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How I read books and take notes

How I read books and take notes

05/06/24

Some folks asked me about my reading and note-taking process. While I have been sharing the journey of reading, books recommendations, and notes regularly on this blog, I have not explicitly written about my method.

So, here it goes. The following is a loose structure that I have found myself following from picking a book to taking notes and applying them. The context switches are crazy so I might not be able to cover all of it here. I have picked some pieces of this method from other great folks on YouTube etc.

Some context first. I pick a topic basis what I can apply immediately. Based on the topic, I look-up on Google, ChatGPT, Reddit, Goodreads, Twitter, and Amazon for recommendations. Most often the recommendations are books, sometimes they are YouTube videos, a documentary, short-clips and such.

Hope this helps you as well!

1. Selecting a book

I mostly read non-fiction and probably 3-4 fiction per year. These non-fiction books are either technical know-how books (like Industrial sketching), or how to present complicated stuff (branding case studies, car building etc.), journey of founders (like Dyson's journey, Jony Ivy's journey, Apple's method of building products, Xiaomi etc.), or learnings from another prolific person (how to run a great service in a world-class restaurant). Each book for me should serve a purpose which is mostly to apply either in personal life or at work. The purpose is mostly to apply either in personal life or at work.

Some examples:

  1. I wanted to write some foundational notes to share with business teams around service design for Urban Company. That's when I picked up Unreasonable Hospitality.

  2. I wanted to setup some Mutual Funds investments for my wife and read through Monica Halan's Let's talk mutual funds to do that.

  3. At the start of this year, I wanted to be more aware of food and my diet and picked up Eat. Delete. to make conscious eating decisions at home and outside.

  4. With the newly formed Native (UC's hardware division) leadership, I wanted to learn how the giants built great hardware companies to establish the right culture from the beginning so picked up Build and Xiaomi and currently reading James Dyson's Invention.

I have numerous such examples. I've gifted friends books that I felt would help them at their jobs, in context. Also recommended books to my wife and folks for specific needs. If you need help in finding one, message me on Twitter and I'll try to help you.

2. Reading & notes round #1

  • I don't have a consistent reading habit.

  • Mostly, I read on flights (to and from Delhi, Kolkata or Pune) or over the weekends

  • I can't just read books. I need some white noise. I typically keep something on TV during weekends or keep munching peanuts in flights.

  • I always carry a click-pen with me and take rigorous notes by the page margins.

  • My books, after reading, are super dirty and full of dog-ears.

  • The notes I take on the book are a mix of highlights, ideas I get while reading paragraphs. I also keep special highlights for good callouts like quotes.

  • I typically read cover-to-cover and end the book by highlighting interesting, relatable tags in the Index section.

  • I mostly finish a book between 2-5 days. After which I keep it on my study table to pick-up again after 7-10 days.

3. Post-reading activities & ideas

  • When I pick up the book after 7-10 days, I start with the Index section

  • I quickly skim through the pages against the marked tags from Index as a quick refresher

  • This is also when I speed watch some YouTube summaries of the same book, reading notes on Reddit or other blogs

  • During this time, I take notes in Muji Passport Memos or spiral notebooks

  • These notes are additional points from YouTube, other blogs, new ideas, and also new insights I get from re-reading the dog-eared pages

  • I also come-up with stuff where I can use all of these information in context

  • Send some as screenshots in my work group or send some notes that a friend might need, or put some new-initiative ideas for work

4. New ideas x notes round #2

  • One of my favourite part of the entire exercise is this round

  • I learned about the concept of using flash cards from Ryan Holiday years ago

  • About a day or two after the previous step, I condense all notes from the book, the passport memo, and the spiral notebook into these flash cards. In my own words.

  • It is a time consuming process and hand hurts but totally worth it.

  • I've been doing this for a few years now and have hundreds of them now.

  • These flash cards contain one piece of insight, information or idea per card. I also write keywords on each card basis where I wish to apply them.

  • Every time I plan to write about a topic, I browse through hundreds of these, pick up the ones that are related or useful and carry them with me to finish the blog. P.S. this collection of picked up cards are mostly notes from very different books, blogs, or other sources.

  • I keep both versions of these flash cards — the actual citation from the book as well as my own interpretations.

5. Publishing book notes

  • After the above steps, I simply pick the stack of flash cards for a given book and type them on my blog as book notes.

  • You can check some of them here

  • These notes are essentially for my own reference and are not meant as replacement for reading books

  • Refer to them to append to your own takeaways or share yours with me so I can append in mine :)

6. Application of what I learned

  • The most important step of all. Application.

  • I keep an exhaustive log of all ideas, cross-pollinated and original in both physical notebooks as well as in Craft (my native app of choice)

  • These ideas have over-time resulted into applications in how I run the team, frameworks for 1-1s, hiring methods & interview questions, hackathons, specific concepts and ideations in my day-to-day at work, new concepts at Urban Company and many such.

Hope this was helpful to you.

Cheers!

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