September 8

How to Take More Effective Notes When Reading a Book

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How much can you remember from any of the last book you read? If someone asked you to tell them what the book was about, would you be able to?

Learning how to take notes on books you read will not only help you get more out of a book, but it will also make it more likely that you will remember what you read and put it into action.

How We Learned To Take Effective Notes

Because the formal education system focuses on memorization, the way we were taught to read in school served more as a way to write book reports or achieve letter grades than a genuine love of reading or learning. We didn’t actually learn how to take notes on a book in a way that would actually make them useful.

You probably don’t remember much about most of the books you read in high school. That’s what I remember about 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)

Considering that these books are still relevant decades after they were written, it’s likely that they contain valuable insight and wisdom. Because of the way we learn to take effective notes on the books we read, we rarely remember much of value.

Cliff Notes on books are great if you want to memorize the contents of a book to pass an exam. But just because you’ve memorized or read something doesn’t mean you’ve learned or understood the material. The only way to do that is to actually read the book and take notes in your own words.

As Sonkhe Ahrens says in his book How to Take Smart Notes, “you need to thỉnk beyond what you read, because you need to turn it into something new. And by doing everything with the clear intention of writing about it, you’ll do what you do mindfully.” Cliff notes on books don’t help you do that.

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

Physical Books vs Digital Books

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

Physical Books: Advantages and Disadvantages

Physical books have several advantages over digital books.

  1. They are 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 absorb.

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

  1. They take up a lot of space. Managing shelf space is a constant challenge for me.
  2. Converting the ideas that come to you into a digital format can be tedious and time consuming.

But the most successful authors I’ve ever talked 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 resonate with you into a digital format is much faster because you can easily export everything you capture.

After years of reading digital books, I’ve noticed two major drawbacks with them.

  1. Because you’re reading on one 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, so you don’t retain as much.

This is a matter of personal preference. But I’ve found that I get much more out of a book when I read a physical copy than when I read the digital version.

How to Take Book Notes

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

Below, I’ve outlined a process for how to take notes from a book which you can use for conducting podcast interviews, writing blog posts, and maximizing your creative output.

1.Identifying The Structure And Key Concepts In The Book

Every book you read has an 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 blurb. The table of contents will also help you determine the structure of the book.

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

2. How to take notes While Reading

While you’re reading, resist the temptation to highlight and underline everything. Underline or highlight only those ideas and concepts that you want to remember. You can also write notes in books as reminders to yourself. The more you’ll understand how to take notes in books while reading.

3. Notebooks

Photographer: Estée Janssens | Source: Unsplash

Having 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 capture insights and ideas that you may not remember later. And if you have trouble keeping your notebook organized, I recommend using the bullet journal method and a bullet journal as your “notes book.”

4. Build a Book Notes System

If you want the value of your book notes to increase over time, then you can’t just copy. quotes and call it a day. Taking notes on books you read needs to be a habit. You need to build a book notes system. There are several creative ways to write notes without reinventing the wheel.

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 a few days or weeks. Ryan suggests doing this because we often underline or capture things in the moment that aren’t relevant or resonant when we reread them.
  2. Write quotes and highlights on a notecard and keep them in a file or box, categorized by topic.

Although 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 has sold over a million copies. As Ryan said to me, “A lot of them (the notecards) lead nowhere, but you can build a career out of 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 it all to a digital tool like Notion or Evernote. But that doesn’t make your book notes very useful or effective.

Tiago Forte has developed a method for taking more effective notes on books: It involves drilling down through different stages to get to the main idea. This helps you make notes that are practical, actionable, and increase your productivity.

Tiago Forte developed a method to take more effective notes on books called Progressive Summarization.

It involves drilling down through different stages to get to the main idea. This helps you make notes that are practical, actionable, and increase 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

The layers of progressive summarization help you determine the most important ideas in your book notes.

  • Layer 1: This is very simple. This is everything you export from your Kindle highlights to a digital tool like Notion, Evernote, or Walling.
  • Layer 2: For the second layer, go through and highlight in bold what stands out to you.
  • Layer 3: For the third layer, go through your notes and highlight again what is most important to you.

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

By creating these layers, you can take notes on the books you read much more effectively and easily create a summary that gives you the entire gist of the book at a 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 while we can easily underline and highlight things, we don’t have the luxury of exporting everything to a digital note as easily.

You can still use Progressive Summarization to make effective notes on physical books. It just requires a few tweaks.

You’ll still underline anything that catches your attention. But the better you get at Progressive Summarization, the more sophisticated you will become and underline with your book notes in mind. Since it’s inefficient and time-consuming to type out everything you underline or mark in physical form, determine what you want to signify in digital form.

“As I read, I take notes. I circle words I need to lookup. I highlight points that I think are crucial to the argument. I underline anything that strikes me as interesting. I comment like a madman in the margins. I try to draw out assumptions, etc.,” says Shane Parrish in his article about taking notes in books.

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 it and look at everything you highlighted or underlined. Put your signifier next to anything you want to transfer to a digital note. I just use a simple asterisk.

After you have transferred everything with signifiers to a digital note, go through the progressive summary process for digital books. Below I’ve included a video showing how I use Progressive Summarization to make 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 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.


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 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.


Mem is one of the latest note-taking apps to hit the market. While it doesn’t have all the features of Roam, the interface is much easier to navigate. Watch the video below to learn more about how you can use it to take book notes.

The Note Taking Book that is a Must-Read

About a month ago, I was researching how to take book notes and came across Zettelkasten Method. This book note system allowed its creator Nicholas Lumman, to write 30 books and publish over 500 papers during his career. If you want to exponentially increase the value of your notes, How to Take Smart Notes is a book that will pay for itself many times over.

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.”


Building an Audience, habits, Writing

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