Quick. What was the last book you read?
What was the title? Do you remember the main theme? Could you give a 30-second synopsis to a friend?
If you can’t answer each of these questions, chances are you weren’t getting the most out of what you read. And life is too short to read something without reaping the benefits.
Why We Read
We all have different reasons for reading books, including:
- To gain information
- To escape from reality
- To become inspired
- To learn something new
- To laugh or to cry
- To see something from another’s perspective
No matter why you’re reading — for pleasure or for purpose — and no matterwhat you’re reading — literature, self-help, history, etc. — you should always begin reading with two goals in mind:
- To understand the message the author intended.
- To capture any information you want to remember or act on later.
Two Existing Methods
In order to accomplish these two goals, you’ve probably found yourself using one or both of the following methods, both of which you probably perfected in college.
The Read-Write Method
This method is exactly what it sounds like: you read something you want to remember and you write it down in a notebook. For a long time I preferred this method, but invariably I discovered two problems with it:
- When I didn’t have a notebook with me, it gave me an excuse to not read because I had nowhere to take notes.
- I found it distracting to focus on the book when I had to keep pausing to take notes.
The Dog-Ear-and-Annotate Method
You’ve seen books that have been the victim of this method. Words or phrases are highlighted on nearly every page, little notes are written in the margins, and the corners of important pages are turned down. I actually prefer this method for books that I might revisit over and over again — like a motivational or spiritual text — but for books that I’m likely to read just once, this method presents two problems:
- All the notes and references are contained in the text, so they’re difficult to categorize or find again easily.
- Unless you’re detailed in your annotations, the reason for highlighting certain passages becomes obscured over time: did I highlight this because it inspired me or because I like the quote or because I wanted to explore the idea further?
The Color-Code Method
That brings us to the third method, which is the one that I’ve latched onto the most strongly when I want to absorb everything I can from a book.
It’s simple and quick to use, totally portable, and makes it easy to remember why you marked a certain passage. Plus, it lets you take things that inspire you and turn them into actionable items.
I still read with a pen and paper nearby, but now I only use those when I feel inspired to write a lengthy amount of longhand text that I know I need to capture in the moment.
All you need to make the system work are four colored Post-It notes.
Quotes are things that you want to remember. They are direct passages from the text that you find inspiring or memorable because of the way they’re worded. These are the passages that you probably would have highlighted before. They’re excerpts you could pull from the text and add to a quote collection or refer to in your own writings.
Action Items (Green)
Action Items are things that you want to do. They’re things that can be written down on an action list and checked off when they are completed. Whenever you find something that you want to act on later, mark it with a green sticky note. Actions Items include things like:
- looking up another text that the author references
- incorporating an idea into your daily routine
- researching a topic more thoroughly
Ideas are things that you want to explore. They’re concepts or passages that have sparked your imagination. Maybe you want to incorporate the idea into your own work, or use it as a springboard from which to launch your own ideas. Some sample ideas might include:
- What really motivates people to work?
- The five fears that keep people from succeeding.
Themes are things you want to understand. They’re the major points that the author is trying to convey. If you understand the themes in the book, you should have a solid understanding of what the author was trying to say. What’s more, if you mark the themes as you find them, you’ll be able to build a short summary of the book that you can refer to later.
When You’re Done Reading
Once you’re done reading a book, go back and remove the sticky notes one by one.
- Add the Quotes to your quote collection
- Write Action Items on your action list
- Enter Ideas into your idea journal
- Compile the Themes onto a single page that you can stick in the front of the book.
As you use this method, you’ll find that you not only have a better grasp of the author’s message, but you’re also able to capture those pieces of inspiration that come to you as you read and make use of them once you’ve finished with the book.