How To Get 10X The Value From Every Book You Read

A five-step method to cheat your way to mastery

Photo by Chris Benson on Unsplash

A mentor once told me it is better to read one great book ten times than it is to read ten books once. He reasoned that if you read a book only once, you cannot glean its powerful lessons. You don’t retain enough information from a single reading.

But what if you could read a book only once and extract value as though you had read it ten times? Is this possible?

Yes, it’s possible, and it’s straightforward. You simply need to change the way you read, take notes and absorb the information.

Let’s start with recognizing the obvious.

Most nonfiction authors pad their books with superfluous content. Even the best books contain unnecessary anecdotes, examples and explanations. It’s basic economics. No customer is going to pay $25 for a hardcover book with six-thousand words. And so, publishers set a minimum word count.

The extra padding can serve a useful purpose when done well. It enhances our understanding by demonstrating how a concept works and how it applies to real-world situations. But in almost all cases, it’s overdone. There’s too much of it. It forces us to wade through the mine full of junk to find the handful of gems.

I use a simple process to harvest those gems and create a cliff notes type of summary that cuts out ninety-eight percent of the material. Instead of reading a book ten times to drive home the lessons, you read it once, go through the harvesting process and read your summarized version ten times (or more).

Here’s how it works.

Doing this for the first time

If this is the first time you’re following this process, take five minutes to create a simple folder structure on your computer. Start by creating a folder called “Book Notes.”

Within that folder, create subfolders for the various categories of books you read (see my screenshot above). Yours will differ depending on the types of books you read.

That’s all you need to get started. Don’t worry about neglecting categories. You can always tweak it later.

Read and mark

Keep a pen handy as you read. If you read on an electronic reader, make use of the highlighting feature. Whenever you come across a passage of interest, a critical insight, or a profound statement, put a small asterisk next to it.

If you’re reading a physical book and hate marking up the pages, then use a pencil instead of a pen. Or, you can fold the bottom of the page down as an alternative method; this will disadvantage you slightly as you’ll need to read the entire page again to find the line you meant to retain.

Don’t worry about redundancies or key insights that supersede earlier notations. You’ll deal with that in the next two phases.

You’ve finished reading your book. Congratulations. Now comes the fun part.

Harvest

Create a new document with the title of the book and its author. Here is a snippet from my drive.

Thumb through your book, starting on the first page.

When you come to a marked or highlighted passage, reread it. Does it still seem important to you now that you’ve read the entire book? If so, type it into your document. Here is an example from the book Antifragile by Nassim Taleb.

The great turkey problem — A butcher fed a turkey for one thousand days. The turkey was unaware that the holiday of Thanksgiving existed. The turkey will believe the butcher loves turkeys up until the day he slaughters the turkey. This surprise is the black swan event, but just for the turkey — Antifragile, Pg. 93

As you go through the text, you will come to examples that are similar and superior to the ones you’ve already recorded. This situation happens in almost all nonfiction books. Authors repeat themselves, explain concepts in different ways, and use different analogies.

When this happens, delete the old record and replace it with the new one. If you’re unsure, record both. You will edit later.

Always include the page number (for books) or chapter and timestamp (audiobooks) so you can revisit the source material when necessary.

Edit

You’ve transcribed the best of your book into a document. Now it’s time to whittle down your text into a manageable size. I recommend no more than three to five pages.

Why so few?

You’ll feel more inclined to revisit a three-page document than a twenty-page document. You can capture the best of almost any well-structured nonfiction book in three to five pages. Yes, there are exceptions: compilation books, history and science books.

If you harvest more than that, then you have redundancies or multiple examples and narratives that teach the same point.

Feel free to reword your entries in a way that makes more sense to you. Don’t feel obligated to retain the author’s exact words. The goal of reading any nonfiction book is to glean the lessons. Writing the lessons in your own words will help your comprehension.

Master

Read your book summary once a day for two weeks after you finish the editing process.

Your summarized document should be no more than five pages, so this task should be doable, even if you start another book in the interim.

If you want to 10X the learning from your book, pick out a few of the topics and write about them as though you were teaching it to others. You don’t need to publish it. The mere act of organizing your thoughts and simplifying them into a narrative will enhance the retention process.

Categorize

Let’s pretend you follow this program for a year, and you accumulate dozens of books. Will you read all of those summaries regularly? Probably not. That’s why you should also create a best of the best document to capture the top highlights of each category — an anthology of your most prized lessons.

The example below is from my “Best of Persuasion, Sales and Marketing.” This document is admittedly getting a bit too long and in need of some editing, but I refer to it frequently.

Do your best to keep this document short too. You can leave out the author, book, and page references here. If you need to keep an anecdote or short narrative, rewrite it into as few words as possible.

Use this anthology as a means to trigger a memory about a particular technique or theory, rather than a reread of a book.

Summary

  1. Read and mark
  2. Harvest
  3. Edit
  4. Master
  5. Categorize