Getting Things Done

Retain more from your reading

How to implement a systematic note-taking habit or process that effectively supports knowledge retention when I am reading. This is the question I continue to try and answer, as I imagine so many others do as well. Not a simple problem, but also not impossible, as we learn from Maria Popova (Brain Pickings) and Ryan Holiday


Both Maria and Ryan have processes which allow them to gather and index information that will be available for them once they sit to write. Myself and many writers I know have the opposite experience. We read and retain some of the book, we kind of remember where we read something and spend too much time hunting it down again. Problem, of course, the ideas we had are lost as we search for the content we need. 

Where did I see that story about … every writer has said at one time!

The ideas below work for both paper and digital, but my focus is on digital in this blog post. I think the paper process might be easier due to the one tool – the book – the digital requires more steps and organization. 


Build an alternate Index

Maria Popova spoke with Tim Ferriss during a podcast. One topic was specific to how she read and researched the topics, how was she gathering and organizing all this information? She shared the process for building an alternate index. A new index for the book you are reading that stores not keywords but ideas and themes matches to the pages that store content that can be leveraged. 

“it’s an index based not on keywords, but on ideas.”

Maria Popova

How to do it

We begin by thinking about the themes or ideas that we want to retain information on. I found Maria’s Brain Pickings Bookshelf useful for understanding themes. Navigate the site and you can see an example of how she may breakdown the reading she is doing. For example, Science is top level, then click a book and you can see other themes on the left. 

However, is science a theme or a keyword? If this is a theme then we want to understand the reason we are reading — what are we researching — and then we will see the book in a particular light. Let’s begin by creating the alternate index.

The process seems simple enough:

  1. Pick the page or grab a notebook that you can write in
  2. As you read the book mark anything that matches a theme you are working on, e.g. quotes, statements, tips and techniques. 
  3. To mark, add the Theme/idea to the new index page and the page number. 

Having a Process

From what I’ve read and what I am currently trying, there seems to be two sets of themes. One is global and found in everything I read and the other depends on the book.

I may find a list of common things like

  • Quotes
  • Definitions
  • Statistics or facts
  • Anecdotes
  • Research or Read
  • Content and information (to quote in writing)

It would also be useful to have a tag for each and when you are reading you can mark the text, so you remember why you market it in the future. 

The dynamic list may be the sub-topics in the theme you are researching. For example, I read technology and currently my sub-topics are DevOps and CI/CD practices. 


Action Index and Key Takeaways from the book

Todd Henry in his podcast speaks about creating a page where you can record your ideas, thoughts, and ponderings. I like this idea because I lose my thoughts when reading and then have to go back and reread to trigger the thoughts again, so basically they are continually lost, like a set of car keys!

I currently create index cards with the highlighted passages from the book. It takes hours to do this and I don’t think I get the same return from the process. In writing this post I also realized a quote from Robert Green. 

“I read a book, very carefully, writing on the margins with all kinds of notes. A few weeks later I return to the book, and transfer my scribbles on to note cards, each card representing an important theme in the book.”

Robert Greene

What caught my eye? “transfer my scribbles on to note cards” He is not rewriting the notes from the book, unless its a quote or passage he wants to reference I believe, but he is documenting his own thoughts from digesting the content. 

This is why I believe the Thoughts/Pondering’s page will be some powerful.  

How to do it

  1. On a new page, different than the new alternate index
  2. Title the section with something that matches the thoughts you are having now. 
  3. Reference the page or chapter to reference again
  4. Write out your thoughts, ideas, learnings

Where to store this content?

I travel for work and digital is my first choice, so I can work anywhere. I also like to move between my Mac, phone, and ipad. My tool of choice right now is Evernote. I’ve been testing “bucket’s” from The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. I have a folder for each project in Evernote and I put everything in it. Notes, video’s, pictures, etc.. and when I am ready to work on the project, I have everything I need to begin. 

Writing it Down

Finally we want to transfer the knowledge from the book somewhere we can use it when we start writing. There are two ideas: 

  • Create index cards that can be leveraged when writing
  • Create the cards in Evernote or Scrivener  where you can use them when writing or print them. 

I hope this information has been useful. I will continue to update this page as I progress in my own research. Please add any useful links or ideas in the comments please. 

Additional Reference

You can read more about these processes here:

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