How to Really Learn From the Books You Read

Reading alone isn’t enough, you need a process to contemplate, absorb and act on key ideas

We’ve all had that feeling, you read an incredibly insightful book, you think ‘wow’ there are some incredible lessons here, I should really try and put these insights into practice.

You read ‘Extreme Ownership’ by Jocko Wilink, you tell yourself you’re going to take more responsibility for your actions.

You read ‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth and promise you will persevere through the hard times.

Time goes by, the book and the lessons gather dust, you haven’t really changed or incorporated the lessons in any meaningful way, you get back into your old habits and the lessons of the book become just an interesting theory, rather than core principles by which you live your life.

Sound familiar?

As a voracious reader, the problem of incorporating lessons from a book into my life is something I’ve been battling with most of my life. I spend 100’s of hours a year reading so I want to ensure that time is spent in the best possible way. Over the years I’ve developed a very simple system that has really helped me to embed the lessons of what I’ve learned, which I’ll share with you today.

The first thing you are going to want to do is actually have a way to track the books you are reading if you don’t have a book tracker set up already. I like using Notion’s kanban board feature for this. I simply assign books a ‘to read’ ‘in progress’ or ‘read’ status.

Setup a simple way to start tracking what you read, and the notes you’ve taken —

When it comes to the actual reading of a book, my weapon of choice for a first pass is 100% a Kindle. Don’t get me wrong I love paper books, but in terms of getting notes into a usable form, I believe a Kindle is really unparalleled in its power.

You could, of course, use the Kindle app on an iPad as well, but for me, iPad’s are just a little too distracting, often ill sit down to read and an hour later I’m stuck in a doom scroll.

The final part of the setup is to install the Readwise app. This app makes it incredibly easy to access all your notes. You simply link it to your Amazon account and all the notes you take on your kindle will appear in Readwise.

You can also have the option to pay for Readwise premium which is $8 a month, which means that notes will automatically sync to other tools such as Notion along with other benefits.

You’ll obviously need to make the decision about whether you’re happy to just manually copy and paste the notes into your notion (or booking other book tracking tool) from Readwise, or whether you’d like something a bit slicker.

Once you’ve got everything set up it really is just a case, of creating a habit of highlighting passages that resonate with you and leaving notes when something comes to your mind.

I also like to tag passages with certain keywords. I find this really helpful when I find common themes in books, especially when I’m reading fiction, such as the theme of adaptability that kept coming up when I read Jack London’s ‘The Call of the Wild’

Now you should be in a position where after you’ve read the book you have a tonne of highlights, some of them will be tagged and some of them will have notes attached, you’re now ready for the next step, which, unfortunately, is the bit that requires a bit of work!

The problem with just consuming content is that its really not a great way to retain information, or more importantly, to form our own views on the content itself.

To do this you really need to teach, you really need to express the ideas that stood out to you in your own way. This is where the next step of the framework comes in — creation.

Now you need to physically create your own original piece of work around the book you’ve just read. Generally for me at the moment this actually involves creating a YouTube video. I’ll go through the book and pick out key themes or ideas and either turn this into one of my life lesson videos or a mental models video. Of course, this is a tonne of work and realistically not feasible for most people

Before I started creating YouTube videos I’d usually just write a little summary of the book, with cool ideas that I took from it. For example, after reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow’ I wrote an article on how to cultivate flow. You could do something similar, or even just create a tweet storm about the book.

This may seem like a hell of a lot of effort, but I can promise you it will be worth it, writing down your own thoughts about the book will more than double the value you get out of it, and most likely won’t take anywhere near as long as it took to read the book.

I’d personally advice putting this piece of content online somewhere, firstly, because someone out there might find it helpful, but secondly because hopefully someone is going to challenge your views, and whether you agree with the challenge or not, it’s going to help you cement your ideas, which leads us onto the third step of the framework, cementing your understanding.

In the cementing phase of the framework, we are seeking to take the lessons we’ve identified and understood and actually use them to change our behavior.

In my eyes you haven’t learned something unless your behaviour has changed, so for me, this is an incredibly important part of the process.

You can imagine your brain is like a slow-cooked beef joint. and bear with me here. When you cook beef you don’t want to bang it in the oven at 1000 degrees for a short period of time, it will come out burned on the outside and raw in the middle, it will be a pretty inedible piece of beef. What you want to do is slowly cook that lovely joint, braising it occasionally, then all the flavours will combine in a way to make something delicious.

Your brain is like this with ideas, you want to slowly muse on an idea over a long period of time, slowly based it and combine it with other flavours, you don’t want to just dogmatically brainwash yourself with it over a week, and never think about it again.

The first way I try and cement my understanding of a topic is by committing to living it out every day for an extended period of time, usually at least a few weeks. I do this by putting the principle that I’m trying to live out in my journal, and reflecting on how I’ve used it in the day. Currently, I’m working on embedding Seth Godin’s concept of the dip, and I’ve found that journaling about how I’ve lived it out for the past few weeks has really helped me to integrate it into my life.

Part of my daily journal, in the morning I set the intentions of a lesson I want to embed, and in the evening I reflect on how I’ve used it

Of course, this can only really be done for one topic every month or so, so that’s why I have a second way to keep on top of all the great insights I’ve taken from books. The idea is that every day you want to be reminding yourself of a small portion of the key things that stood out to you about a book you’ve read.

I find the best way to do this is again through the Readwise app. You can set it up that they will send you an email everyday that has key passages you’ve highlighted. This is a really great way to quickly review passages you read years ago that stood out to you and reflect on them again. With a free Readwise account you only get an email every week, which I don’t think is frequent enough to really embed the lessons, so if you don’t want the premium version id recommend just randomly skimming through your notion notes every day, this should really help slow cooking ideas into your head, so you really start to live out the ideals.

  • If you are just reading a book, without digesting the lessons, you are missing out on a lot of the value to be gained from reading
  • Digital readers such as the kindle allow for a more robust way to capture highlights
  • Try and identify common themes by tagging your highlights
  • Create a piece of original content on one of the core ideas of the book to form your own views on a topic
  • Cement your understanding by journaling about a particular theme or lesson every day, and regularly reviewing your notes

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