How to take effective Book Notes
How much time is wasted if you don't take notes of what you read only to forget it weeks later?
Here's a simple workflow to take notes about the best ideas you stumble upon in books (or reading things on the web) and to build up a compounding knowledge base over time.
Tips on reading books
But before we dive in, here are a couple of simple tips on how you can make reading books more fun and effective:
- Read multiple books at the same time.
- The goal of reading books (non-fiction) is to learn from them. Not to finish them one by one. You don't need to feel bad if you have a half-read book and then start reading the next one.
- Another advantage is that you can switch books when one gets boring. So you don't stop reading altogether. In the end you'll be reading books way faster.
- Skip boring or uninteresting paragraphs or even chapters.
- If something doesn't spark your curiosity, just skip it. It makes no sense to read things you don't care about. Unless you read books for school, why add the extra friction?
Here's the 2-Step workflow I'm using to read books and take notes for about a year. Once I internalized this workflow and created a habit of jotting down notes every time I read something it became something enjoyable I look forward to. I know every interesting idea I read about is not wasted.
1. Take Fleeting Notes while you read
The first step is to capture ideas while you are reading.
A Fleeting Note is a temporary note you take somewhere. It has to be quick, so you don't get out of your reading flow. If you are reading on an iPad with an Apple Pencil, quickly scribble the idea into an app like GoodNotes or the default Notes app. If you are on a physical book, take paper notes. You can also create note "Fleeting Notes" in NotePlan and open it up to add another bullet point.
The content of Fleeting Notes should be written in your own words and summarize an idea briefly. This note is temporary, which means you'll delete it once you have processed it later, so don't worry too much about how it looks and where you put it.
If it's something really interesting, I sometimes take a break from reading and think about it some more while writing it down. I elaborate on the idea by thinking more about how I can integrate it into my work and life.
iBooks + GoodNotes (synced from my iPad, best if you have an Apple Pencil):
Fleeting Notes inside NotePlan (if you have quick access to a keyboard while reading) I was taking while reading a newsletter:
2. Process your Fleeting Notes
Once a week or every few days after reading (Sunday mornings in a cafe with a cappuccino are best), I sit down and go through my recently written Fleeting Notes to create Permanent Notes inside NotePlan:
- I look at every idea I scribbled down from a book and decide if it's still so interesting that I want to add it to my knowledge base.
- If the answer is yes, I fire up NotePlan and start looking for a related note.
- The longer you follow this process and build up a knowledge base, the more likely you have already something very similar on the same topic.
- I'm mostly using
CMD+Jto search for another note. Sometimes I go through the folders directly if I can't remember the right keywords.
- Once I found a related note, I add another bullet point at the end or if it fits into an existing bullet point, I try to integrate it directly.
- Then I write out the title of the new note (as a wiki link
[[new note title]]) and create it by clicking on it.
- The titles of my notes are very long and descriptive like "It doesn’t matter if an idea has an importance, what matters if it’s interesting". This makes it easier to search for the note later.
- I'm using custom IDs before the title of my notes, but they are optional. I'm using a system where I switch between numbers and letters, like
1/1a3b5. I start with
1/1. When I add another note which goes deeper into the topic, I append the next letter:
- Once the note is created, I add a hashtag below the title to capture the source of the idea.
- That's mostly something like #books/SecondBrain ("Second Brain" being the title of the book).
- Then I write down the summary of the idea in bullet points in my own words.
- Here, I elaborate on the idea so I still know what it is about in a few weeks or months.
- Write as if it's for another person. The other person will be you later.
- Check off or delete the original Fleeting Note, so you know this one is processed.
In the example above you can see how I found and connected two related ideas in two different books: "How to take smart notes" from Sönke Ahrens and "Building a second brain" by Tiago Forte.