I read a lot of books. But more important than adding to my bookshelf or being able to say I read the latest New York Times Bestseller, I want what I read to stick. I approach every book I read with the mindset that I’m going to take away at least one new idea – even the ones I don’t really care for. I want come away from each book I read as a different person than I was when I started it.
One of the best ways I’ve found to retain information and ideas from the books that I read is to take copious notes. That doesn’t mean that I try to capture every idea or recreate the outline of each book that I read, but I do end up with (most of the time) a very detailed mind maps for each book that I read. Here’s an example:
(All of my mind maps are available for download to Bookworm Premium members as a way to say “thank you” for supporting the show, BTW.)
The way that I take notes has evolved quite a bit over the years, but I’ve landed on what I consider to be a pretty solid system.
We read Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book for Bookworm, and it really highlighted for me the importance of understanding the structure of the book you’re going to be reading. I don’t follow his method exactly, but there are a couple of things I do before I even start to read.
First, I create a new MindNode file on my iPhone and put an image of the cover in the center. I usually do an image search for the book title in Safari and save the highest quality version I can find to my camera roll, then attach it to the center node in my MindNode file.
Next, I take a moment to look at the Table of Contents in the book so I get a feel for the general outline. Many of the productivity and business books I read are broken into multiple parts, and I’ll create individual nodes for each major section of the book before I start reading. Here’s what my mind map looks like at this point:
One of the things I like about MindNode is that each new node gets its own color. This helps my brain separate the main ideas of the book that I’m reading as I’m taking notes.
Now that I have my MindNode file all set up, I’m ready to start reading.
How (and What) I Read
One of the things that surprises many people about my “reading workflow” is that even though I take notes using MindNode on my iPhone, I always read physical books. There’s a couple of reasons for this:
- You can’t multitask with a physical book. When you have a physical book in your hands, it is impossible to switch to a different app and find yourself scrolling the endless feeds. Some people may feel they can accomplish the same thing with an ebook reader like a Kindle, but IMHO it’s not the same. I used to own a Paperwhite and while I loved the device, I found myself browsing the Amazon store for cheap ebooks instead of reading the one I intended to read when I picked up the device in the first place!
- A physical book feels different. There is something that I really enjoy about holding a physical book (preferably hardcover) while I read. It may sound silly, but the physical weight of the book makes it feel like it’s more important – like there is weight behind what the author is saying. I personally believe that the simple act of picking up a physical book changes my mental state as I get sit down to read and causes me to get more out of the time I invest doing so.
- A physical book gives you a sense of accomplishment. I have this weird little ritual whenever I finish a book where I put my hands under the open covers of the book and slam the book closed. I find the resulting “thud!” a satisfying audio indication that I’ve finished yet another book. After congratulating myself for finishing the volume I currently hold in my hands, I then put the book back in it’s place on my bookshelf. The bookshelf serves as a reminder of my reading progress as I’ve read (almost) everything it holds – sort of a nerd’s trophy case.
(My dream is someday have one of those big libraries with a sliding ladder.)
Now while I love reading physical books, I don’t love analog notetaking (sketchnoting while I’m at a talk being the exception). As I mentioned earlier, I take notes in mind map format using MindNode on my iPhone. Again, there are a couple of reasons for this:
- I like being able to go back and search my notes. This is the biggest advantage of digital notetaking IMHO. It can be a pain to try and go back and find something in one of the books that I’ve read – I may not even remember the specific book it came from! But finding what I’m looking for gets a whole lot easier with the keyboard shortcut ⌘+F, even if I have to open up multiple files first.
- I like the mind map format. Switching to mind maps for my book notes has really helped me retain more from the books that I read. I love seeing the mind map come together as I progress through the book, and I’m always kind of awestruck by the beautiful assembly of ideas that I’ve collected by the end. Each mind map is kind of like a work of art to me. This would be a complete mess if I did this pen & paper, but MindNode keeps everything organized by automatically arranging things so they make sense and look pretty.
The act of constantly reaching for my phone to input notes as I read does give me the capability to get distracted by other things, but I’ve eliminated email and social media off of my phone to minimize the chance of this happening. And by now I’ve conditioned my monkey brain to only go to the phone for the thing I intend to do (capture an idea), so after a couple years of doing this at this point I’m proud to say that it’s not much of a battle for me anymore.
What I Take Notes On
I believe the filter through which you decide to record an idea from something you’ve read is very important. Personally, I don’t try to rewrite the entire book in my MindNode file. I give myself permission at the very beginning to NOT record the things that don’t really speak to me. If I don’t enjoy the book or don’t get anything out of it, the resulting mind map is much less detailed. But for some reason, I do enjoy most of the books that I read and my mind map can often look like a recreation or summary of the book itself.
For books that I enjoy, that’s an unexpected benefit I found from recording the things I considered to be important or impactful. I discovered that at the end, I had a pretty solid summary of the book that I could go back and review instead of rereading the entire book!
I also found over time that using emoji to indicate different types of information made it easier to understand (and more visually appealing) when I went back to review my notes. My use of emoji has evolved over time, but currently here are the emoji that I use and what they mean:
- 🔑 Key Idea – a key point the author is making or something I feel is very important
- 💡Light Bulb – something new I learned or inspiration I got from something the author said
- 💬 Quote – a quote that I really liked (I usually store these in a Day One notebook as well)
- 🗣 Talking Point – something that I want to talk to Joe about when we discuss on Bookworm
- 🤯 Mind Blown – something that really rocked my world (doesn’t appear very often)
I also use the task functionality in MindNode to record any action items I want to take from reading the book. These are denoted on the mind map by check circles, similar to how they appear in OmniFocus. You can mark them as complete on the mind map itself in MindNode, but I prefer to export my MindNode file to OmniFocus when I’m done. This results in the tasks from the mind map ending up in my OmniFocus inbox, where I can turn them into projects if necessary.
In my opinion, identifying action items from what you’ve just read is critically important piece that many people miss. That was kind of the inspiration behind starting the Bookworm podcast with my buddy Joe Buhlig – we both wanted to read more books, and we wanted someone who would hold us accountable to what we said we were going to do as a result. We both record our action items from the books we read and talk about them on the podcast. The public declaration of the action items combined with the knowledge that Joe will hold me accountable to them provides the motivation I need to follow through on them, and has resulted in many positive changes in my life over the past couple years.
(By the way, you don’t need to start a podcast if you want someone to hold you accountable to your own action items – there’s a whole section on the Bookworm Club devoted to this for people who desire a little more public accountability.)
The Result of Reading So Many Books
Joe & I read a book every 2 weeks for Bookworm, and often we have gap books that we’re reading in between. That adds up to me reading a lot of books! Occasionally, I like to reflect on my reading journey and ask myself, “how am I different from reading all of these books?”
Personally, I think it’s impossible to quantify the benefit I’ve received from cultivating a reading habit. But I do believe that I am much more productive and creative simply from exposing myself to a variety of different ideas and perspectives by reading books regularly. Not every book I pick up is written by someone with a revolutionary idea that can change my world, but a surprising number of them are. And if I get even one new idea from a book, then I consider it a worthwhile time investment. The expectation I have as I approach the book I’m reading results in a lot more “a-ha!” moments then I expected.
Over time, I believe the benefit of collecting these ideas has had a compound positive affect in my life. I’m amazed as the results sometimes as my brain synthesizes things and connects dots in new ways. But from another angle, maybe I shouldn’t be. Creativity is a formula – the more quality dots you collect, the better the result will be when your brain connects them in new and interesting ways.
Which is why I read so many books in the first place. I’m on a lifelong quest to collect more dots. And my weird but wonderful way of taking notes on these books has definitely helped me on the journey.