into a digital format is much faster because you can easily export everything you capture.

After years of reading digital books, I found two major disadvantages to them.

  1. Because you’re reading on a device, it’s easy to get distracted (especially if you’re using an iPad with a bunch of other apps on it.
  2. You scan more than you read and because of this, you don’t retain as much.

This is a matter of personal preference. But I noticed that I got far more from a book when I read a physical copy vs when I read the digital version.

Identifying The Structure And Key Concepts In The Book

Group of blank sticky notes on a desk
Photographer: Kelly Sikkema | Source: Unsplash

Every book you read has one overarching concept. You want to understand what the book is about and why the author wrote it. If that’s not obvious from the title, read the back of the book or the flap. The table of contents will also help you to determine the structure of the book.

Even though I read the books of every person I interview, there are occasions when I don’t have time to transcribe my notes. In those cases, I create a mindmap from the table of contents and the subheadings of each chapter. You can use the same technique to identify the key concepts and the structure of the book.

Analog Methods for Taking More Effective Book Notes

How to Take More Effective Notes on the Books you Read 1
Photographer: Estée Janssens | Source: Unsplash

Notebooks

Keeping a notebook by your side will not only help you take more effective notes on the books you read, but it will also help you to capture insights and ideas that you may not remember later. And if you’re struggling to keep your notebook organized, I recommend using The Bullet Journal Method.

The Notecard System

Ryan Holiday learned about the notecard system from his mentor Robert Greene. After you finish reading a book do the following:

  1. Wait for a couple days or weeks. Ryan suggests doing this because we often underline or capture things at the moment that are not relevant or resonant when we revisit them.
  2. Write down quotes and highlights on a note card and store them in a file or box, categorized by topic.

While this is often time-consuming, Ryan’s results speak for themselves. He wrote down the idea for The Obstacle is the Way several years before he wrote the book. Today it’s sold over a million copies. As Ryan said to me, “Many of them (the note cards) lead to nothing, but you can build a career from one of them.”

Progressive Summarization: A Digital Method For Taking Book Notes

With a Kindle book, it’s easy and effortless to highlight as many passages as you want and export everything to a digital tool like Notion or Evernote. But that doesn’t make your book notes very useful or effective.

How to Take More Effective Notes on the Books you Read 2

Tiago Forte developed a method to take more effective notes on books called Progressive Summarization, which is about drilling down in multiple steps over various stages to get to that main idea. This helps you to take notes that are practical, actionable and enhance your productivity.

The Layers of Progressive Summarization

Every time you read a book, when you’re progressively summarizing, it’s like you’re getting a piece and you’re saying, okay, this is something that I want to use for myself. – Tiago Forte

Layers of progressive summarization help you to determine the most important ideas in your book notes.

  • Layer 1: This is straightforward. It’s everything that you export from your kindle highlights to a digital tool like Notion, Evernote, or Walling.
  • Layer 2: For the second layer, you go through and mark in bold font what stands out to to you.
  • Layer 3: For the third layer, you review your notes and again highlight what’s most important to you.

The key to creating effective layers is discernment. When you look at most non-fiction books, an author presents an idea in a paragraph, shares some supporting evidence and then summarizes it in the last sentence. For the purpose of your layers, you don’t often need much more than the first or last sentence.

By creating these layers, you’re able take much more effective notes on the books you read and easily create a summary that will give you the entire gist of the book at a quick glance.

You can go deeper by writing about the books you read in a blog post or article. This helps you to reinforce the key concepts you learned.

Progressive Summarization with Physical Books

With physical books, creating layers is a bit more challenging because even though we can easily underline and highlight things, we don’t have the luxury of exporting everything into a digital note as easily.

You can still use Progressive Summarization to take effective notes on physical books. It just requires some tweaks.

You’re still going to underline anything that catches your attention. But as you get better at Progressive Summarization, you’ll become more discerning and underline with your book notes in mind. Because it’s inefficient and time-consuming to type everything you underline or highlight in physical form, you determine what you are going to put into digital form with the use of a signifier.

“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 madman in the margins. I try to tease out assumptions, etc.” says Shane Parrish in his article on taking book notes.

You can create as many signifiers as you want. But to keep it simple, I recommend you limit them.

A week or two after you read the book, go through and look at everything you’ve highlighted or underlined. Put your signifier next to everything you want to transfer to a digital note. I just use a simple star.

After you transfer everything with signifiers to a digital note, go through the progressive summarization process for digital books. Below, I’ve included a video showing how I use Progressive Summarization to take notes on the books I read.

3 Essential Tools For Taking Notes on the Books You Read

When it comes to a system for anything, the system is more important than the tool. You can use multiple tools to accomplish the same goal.

Notion

Notion is the second brain of our team at Unmistakable Creative. We use it to manage projects, write blog posts and make all of our ideas happen. It’s where I store my database of all the books that I’ve read. You can learn more about how I use Notion on my Notion Essentials YouTube Channel.

Roam

This is a tool I’d heard about from a number of friends. While doing my research for this article, I decided to test it out and was really impressed. The most impressive thing about Roam is a concept called bidirectional linking.

For example, say I create notes for all my books about attention. If I create a page with the title attention, all of those notes will be linked to that page without me having to do anything else.

Nat Eliason goes into much more detail in this article on how he took notes on 250+ Books in Roam. Check out his video below as well if you want a more in-depth look at how it works.

Walling

Walling is a recent addition to my arsenal of digital tools. The beauty of Walling is that lets you capture your ideas in the moment and makes it easy to figure out what you want to do with them later. And if you’re a highly visual person, you might appreciate the way that you can organize your book notes in Walling.

The Value of Taking More Effective Notes on the Books Your Read

Having a digital database of notes on the books you read can be invaluable to your creative process.

  • Writing: If you’re a writer, you can use your notes to come up with ideas, write blog posts or do research for writing books.
  • Podcast Interviews: If you’re a podcast host who is interviewing an author, you can use your notes to structure your interviews and ask questions about the concepts in the book. I do this for every person I interview.
  • Social Media Content: You can also use these notes to create quotes and images and share them across social channels.

This helps you do more than take effective notes on the books you read. You can use it to remember ideas from podcasts or online courses. While you never know what will come of your notes, as Ryan Holiday says, “You could build a career from just one.”

Struggling with managing your time and attention?

I’ve put together a list of interviews with productivity experts who can teach you how to master your focus. Just click here.

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