As part of my self-planned Master's Degree in Personal Productivity I've been reading non-fiction rather voraciously . For example, I usually have 3-5 books going per week, with replacements arriving regularly . The topics cover productivity, personal growth, consulting, networking, and creativity. However, a significant problem I've encountered is a certain "tyranny" of reading for education (rather than for entertainment), and it has threatened to turn the process into a form of aversion therapy.
Naturally, because my goal is to learn, the reading involves work. But the question is: How can one read efficiently, capture relevant ideas in a usable way, and keep the process sustainable and enjoyable? The rest of my post summarizes the best solutions I've found, but the most useful technique comes from Jason Womack , and synthesizes nicely the most common ideas. In a nutshell, he says he reads the book four times:
- Table of contents, glossary, index.
- Anything in bold, titles, and subtitles.
- First line of every paragraph.
- Entire book
Here's the twist: Steps 1-3 should only take about 10 minutes. To capture relevant information he uses a note-taking scheme involving putting dots in margins, and cross-referencing them in an index in the book's front. When done, he transfers them to a text file.
After adopting his system with a slight variation (I dictate my notes into an inexpensive cassette tape recorder, then transcribe them into my system ), I've found it works great. I can very quickly scan a book, decide if it's worth reading in depth (steps 3 and 4), and which sections are likely to be most relevant to my goals. My only other point is to note that I seem to need a balance between non-fiction and fiction. (My current ratio of non-fiction to fiction is about 5:1, but should probably be more like 3:1.)
I'd love to hear your suggestions and tricks!
Following are related articles, each with its own twist. The common point, though, is to efficiently find ideas that are relevant to your goals, usually via some sort of skimming. The big change for me (some slight embarrassment here) was the realization that I didn't have to read the entire book word-for-word!
In How to read a business book, Brendon Connelly suggests marking up (tagging) interesting passages with a master index at the back of the book. He also contributes tips on where to read, pens to use, etc.
The classic How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life (by Alan Lakein), suggests reading books like newspapers. The main points:
- Put a new book into your inbox every day, and take the old one out, even if unread.
- Then read the 'headlines' on jacket (most significant points).
- Then glance through it quickly, noting items of interest, taking about the same amount of time as reading a newspaper.
- The goal: Find the key ideas and understand their applicability to your situation.
- Use the preface, table of contents, and summaries at beginning and end of book.
- Read details only if a) it's meaningful, and b) it's involved.
This approach allows gaining value in a surprisingly short time. It's good because you see more books, and are more likely to see really good ones. Also, you get efficient at skipping lower quality works.
In Open Loops: A Quick and Dirty Reading Strategy When Time is Short, the section "How To Find the Essential 20%" lists these points:
- Read the title of the material.
- Read the introduction.
- Read the Table of Contents.
- Flip through the material, scanning the chapter titles and sub-headings.
- Look at the illustrations and captions. Look at the charts and diagrams. Read the pull-quotes and sidebars.
- Scan through the index looking for your particular business’ buzz words.
- Now read the first chapter (or in a shorter work, the first paragraph).
- Flip through the book and read the first sentence of each paragraph.
- Read the last chapter (or paragraph in a shorter work). If there is an executive summary, read it.
- Read any other information on the cover or dust jacket.
In How to Study and Make the Most of Your Time, an approach is presented that I found was commonly recommended to students:
- Schedule important work.
- Ask yourself questions as you read - read to answer questions.
- Use SQ3R: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review.
- Try to develop an overall concept of what you have read in your own words and thoughts. try to connect things you have just read to things you already know.
- Every paragraph contains a main idea - make it a habit to find the main idea in each paragraph you read.
The article Leading Forward: How to Read and Digest a Book! (apparently gone, but still in - Google's cache) recommended five steps: Selection, Preparation, Read Actively, Reflect for Insight, Systemise for implementation. This was in the minority in that it addressed how to use the information after reading.
Finally, from The Great Big Book of Personal Productivity, by Ron Fry: To summarize the skimming process:
- Read and be sure you understand the title or heading. Try rephrasing it as a question for further clarification of what you will read.
- Examine all the subheadings, illustrations, and graphics. these will help you identify the significant matter within the text.
- Read thoroughly the introductory paragraphs, the summary, and any questions at chapter's end.
- Read the first sentence of every paragraph.this generally includes the main idea.
- Evaluate what you have gained from this process: Can you answer the questions at the end of the chapter? Can you intelligently participate in a class discussion of the material?
- Write a brief summary that capsulizes what you have learned from your skimming.
- Based on this evaluation, decide whether a more thorough reading is required.
-  In his article Read a Book a Week, Steve Pavlina explains a meta reason for reading voraciously:
But the actual knowledge and the new distinctions you gain from reading are not the main benefit. My experience has shown me that the real benefit comes not from what you read but rather from the habit of reading. When you read a new book every week, you condition your mind to keep taking in new knowledge. Your thinking remains fresh and sharp. Your brain is always churning on new ideas, looking for new distinctions it can make. Every day you pour in more ideas, which your brain must find a way to integrate into your existing knowledge base. Frequent reading fires up your neural activity, even during the periods when you aren't reading.
-  Preferred sources: 1) My local library (which supports web-based requests), 2) Amazon's used marketplace, and 3) Amazon's new books. However, I've recently been exploring ebay's books section. I'd love to hear others' experiences buying from ebay...
-  Via personal correspondence.
-  See My Big-Arse Text File - a Poor Man's Wiki+Blog+PIM and Pickle jars, text files, and creative idea capture.