How & Why I Document What I Read

It’s the end of March, and I’ve knocked back 9 books this year so far. That’s 3 books a month. If I keep this pace for this year, I’ll be on track to almost triple what I read last year and have 36 books that I’ve taken in.

With all the books I’ve been reading, I’m super behind on recording them, so while I’m procrastinating, I figured I’d document my process on the how and whys of what I read.

Let’s start with the why — even though the quantity of what I’ve read has increased, the quality hasn’t. And to ensure that what I read lasts in my mind, especially what I’ve learned, I have to record them to remember. Recording the dog-eared pages, quotes, circled and starred passages, and notes from margins is how I’m able to look back and remember what I learned and what I took away from what I read.  It’s amazing to review when I feel stuck and need ideas, because I’ve got a bank of ideas, thoughts and knowledge that I’ve documented.This habit has become incredibly important and gives a deeper sense of purpose for why I read.

This isn’t new. Humans have been doing this for centuries in commonplace books — collecting the bits and pieces of what they encounter that they like or want to remember in one central place. John Locke did it, Emerson did it, Thoreau did it.

Essentially, every time I read a book, I eventually record nuggets from it into my commonplace book, which happens to be in Evernote. I use Evernote for its accessibility – desktop app, phone app, cloud syncing, and search functionality.

Sometimes I think of a quote or an example from a book and search something related to it in Evernote…and there it is! I can recall it easily for whatever I need.

I use Evernote, but there are other methods. Some people actually write down passages in a notebook. Some, like Ryan Holiday (who reads an insane amount of books) uses a note-card system. No matter what you use, it’s important that you have a designated, consistent place to record what you want and you review it every once in awhile.

It’s also important that you don’t just snap photos and record them that way. There’s something about the act of writing and/or typing it out that makes it stick.

My Documenting Method Specifically for Books

While reading a book, I mark it up — dog ear pages, highlight passages, make scribbles, draw concepts, take notes. I’ve become an interactive reader over the years, making my mark on the books I read.

When I finish the book, I leave it alone. Maybe I start my next book, maybe I fill my time with something else for awhile.

After a certain period of time (week to a few months), I go back to the book and read over everything that I highlighted and marked up. While I do that, I add all my circled passages, highlighted passages, notes, ideas, etc. into Evernote. I put the page number and the quote, and then based on what the passage is about, I add a tag to that specific Note.

So for example, if there is a quote I really like on building habits, I might add a tag for “habits” to the Note. Go crazy with your tags, because it makes it easy to recall Notes later.

My way may not be the best way, but it works for me. What’s important is that you implement a system that’s easy to stick to.

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