How and why I read books five times
Does this sound familiar? As you finish the last page of a great book, you experience a high. Armed with new knowledge, you're ready to put this into action. However, a week later, you can barely remember what you read, and a month later, all the time you spent reading hasn't had a material impact on your life's trajectory.
I invested time in establishing systems to capture, store, and organize information. However, I realized that I didn't want to optimize for curating information. I wanted to find a way to take more action and apply what I was reading. The following quote, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, puts it well:
I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.
That then begs the question, “Why don't we put what we read into practice?” The overly simplistic answer is that there's too much information.
As Elbert Hubbard said,
It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do.
That is why I've decided to put my time and energy into figuring out a system that allows information to be distilled into actions. That is why I read through a book five times; each pass through the book is faster than the previous time, and I prune away more and more content until what is left is actionable information.
Pass 1: Read the book.
This is easy! You're just reading through the book like normal.
- You're just trying to bring in the main themes and points.
- You're not trying to retain information or find actionable steps. That will come later.
Pass 2: Annotate sentences that stand out.
Now you're reading through the book for the second time. I like to read physical books, so I use a ruler and pen to underline sentences that stand out.
- Mark things you find surprising or counter-intuitive.
- Mark things you find inspirational.
- More is not better. You're trying to find the 20% of the book that really stood out to you.
- Skim or even skip entire sections that you didn't find interesting.
Tiago Forte, in his excellent series Progressive Summarization (which initially inspired this approach), gives some great advice:
Don’t slip into analysis or interpretation mode, trying to figure out how to categorize what you’re reading, what it “means,” or what topic it falls under. Instead, your only job is to expose the semantic hooks already found in the text itself. And to leave the job of figuring out how to put it to use to Future You.
Pass 3: Find the gems.
Now you're only reading the sentences that you annotated during the previous pass, looking for the gems that spark something in you. In my books, I draw an exclamation mark, but you'll need to play around and figure out what works best for you.
- Mark things that inspire you to take action.
- Mark things that you feel like you need to share with someone.
- Mark things that make you excited about a current or future task.
- As before, more is not better. You're trying to find the 20% of the annotated sentences that are absolute gems.
Pass 4: Organize your gems by topic.
At this step, you take all the “gems” you've found during the previous pass and then start grouping it by topic. Obviously, the book you're reading is already organized; however, you're giving yourself permission to organize the information differently in a way that makes the most sense to you. I use the last several pages in the back of the book to write down topics and page numbers where associated gems can be found.
Pass 5: Start taking action!
You've finally distilled everything you've read into a group of topics, and you can see how many “gems” you've identified that are associated with each topic. Now, pick the topic that you are most excited to act upon, re-read the associated gems, and then formulate a plan of action.
Isn't this too much work?
Yes, this is a lot of work, but ruminating over content to determine actions is valuable work that must be done. The question that you need to ask yourself is how important it is to ensure that the words you are reading have a significant and lasting impact on your life.
There's a good chance that you might not need to write a book as many times as me. However, I'd encourage you to figure out what processes would be helpful to drive you to action. When you do, let me know. I'd love to hear what works for you!
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