How to Read: 9 Ways to Get the Most Out of Books
Learn the strategies I’ve developed over time to get more out of books by extracting, retaining, and applying their knowledge.
No matter if you are a novice or aficionado, or prefer fiction or nonfiction, cultivating your reading habit should be a priority if you care about self improvement.
In addition to intellectual growth, there are numerous other personal development and wellness benefits that you can gain from being an avid reader.
The purpose of this guide is to help you reap these benefits by refining your reading routine. At the end of the guide you’ll also get instructions on how to download a printable reading checklist that summarizes the nine how-to tips I will discuss.
But before jumping into the how, consider the reasons why.
Why You Should Read
Summarizing the benefits of reading deserves its own dedicated post, but here are a few you’ll find especially compelling.
Strengthen Your Mental Capacity
In “More Scientific Evidence That Reading Is Good for You,” The Atlantic discusses research reported in Neurology that shows reading slows mental decline as your age.
Improve Your Emotional Intelligence
According to research published in the journal Science and reported by CNN, reading makes you more empathetic and understanding of the differences in beliefs and desire than others.
Aid Relaxation and Sleep
In Sleep Club and the Sleep Basics course, I curate studies that support incorporating reading into your bedtime routine to aid in winding down and falling asleep faster.
Extend Your Life
Bigthink reports on a study by Yale University that found people who read live longer than those who don’t.
How to Read
Read with Purpose
Be intentional about what you read by establishing what you want to get out of it. Reading mindlessly can be demotivating because you risk consuming material that is not interesting or relevant to you.
As Gretchen Rubin advises in Harvard Business Review, to form successful habits, know what motivates you. This is also the case when developing the habit of reading.
Here are a few things you should think about before selecting a book to read:
- Determine the life theme (e.g. work, health, relationships) you want to target.
- Decide what you want to get out of it (e.g. entertainment, information, motivation).
- Align the book with the occasion (e.g. vacation, work, leisure).
Also, take into consideration that healthy lifestyle habits (such as a good diet, frequent exercise, and quality sleep) make you smarter and better at concentrating, comprehending, and retaining knowledge.
Thoughtfully Select Titles
Just like you carefully pick your job, apartment, and even friends, you should exercise discernment when it comes to choosing your books. This will maximize the chance for a good read.
In “Three thousand reasons to choose your reading carefully,” featured in The Guardian, a writer and avid reader estimates that she’s read 1000 books of the 3000 she believes she can read over her lifetime.
She discusses why it is imperative to be discerning with what you read:
But what is a worthwhile read? If we can calculate how many books we will read in an uninterrupted lifetime, at what point should we draw the line? Life is short and books are long. We don’t get to read many of them and I’m starting to realise that some books don’t deserve to be among my theoretical 3,000 … The books that deserve a place among my remaining 2,000 reads are those with an idea that excites me … I’ve got 2,000 books left to read, at best, and I intend to be ruthless in choosing them.
You can curate your books ruthlessly with the following steps:
- Investigate the author’s background for credibility on the subject matter
- Skim the summary of the book for context, making sure it peaks your interest
- Refer to curated lists, expert critiques, and consumer reviews to gather a bit
- Feel free to select a few books to read simultaneously (but always remember quality over quantity)
Below is a list of resources that can assist you in finding books to read:
- Amazon 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime
- Harvard Book Store Top 100 Books
- Goodreads social book cataloging website
- Project Gutenberg free e-book archive
- New York Times Bestsellers
- Scribd digital library subscription service
- Time 100 Best Novels
If you are particularly interested in personal growth and self-improvement, explore my list of The Best Books for Improving Your Life.
Allocate Ample Time
Don’t let reading be an afterthought or something yo do when you are so bored you can’t think of anything else. Instead, make it a consistent part of your routine by scheduling dedicated time.
Sure you can definitely use sporadic bursts of downtime (e.g. on your daily train commute) to squeeze in a few pages. But reading is more fruitful when you carve it into your calendar like other important commitments.
If it’s difficult to find time, read Fast Company’s article “How Busy People Make Time To Read–And You Can Too” for ideas.
Once you are able to allocate time, follow the tips below to make the most out it:
- Create the right atmosphere with a special reading area
- Eliminate noise and distractions during this time
- Make sure you are in the right frame of mind to read
review the Contents
Before you start on your selected books take a moment to pre-read by reviewing the table of contents, determining what sections are the most relevant to you, and quickly skimming interesting chapters.
This process, also called prereading, increases your capacity to comprehend the material. ThoughtCo provides an approach to prereading and quotes author Michael Austin on this method:
If you build the big picture before you start, you begin reading the text with a conceptual framework already in place. Then, when you encounter a new detail or a new bit of evidence in your reading, your mind will know what to do with it.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to pass on a book or stop reading one your’ve started if it’s just not interesting. Remember, life’s too short to spend on a bad book.
Take Good Notes
As you work through a book, highlighting text in addition to jotting down thoughts and ideas, is an effective learning tactic. It helps you log important points and interpret those points by summarizing them in your own words.
There are two ways you can take notes — by hand or digitally. Taking notes by hand is thought to increase comprehension and memory retention. While digital notetaking make it easier to access for future purposes.
The Cornell notetaking system, as reported by Business Insider, is a popular handwriting method used in the classroom, that you can adapt for personal reading. Be sure to purchase a good notebook brand (such as a Levenger Circa) that is optimized for this method.
You can also just mark up the physical book in the margins (an ancient literary technique called marginalia), so long as you are disciplined about going back through all of the pages to compile your thoughts. Ryan Holiday, in 99U, discusses marginalia and other ways to read more actively.
Digital notetaking is my preferred method because I'm constantly relying on book notes for my business and blog. My simple process is:
- Highlight and comment on text in my Kindle
- Export highlighted text and comments to the Bear app
- Use tags to organize notes (by book name, life theme, etc.)
- Leverage search functionality to retrieve later
You can use any e-reader or note taking app you prefer so long as it’s easy to highlight, export, and organize.
Analyze Your Notes
Synthesize your notes by pulling out the most relevant information. The process of distilling your notes helps you isolate core insights for future use. Questions that you can ask yourself to aid in this process are:
- What are the key points the author wants you to take away?
- Of these key points, what do you find most compelling?
- Are there in particular sections or highlights particularly insightful?
- Is this book similar or connected to another you’ve read? How do the ideas conflict with or support each other?
- Were there any big aha moments during or after the read?
- Was this a satisfying read? Would you recommend it?
In terms of retaining these insights, use the recommendations from Psychology Today's “Eight Ways to Remember Anything.”
Apply the Insights
This is where you gain the most value from reading.
Once you synthesize the book and pull out the most relevant insights, select a few you’d like to apply to your life. Then make a game plan for how and when you’ll apply the core points.
Obviously this may not be applicable to purely entertainment books, but for others there may be points you want to remember and benefit from.
This is one of my favorite ways to continually work on personal growth and enhancing elements of my lifestyle. When I read I’m almost always looking to become wiser and make the necessary changes to improve.
Pay it Forward
Don’t be reserved about share your reading recommendations and insights with family, friends, and colleagues. You can do this by leaving reviews, discussing on your blog, or bringing up at social gatherings.
Engaging in dialogue about the books you’ve read not only adds value to others, but also helps you become more enlightened about the material (as you reflect on the diverse opinions and feedback you’ll get back).
Take a Hiatus
Many people boast about reading 100 books or more a year. That’s ok, but you aren't in a competition. You can read as many books as you want (and even read a couple of titles simultaneously) but remember it's about quality over quantity.
Go at your own pace and take periodic breaks between long bouts of reading to give your mind a rest. As I discuss in How to Overcome Procrastination by Embracing It, the brain can quickly become overwhelmed with new information. Give it an opportunity to process what you’re consuming.
Reading is one of the great joys in my life. I wouldn’t be the person I am without the books that have sparked my curiosity, influenced my philosophy on life, and helped shape my personal vision.
I wholeheartedly believe that cultivating a consistent reading habit can change your life, as it has mine. Take inspired action by exploring the supplemental resources.
How to Read Checklist — Join my community and get access to my free resources which includes a printable reading checklist that summarizes the nine tips from this guide.
How to Read (a lot) More Books This Year — Harvard Business Review
How to Read a Book — Mortimer Adler