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Accumulate Knowledge From Your Reading

Tools and a workflow to learn more from what you read


Angelo Belardi

Apr 01 2021

5 mins read


I often forget what I read insanely quickly. If I don't actively work against it, the contents of a nonfiction book I just finished can dissolve almost as quickly as I can carry it back to the bookshelf or put the ebook reader on the table. Slight exaggeration? Sure, but you get the idea.

A consistent reading habit helps you stay ahead and can turn into a wonderful learning habit. But what if you usually forget most of what you read?

Read and Condense 📑

While reading, make sure you condense the text into bits and pieces you want to keep for later. The easiest and most prominent ways to do that are highlighting and taking notes. I suggest you highlight while reading and take notes immediately after, to not interrupt your reading flow too much.

Highlight: Highlight interesting phrases and parts as you are reading. Most e-book readers and reading apps (e.g. Pocket, Instapaper) allow you to highlight directly. If you read paper books, common markers work best. But, if you're like me, you might not want to desecrate the book with colorful highlights. My solution is to use a pencil and underline the text instead. That gives me the illusion that I could one day erase these highlights if they're not needed anymore and the book would be clean again.

Hint: Highlight sparingly! It's not condensing if you mark every second sentence or whole pages. When a larger chunk is important, it might be better to summarize it in your notes.

Take notes: After finishing a reading session, you can sit down and take notes. Use the same tool and format each time, so that you end up with your writing notes in one place. Use the note-taking app of your choice or keep a paper notebook dedicated to reading notes. I use Evernote, where I have a notebook for reading notes and create one note per book or article I've read and want to keep notes about. When you're reading a printed book, you can also put margin notes in books or write notes on little cards like Ryan Holiday does.

I find taking notes is impractical if you can't do it directly where you read because you need to switch between tools or apps. On top of that, it can slow down your reading process substantially. Thus, if you can't quickly take notes while reading, I find it generally easier to stick to highlighting only and delay writing summary notes to afterward.

If you want to work with paper and pen for your notes exclusively, I suggest having a look at Ryan Holiday's notecard system (which he points out is not his system per se), at the heart of which also are the two main activities I just described:

Read a book or an article and diligently mark the passages and portions that stand out at you. If you have a thought, write it down on the page (this is called marginalia). Fold the bottom corner of the page where you’ve made a note or marked something (alternatively, use post-it flags).

Use tags

I also find it helpful to organize my highlights and notes with tags, especially when I want to use some of them for a writing project or look something up for work. In both Readwise and Evernote, I can use tags to organize individual snippets in a more structured way.

When I want to gather different bits and pieces about a specific topic, I can now simply look for tags related to it. That brings me insights from different books and articles, in an instant. And not just any, as a Google search would, but insights from stuff I read and liked.

Gather and Learn 🧠

Once you've read and ensured that snippets of these texts were marked and stored, you need to bring them together in one place so that you can go through them again and learn.

Enter the Readwise App, an ingenious tool for rediscovering, learning, and organizing the snippets you highlighted in your e-books, online reading, or even regular books.

Because of Readwise I am now frequently revisiting what I've read years ago. That brings back fond memories and helps me to connect the dots between ideas and experiences. It also shows me which books I should revisit longer by rereading them.

What about the notes? Keeping them organized in one place makes it easy to go back through them, too. When you come across an interesting highlight from a book via Readwise, you might want to look up the notes you wrote about a certain book or article. You can also search for notes with similar tags that a highlight has, or use the full-text search in your note-taking app to search keywords.

That's it. By condensing with highlights while reading and taking notes directly after reading, and making sure you have everything organized in a searchable system, you're now ready to learn more from all your reading materials. So that we all can get just a little less ignorant each day.

My toolbox and workflow

Here are a list and figure of the current set of tools and workflow I use for the method described above. It illustrates how Readwise is at the center when it comes to gathering snippets from various sources.

📑 Read & Condense:

  • Kindle e-book reader
  • Pocket for most online reading

🧠 Gather & Learn:

  • to bundle information from all reading materials, to learn and organize it


❓ Questions about habits or anything else? ✍️ Contact me by replying to this newsletter, writing to ✉️, or via twitter: 🐦 @habitguide

“If you believe you can change - if you make it a habit - the change becomes real.”― Charles Duhigg in "The Power of Habit"

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