It’s easier to take notes when we’re listening to content. That’s because our hands are free and we can focus on writing down whatever seems important to remember. However, when reading a book, taking notes interrupts our reading flow. It means there is a fine balance between taking too many notes—and reading extremely slowly—and taking too few notes, which leaves much of the knowledge from the book on the table. What is the most effective way to take notes while reading a book?
1. Consider why you want to take notes
Before you even start taking notes, it’s worth asking yourself what your goal is. Do you want to take notes in order to keep track of ideas that come up while you are reading? Or is it to better understand and remember the content? Maybe you only want to take notes for easier referencing in the future. Whatever your goal, it will have an impact on a few decisions you will make when reading a book.
- Paper versus digital. If your goal is to study the content of a book—to better understand and remember—studies suggest that paper is the way to go. Reading paper books leads to better comprehension and better long-term memory. On the other hand, it is much easier to search through digital documents than it is to flip through a book to find a particular paragraph. If your goal is to be able to easily reference certain parts of a book—maybe to write an article on your blog—you may want to consider reading an ebook instead.
- Serendipity versus control. Sometimes, we just want to take notes to experience the pleasure of stumbling again upon the thoughts of our past self. This kind of serendipity can be achieved through highlights and marginalia. But if we want to have more control over the rediscovery process, we may want to have a more structured system, such as an index of the key ideas in a book.
- Learning versus creating. The type of notes you will take will be influenced by your end goal as well. If you want to learn from the book, the notes will be more factual, with the aim to capture key ideas from the author. If you want to create your own content based on your understanding of the knowledge contained in the book, the notes will be more original, with the aim to generate your own ideas.
There is obviously no one-size-fits-all approach to taking notes while reading books, but making the conscious effort to think about your goals is a good exercise to figure out what may be the best approach.
2. Capture key ideas without interrupting your reading flow
The key challenge when taking notes while reading a book is to find the right balance between reading and capturing content. Many people make the mistake of going overboard with note-taking, and end up losing the joy of reading by turning it into a tedious process. Instead, try to make it as seamless as possible.
If you are reading a physical book, grab a pen and write down key ideas in the margins. It could be your own ideas or questions, or concepts described by the author. Try to keep these to a few words only. There is no need to write complete sentences. The goal is just to give your future self a few hints so you can remember what you wanted to capture at the time. Similarly, if you are reading an ebook, highlight the parts you deem important, and write a couple of words to add contextual information. While it can be a bit cumbersome, most ebook readers have this functionality built-in. In both cases, keep it simple, and only capture ideas you find truly meaningful.
If your goal is just to encourage the serendipitous rediscovery of ideas next time you pick up the book, you can stop there. But if your goal is either to learn or to be able to reference your notes in the future, you may want to stop reading at the end of each chapter, and to collate the main ideas separately from the text itself.
Some people like to do this on the inside cover of the book, or on a separate index card, where they rewrite the key ideas with the corresponding page numbers. The index card method can also work for ebooks. Whatever approach you choose, the goal is to make it easier to retrieve ideas later. However, one of the best ways to make these ideas easily available to your future self is to import them into your note-taking system.
3. Import your ideas in your note-taking system
The final—and optional—step is to import your highlights and marginalia into your note-taking system. This is a great way to encourage combinational creativity and idea sex, but it is by no mean necessary. I have many books on my shelf full of marginalia which I haven’t imported yet. Books should be a source of joy, and sometimes I just read for the sake of reading. I don’t want to pressure myself into sticking to a rigid process of having to import notes for every single book I read.
However, some books feel particularly relevant to my work and to the ideas I think about. For these, I find it helpful to add them to my note-taking system, so I can connect them to previous ideas I read about. Importing these ideas into my note-taking system is a way to create a dialogue between the authors whose work I have read. That’s why I make a conscious effort to interlink ideas together.
Whatever note-taking app you use, importing your ideas into your note-taking system doesn’t have to be too much work. Just create a note for each idea, and add a couple of sentences for further context. It’s also good practice to write down any questions or ideas for further research you may have.
Taking notes while reading a book doesn’t have to be a chore. Consider what your goals are, keep it simple, and don’t feel pressured to import every single note into our note-taking system. Reading a book should be an enjoyable experience.