I used to read books very quickly, plowing through ideas and information voraciously. Later though, I would remember snippets of the content, ideas I had thought I would remember, and ultimately didn’t apply anything I had learned because I hadn’t really let it all sink in.
Now, when I read a book, I almost always have a pen in hand. I think better and absorb information better if I am underlining and taking notes. For me there seems to be a physical link between the pages in front of me and my brain, and that link is pen and paper. Over the years I have found a way to slow down, understand a little bit deeper and end up more likely to actually apply some of the things that I have learned.
Here is how I do it:
Read the book, pen or highlighter in hand
This works for paper books, or digital. I use both (with a preference for paper). Don’t over think what you choose to highlight- just highlight the points that matter to you. What ah-ha realizations did you make? What idea do you want to apply in your life? What do you want to look up later and dig a little bit deeper?
Take actual notes
After you have read the book, copy the highlighted sections into a notebook. I have a specific notebook labeled “Book Notes” in which I label each new entry with the author’s name, the title of the book and the month/year that I read it. This reviewing of the highlighted sections allows me to now fully see the arc of the book and the words sink deeper into my mind as I copy them into my notebook. Leave decent size margins and spaces, you’ll need it later.
Use symbols that you choose, such as *, ->, or quotations to clarify in your notes what are direct quotes from the book vs. your own thoughts as you reflect on the words. You can use symbols, boxes, circles, colored inks-whatever- you just want to be clear. Later, if you read those notes, you would never want to doubt if something was your thought or the author’s in case you share that information in some way. Be prepared now to properly attribute the author for their work.
Add your own thoughts
Look through your notes again, noticing the things you want to remember, action steps to take, or adding supporting information in the margin. Look for connections between this work and other books you have read, or Bible verses to support the concept. It is also during this process that I add highlights. I use pink for ideas that deeply prod my heart, yellow for action steps I want to take and blue for academic thoughts of a practical nature.
At this point I generally journal my thoughts. Each step of this process deepens my understanding of the content, or sets in my mind what I would like to take away from the material. This is particularly for books about faith. While journaling I pray about what I’ve read and what God wants me to learn through it. I am discerning and thoughtful at this point.
If there were specific actions that I wanted to take as a result of reading, at this point I would actually put them in my planner. This brings the material from a book simply read, to a book that impacts my life. It needs to go from reading, to my heart and to action.
Over the long term, as I have used this process many times and with many books, I am able to see themes, patterns and seasons of learning and I’ve built a wealth of information that I can refer to. I have often gone back to a topic and reviewed ideas again. Because I deeply invest in the content of the book, reading just a few notes often can bring back the entirety of what I want to remember.
I hope these ideas help you too as we become people who not only hear (or read), but do.