5 ways to read more books, and then read them more productively

Takeaway: 5 ways to read more books, and then read them more productively: read with a pen in hand, so you can underline the most valuable nuggets from each book to revisit when you’re done; borrow more reading time from less important activities (like watching TV); capture notes from the books you’re reading on index cards; keep a notepad nearby to capture any thoughts or distractions that come up while you’re reading; and leave as many distractions as you can in another room.

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 58s.

I don’t watch many movies or much TV, but I devour books by the truckload. Most weeks I receive a fresh new box of books from Amazon, and by the time the week is done I’m finished another one or two of them. I’ve had this reading ritual for years, and wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Being a productivity nerd, over the last few years I’ve developed a few reading habits that let me read more books, process what I read deeper, and retain more of what I read. If you’re as into books as I am, these five methods should help you out quite a bit!

1. Always read with a pen in your hand. This has become my favorite way to process books deeper. While reading a book, I underline what will be most valuable to revisit later on, and whenever I’m finished with a book, I go back and read everything that’s underlined. Re-reading everything that’s underlined takes just a few minutes to do when you’re finished, but this simple habit will let you re-process the most valuable nuggets from the books you read. I do this for nonfiction books, too, and underline my favorite sentences so I can become a better writer. Never read a book—fiction or nonfiction—without a pen in hand. (If you like to capture thoughts as you read, it’s worth also revisiting the notes and thoughts you scribble in the margins when you’re finished.)

2. Borrow reading time from something less important. Reading for two or three hours a day is quite a bit of time. But it’s actually pretty easy to borrow that time from something else less important. For example, the average American spends five hours watching TV every day. If you’re average, and you cut your TV time down to just two hours—a much more reasonable amount of time—you free up quite a bit of time for books, and other things that are more productive and meaningful.

3. Capture book notes on index cards. I don’t personally do this, but many of my smartest friends do, so I probably should. When reading books, capture the most valuable nuggets you process from each book on a set of index cards, as you’re reading. This will also let you process what you’re reading deeper, and revisit a short summary of each book later on. The cards serve as a great reference if you’re looking to revisit what you learned from each book afterward, too.

4. Keep a notepad nearby. When you sit down to read a book with few distractions nearby, an incredible number of valuable thoughts will bubble in your head—both related to what you’re reading, and totally unrelated. I find that this is especially the case with fictional books, which stimulate a different part of your brain than nonfiction books. Keep a notepad handy to capture any thoughts, ideas, or distractions that bubble up to the surface of your mind so you can get back to reading, undistracted, and act on the ideas later.

5. Leave potential distractions in another room. Not all distractions are possible to deal with ahead of time—some interruptions, for example, have mouths and can’t be ignored, unlike your smartphone. But whenever possible, it’s worth leaving potential interruptions and distractions in another room when you sit down to read. This allows you to process a book deeper, because you don’t spread your attention out across so many different things, and lets you read faster, because you’re able to become immersed in what you’re reading that much easier.

  • Dan Freedom

    Great tips. especially 3 and 5.
    Another related idea (similar to 3) is to capture the “nuggets” of wisdom and draw up a list of “top 10” and share them with friends and family on special occasions (e.g. birthdays). I find sharing the wisdom is really a way to crystallize it, and also see how others react/interpret.

  • Chris do you have thoughts on speedreading or photoreading (a la Paul Scheele)?

    Great post, thanks.

  • John

    “Most weeks I receive a fresh new box of books from Amazon, and by the
    time the week is done I’m finished another one or two of them.” This is my lament too. I bring in more books from Amazon, but I have to give higher precidence to books borrowed from the library and from friends. What I am commited to read is less than what I am actually doing and my backlog is growing :( Thanks for the great article!!

  • I love #3 — it’s so low-tech, simple, and doable. Most of the books I read are from the library so I can’t mark them up! I read voraciously and am embarrassed to admit that I forget much of what I’ve read or where I’ve learned a particular fact or concept. This would be a big help!

  • Paula

    I have been using the underline method for years. It really works! I like the notepad idea also.Thanks

  • Flower Violet

    underlining really does work! it’s also such a nice way to personalize books. quitting tv was one of the best choices i have ever made – the amount of time it has freed up is insane.


  • Azim Anderson

    In addition to index cards I put my notes into Reflect app – it’s a spaced repetition style notifier that works with Evernote. Really useful! If I really need to memorize my notes I enter then into Anki. Thanks for the great tips as always Chris!

  • tpaciello

    I get most of my books from the library so I can’t write in them. Instead I use small Post-It type tags to mark sections of the book. Then when I finish reading it I go back to every tag and hand write notes in a journal. Having to physically write the notes helps me remember it better and I go back to the journal periodically and review the notes.

  • Cody Tyler Barry

    I have started to pick up more of a reading habit as of late and hope to further grow it.

    One habit that has helped me read more and retain what I read is note-taking as I go a long. I’ma journal junkie and learn best as I write something down or as I read it so combining the two gives me instant sparknotes of my own as well as helps me retain it far longer. The downside is this definitely adds to the amount of time I take to complete a book.

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