Category Archives: reading

Read business books more effectively through application, visualization, or reviews

This Quora question on “What is the most effective way to read a book and what can one do after reading?” got me thinking about how I read business books and what I do to make the most of them.

2015-01-08 How to use what you read -- index card

2015.01.08 How to use what you read – index card

Application: The best way to get value from a book is to apply it to your life. Reading The Lean Startup is one thing. Using its Build-Measure-Learn loop to run a business experiment is another. Reading Your Money or Your Life is one thing. Calculating your true hourly wage and using that to evaluate your expenses is another. Do the work.

As you apply an idea, you’ll probably want to refer back to the details in the book, so it’s good to keep the book itself handy. Write notes about your questions, ideas, TODOs, experiences, and follow-up questions.

Visualization: Not ready to do the work yet? Slow down and think about it. Imagine the specific situations where you would be able to apply the ideas from the book, and how you would do so. What do you need to learn or do in order to get there? See if you can get closer to being able to act on what you’ve learned.

Spend some time thinking about how the ideas in the book connect to other books you’ve read or ideas you’ve explored. What do they agree with or disagree with? Where do they go into more detail, and where do they summarize? What new areas do they open up?

Think about specific people who might be able to use the ideas in the book. Get in touch with them and recommend the book, explaining why they might find it useful. Imagine what kind of conversation the book might be relevant to so that you’ll find it easier to recognize the situation when it arises. (This is a tip I picked up from Tim Sanders’ Love is the Killer App, which I often recommend when people want to know more about how reading helps with networking.)

Review: Can’t act on the book yet, and can’t think of specific people or ideas to relate it to? Take notes so that you can review them later, and maybe you’ll be able to think of connections then.

I don’t like writing in books. Here’s why:

  • Most of my books come from the library, and I’d never write in those. This lets me get through lots of books without the friction of committing money and space to them.
  • Highlighting is an easy way to make yourself think that you’re going to remember something. Also, it’s hard to decide what’s important the first time through, so you might end up highlighting too much. When everything’s important, nothing is.
  • There’s rarely enough room in the margins for notes, and you can’t review those notes quickly.

2015-01-09 Take notes while you read books -- index card

2015.01.09 Take notes while you read books – index card

I prefer to write my notes on an index card or a piece of paper. If I’m near my computer, I might draw my notes on a tablet or type quotes into a text file. Keeping my notes separate from the book lets me review my notes quickly without thumbing through the book. I want to be able to refer to my notes while reading other books or while writing my reflections. Index cards, pages, and print-outs are easy to physically rearrange, and text files can be searched. Even if I read an e-book, I take my own notes and I copy highlights into my text files.

The best way to remember to review a book is to schedule an action to apply an idea from it. The second-best way is to connect it to other ideas or other people. If you don’t have either of those hooks, you can review on a regular basis – say, after a month, six months, and a year, or by using a spaced repetition system. You might even pull a book out at random and review your notes for inspiration. When you do, see if you can think of new actions or connections, and you’ll get even more out of it. Good luck, and happy reading!

Figuring out what to read by figuring out what you want to become or make or do

If you know what you want to do, you can figure out what you need to read to get there.

This tip might be obvious to other people, but I’m not used to planning my reading so that the books are aligned with an overall goal.

I make lots of learning plans, with various degrees of following through. Those plans tend to go out the window when I browse through the monthly new release lists on the library website or come across mentions from bibliographies and blog posts.

Books are my equivalent of impulse purchases at the supermarket checkout, the pull of slot machines, the intrigue of Kinder eggs. I think that’s how I resist temptations like that. The library is where I let that impulse out to play.

We’ve checked out more than 400 books from the library this year. I’ve skimmed through most of them, although I’ve taken notes from a much smaller collection.

Since there’s such a trove of free resources I can go through, I find it difficult to spend on books. Before last week, the last time I bought a book was November 2013. I suspect this is silly. The cost of a book is almost always less than the cost of taking the author out to lunch for discussion and brain-picking (and that’s pretty much Not Going to Happen anyway). It’s certainly less than the cost of figuring things out myself.

My reluctance often comes from an uncertainty about whether there’ll be enough in the book, or whether it’ll be the same concepts I’ve already read about, just given new clothes. I have to remember that I can get more out of a book than what the author put into it. A book isn’t just a collection of insights. It’s a list of questions to explore. It’s a bibliography. It’s a link in the conversation and a shorthand for concepts. It’s an education on writing style and organization. It’s sketchnoting practice and raw material for blog posts. It’s fuel for connection.

Phrased that way, books are a bargain. Even not particularly good ones. Hmm. Maybe I should take the “Connection” part of my budget – the part that I’m supposed to be forcing myself to use for taking people out to coffee or lunch, the part that I never end up using all that much anyway – and experiment with using it for books.

I’m more comfortable when I use my money deliberately, so I also want to be deliberate about the books I buy. All books are bought – some with money, but all with time. This requires a plan, and this requires follow-through.

There are holes in the way I learn from books, the pipeline from acquisition to reading to notes to action to review. I want to become a better reader. My inner cheapskate says: practise on free books. But money can be a useful form of commitment too.

Anyway. A plan. It seems logical to decide on what I should proactively seek out and read by thinking about what I want to do. It also seems logical to require proof of my learning through writing blog posts and resources and maybe even books, the way students focus on final projects and consultants are measured by deliverables.

Here are some ideas for things I want to create out of what I want to learn:

  • An approach for learning intermediate Emacs: After you’ve gotten the hang of the basics, how can you keep learning more about using and tweaking this text editor? This will probably take many forms: small weekly tips for constant improvement, Emacs Lisp and Org Mode courses, and so forth.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be an even better user of Emacs. I want to work more efficiently and fluently, and I want to have more fun with it too.
    • Who might find it useful? People who want to keep tweaking how they use Emacs. Mostly developers, but probably also writers and people interested in personal information management
    • To do this, it would be good to read:
      • Archives of Emacs blogs (ex: the ones featured on
      • Manuals for Emacs, Emacs Lisp, and popular packages
      • the (small) collection of existing Emacs books
      • Related technical books for taking people beyond the beginner stage
      • Books about technical writing and learning design
      • Source code
  • A guide for creating your own personal knowledge management system: I doubt that a one-size-fits-all solution will work, at least not with our current understanding. But I want to learn more about different approaches, I want to make mine totally awesome, and I want to help people build their own from the pieces that are already out there.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to have a wonderfully organized system that lets me easily capture, review, make sense of, and share what I know. I also want to have the vocabulary and concepts to be able to critically examine this system, spot gaps or opportunities for improvement, and make things better.
    • Who would find this useful? Fellow information packrats, writers, bloggers, self-directed learners
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Personal knowledge management and personal information management
      • Guides to using various tools
      • Information architecture
      • Library science
      • Writing and sense-making
  • Tips for self-directed learning and experimentation: How to structure your time and learning, how to recognize and explore interesting questions, how to take notes, how to make sense of things, and so on. I want to learn more effectively, and I want to help other people learn more effectively too.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be able to structure courses of study for myself, take great notes, build useful resources, and accumulate new knowledge.
    • Who would find this useful? Self-directed learners who want something more than online courses
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Quantified Self, experimentation
      • Note-taking and sense-making
      • Self-directed learning
  • More notes on working out loud: particularly addressing the excuses and barriers that get in people’s way. To do this, it would be good to read about:
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to have a smooth workflow for learning and sharing. I want to have a wide network of people who can build on the stuff I’m learning about, and who get manageable updates that are scoped to their interests.
    • Who would find this useful? Individual practitioners interested in building their skills and network; social business advocates; bloggers who are also working on building personal insight and shared knowledge
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Social business, social learning, working out loud, personal learning networks, and personal knowledge management
      • Collaboration, team communication
      • Writing at work
  • Visual thinking: particularly in terms of using it to clarify your thoughts, remember, and share. To do this, it would be good to read about:
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be more fluent in using visual tools to explore thoughts and figure things out. I want to improve in terms of visual organization, technique, clarity, explanation, integration into my self-directed workflow, and so on.
    • Who would find this useful? People who’ve already started doodling (or who are picking up the hang of it) and who would like to use it for more things
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Mind mapping and other forms of visual organization
      • Sketchnoting
      • Planning
      • Blogging and other forms of personal publishing
      • Journaling
      • Information organization and sense-making
  • Something about how to follow the butterflies of your interest, because I rarely see this perspective in productivity books and because it’s something other people might find helpful.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? I want to get better at going with the grain of my energy, doing what I want to do (and doing the work that helps me want what is good to want).
    • Who would find this useful? People with many interests – scanners, multi-potentialites, Renaissance-people-to-be.
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Career and life planning, especially unconventional paths
      • Productivity
      • Writing, note-taking
      • Psychology, cognitive limits, distraction

Hmm. I’ve done literature reviews before, collecting quotes and references and connecting things to each other. I can do that again. It doesn’t mean giving up my impulse reads, my openness to serendipity and surprise. It simply means choosing something I want to learn more about and then taking it all in, with more awareness and less evaluation, so that I can get a sense of the whole. This will help me find the things that have already been written so that I don’t have to write them again. This will help me collect different approaches and ideas so that I can springboard off them.

I like books with references more than I like books without them. Books with few references feel like they float unanchored. I recognize ideas but feel weird about the lack of attribution. There are no links where I can explore a concept in depth. On the other hand, too many references and quotes make a book feel like a pastiche with little added, a collection of quotes glued together with bubblegum and string. A good balance makes a book feel like it builds on what has gone before while adding something new. I want to write books and resources like that, and if I’m going to do so, I need notes so that I can trace ideas back to where people can learn more about them, and so I can make sense of that conversation as a whole. Deliberate study helps with that.

What topics will you read about in 2015, and why? What are the changes you want to make in yourself, what are the resources you can build for others, and what books can you build on to get there?

Possibly related:

My current book workflow

I pick up a lot of information from books. We have an amazing public library system, and I’m at the library at least once a week. Here’s my current workflow for reading and taking notes on books.

Finding books to read: I check the library’s new releases for interesting titles. I have a Ruby script that extracts the information and puts it into a text file. I delete anything that doesn’t interest me, and then I copy the IDs into another Ruby on Rails system that requests all the books for me. Sometimes I search for books by topic or get recommendations from other people.

Reading books: I’ve successfully weaned myself off the bad habit of folding over the corners of book pages (dogearing). Instead, I use book darts to point to the passages that I want to copy into my notes. I have only one tin of them, so that encourages me to harvest the notes from books before moving on to other books. If I don’t have my book darts handy, I use strips of paper, but they’re not as awesome.

I also keep paper and pen handy (index cards, or the small notebook I always have in my vest) so that I can take notes on ideas, questions, and other things that aren’t directly in the text of the book.

I mostly read non-fiction, so that’s easy to skim for interesting bits. I usually check the table of contents to get an overview of the book. I have no qualms about jumping straight to specific chapters and then wandering around a bit, or even picking just a few pages out of a book. I rarely use the index (and most books don’t have a good one anyway), although maybe I should check that more often.

Taking notes: I keep individual text files named after the title of the book (and sometimes authors as well). I usually include the ISBN so that I can easily look up a book later. The text files contain quotes, ideas, TODOs, and other notes.

If no one else is around and I feel like patiently dealing with speech recognition, I open Dragon Naturally Speaking and dictate the passages from the books. This helps me train Dragon’s speech model as well, which might be handy someday. If other people are around, though, I’ll just type in the segments from the book.

I usually type in my paper notes so that they’re more coherent (since I tend to write keywords instead of full thoughts). If I want to scan my index cards or notebook pages, I pop those into my Fujitsu Scansnap ix500 and scan them as JPG. I convert the JPGs to PNG and rename them with the date and title, and then I move them to a folder that gets automatically imported into Evernote. Evernote lets me search for text, and it also tries to find text even in scans of handwriting. It’s not perfect, but it’s decent, and I’ve learned to write more clearly because of that.

Looking things up: Since most of my notes are text, I can use grep to search through them.

Sharing what I know: I sometimes include excerpts or ideas in my blog posts. When I do, I link to the blog post from my text notes as well, so I can see what I’ve digested further and shared. If I’m reading a book that I know I’ll want to share with other people later (or if the authors have asked me nicely =) ), I sometimes visually summarize the book.

Following up on ideas: I add TODOs to my Org Mode agenda. I can also schedule reminders for things. I’m a little hesitant to add my books directory to the org-agenda-files list that Org Mode checks for TODO items (I have hundreds of book notes now!), so I’ve defined a custom agenda command that looks at just the book directory instead. Alternatively, it’s easy enough to grep the TODO keyword.

Planned improvements: I’m curious about the idea of a syntopicon, which I picked up from Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book. A syntopicon is a map of ideas across multiple books. With Org Mode’s support for indexing and links, I should be able to make something like it. I’m also looking forward to writing more about what I do with what I’m learning from books. This helps me challenge myself to learn actively instead of just letting a book flow through my brain.

Mmm, books!

If you’re curious, you can read about my past workflows:

Becoming a better reader

My particular weakness when it comes to reading is that I can end up skimming lots of books without deeply absorbing new insights or triggering new actions. I get practically all of my books from the library. I check their lists of new acquisitions (updated on the 15th of every month) and request all the titles that look interesting. Having gone through a huge number of books, I find myself less patient with books that don’t teach me something new, or at least say things in a more memorable way.

When do I get the most value from the books I read? How do I shift my reading to more of that?

2014-08-29 Becoming a better reader

2014-08-29 Becoming a better reader

E-books might  expand more of my reading time to the subway, displacing gaming time. If I read by topic instead of getting most things through new releases, then I’ll be reading more intentionally. What am I curious about these days? Skills, mostly, along with the occasional bit of personal finance and small business management. Those topics lend themselves easily to application and experimentation, so then I’ll learn even more from experience. I also enjoy coming across the context of familiar quotes and concepts, so that’s part of the reason why philosophy books are interesting for me.

I’ve got lots of notes that I haven’t turned into blog posts, experiments, and follow-up posts. I like how I’m starting to get a hang of the connections between books. Reviewing will help me connect those dots.

Maybe I should get back to sketchnoting some of the books I read – perhaps my favourites, as a way of sharing really good ideas…

Thinking about my reading

I read widely and voraciously. Every month, I check the list of new releases at the library and request the titles that interest me. From time to time, I’ll pull other books off the shelves. When I have a new research interest, I borrow 7-10 books about it. Most of the time, I skim tables of contents and jump to the specific chapters I’m interested in. Few books deserve a close reading and lots of notes. For example, out of the twenty-seven books I lugged home a few weeks ago, I took notes on three:

Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Ann M. Blair, 2011: Yale)
Loved the historical notes on note-taking, indices, and other good things. Learned a lot from this. Very geeky, though.
Epictetus: Discourses and Selected Writings (trans. and ed. by Robert Dobbin, 2008: Penguin)
Interested in Stoic philosophy.
Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (Adam Grant, 2013: Viking)
Research validation for strategy of giving; role models to look up and learn more about? (ex: Rifkin)

I was thinking about why I read a lot of books and when it might make sense to adopt a different strategy. One of the nuggets I picked up from Too Much to Know was this viewpoint from Seneca:

Instead Seneca recommended focusing on a limited number of good books to be read thoroughly and repeatedly: “You should always read the standard authors; and when you crave change, fall back upon those whom you read before.”

Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Ann M. Blair, 2011: Yale)

Restricting myself to a small canon feels slightly claustrophobic, but I can see the point of rereading, absorbing, enacting, experimenting, digging deeper. After all, the limiting factor is rarely knowledge. More often, our growth is limited by action and reflection. For personal growth, it’s not a matter of reading more books — although sometimes the right book can unlock some more understanding through a different perspective. I still like the way that reading lots of different books leads to interesting connections between diverse ideas, though, so I don’t think I’ll quite give that up. Maybe I’ll just reread particularly good books (or at least my notes of books!) more often, as I set up, go through, and review exercises and experiments associated with them.

Breadth and depth in reading

Breadth and depth in reading

Why do I read books, anyway? What do I get out of them? If I’m clearer about what I value, then maybe I can get better at choosing promising books, and also at understanding how I feel about various books. I had been looking forward to reading this social media book for a while, but I found myself a little disappointed in it. It was thorough and probably very useful, but it felt… dry. Another book was vibrant with stories, but didn’t translate into actions I was moved to take. Why do I read? What resonates with me?

I started by writing down different reasons, and then I ranked them in terms of importance. The results surprised me.

What do I look for when I read? - What are my goals?

What do I look for when I read? – What are my goals?

It turns out that I read primarily to find different approaches that I can consider or try out. This probably explains why books that proclaim the One True Method rub me the wrong way. I prefer books that lay out several strategies and describe the situations where each strategy may be more appropriate. I can use those strategies myself, and I can also pick up ideas to share with others. I can still read single-strategy books, but I have to do more of the comparison myself, and there’s always the suspicion of confirmation bias and cherry-picked stories.

On a related note, I like the way that books present a collection of ideas. When I search for information on the Net, I often end up with a zoomed-in view and little context. It’s understandable. That’s how I write on my own website – in disconnected chunks. With a well-structured book, I can learn from the related ideas that the authors include. That said, I prefer it if the authors actually worked on figuring out logical connections instead of throwing everything together in a grab-bag of miscellany.

Books are also handy for chunking ideas in a mental shorthand. For example, having read Taleb’s book, I can use the “black swan” as a mental shortcut for thinking about the certainty of unpredictable events. Reading books about communication makes it easier for me to see patterns and work with them. The danger is that I might oversimplify, smooshing real-life observations into these neat pigeonholes – but it’s probably better than not knowing what to even look for.

What kinds of books suit me well?

What kinds of books suit me well?

There are probably books that suit me better and others that suit me less. I can’t tell all these things from the titles and I refuse to be limited to bestseller recommendations, but I can get a sense of what a book is like from a quick read of a chapter. I’ll still read books outside this model once in a while, but it’s nice to know why some books end up dogeared and others skimmed.

As for closer, repeated reading, I think it comes down to being moved to action, identifying the triggers for change and the new actions I want to take, keeping notes on the experiment, and circling back to the book to check my observations against the author’s notes. There’s also this idea of not just being driven by my own questions (since I’m still learning how to ask good questions myself), but to very very carefully pick good teachers and sit at their feet (virtually, of course). Epictetus comes highly recommended throughout the ages, so he might be a good one to start with.

I’ve been reading all my life, and there’s still so much more to learn. =)

How to read blogs efficiently with a feed reader

Books tend to be better-organized and more in-depth, but these days, I get more current information and insights from blogs. Reading lots of blogs can take time, though. Worse, it’s easy to get distracted by the interesting links and ideas you’ll come across. Next thing you know, it’s two hours later and you haven’t even started working on your project.

Here are the tools and strategies I use to read blogs. I hope they help!

I subscribe to blogs I regularly read, and I read them using a feed reader. Some blogs are great for inspiration and serendipity. Other blogs are written by people I’d like to learn more about, and I don’t want them to disappear in my forgetfulness. Instead of subscribing by e-mail, I use a feed reader to organize the blogs I want to read in different folders, so I can prioritize which folder I want to read first.

You might not have come across feed readers yet, or you may already be using one without knowing what it’s called. Feed readers (also known as aggregators) are tools that go to all the blogs you’ve subscribed to and get a special version of the blog updates formatted so that computers can easily understand it. The tool then displays the information in a form you can easily read.


Many feed readers allow you to organize your subscriptions into folders. For example, I have an “AA Skill Development” folder for professional development blogs that I skim when I find myself with a moment of time. I add “AA” to the beginning of folders that I’d like to see first in the list, since the folders are alphabetically sorted. Organizing your subscriptions into folders is great because that allows you to quickly read through lots of similar topics together.

I read most blog posts on my phone, quickly paging through headlines and excerpts. I rarely read blogs when I’m at my computer. After all, I could be doing something more productive instead, and I don’t want to get distracted by the links. The Feedly app isgreat for this because it can synchronize across devices. Many feed readers even let you read while you’re offline, which is great for learning things when I’m on the subway. Lately I’ve been skimming through everything, newest posts first. It doesn’t take me a lot of time to do so, and it means that I don’t forget to read the folders down the list.

When I come across something I find interesting, I use the Save for later feature in Feedly. I can then follow up on it when I get back to my computer by checking my Saved for later folder. I usually save this for my weekly review. In fact, I have an If This Then That recipe that copies my saved items into Evernote, and I have an Emacs Lisp script that exports that list and makes it part of my weekly review. That’s probably the geekiest part of my setup, so don’t worry if that makes you gloss over. =)

You don’t have to read everything. You don’t even have to skim through everything. Feel free to use the Mark all as read feature, or to ignore the unread count.

Most feed readers can autodetect the feed for the site you want to subscribe to. For example, if you want to add this site to your Feedly, you can try putting in and it should show you the recent posts. I write about a lot of different topics, so if you want, you can subscribe to just one category. For example, if you only want my learning-related posts, you can subscribe to .

I like using the free Feedly reader, and there are many other options out there. I hope you find something that works for you!