An opened book on a table

How I read non-fiction books for more retention

These days, I’ve started reading “E-Myth Revisited” by Michael Gerber. I noticed that I developed my own method of reading books. Today, I want to share it: this is how I read non-fiction books for more retention.

To read books, I follow a method based mainly on the Zettelkasten method, described in the book How to Take Smart Notes. With the Zettelkasten method, we keep literature and permanent notes and follow a process to convert literature notes to permanent notes. It boils down to creating connections between notes.

I adapted the Zettelkasten method to use plain text instead of pieces of paper. I’m a big fan of plain text.

The key to retain more from the books we read is to read actively. Read looking for answers and connecting what we read to previous learnings.

This is the six-step process I follow to read non-fiction books.

Step 1: Intention

I switched from reading a book just for the sake of reading to reading a book to answer questions.

I don’t jump into a book with the same attitude if I’m just curious about a subject or want to answer a particular question. I learned I don’t have to read books from cover to cover.

For example, I started reading the “The E-Myth Revisited” to learn how to run a solo consulting practice.

Step 2: Overview

Then, I have a grasp of the book and its content. I use reviews, summaries, podcast interviews, or anything else to understand the overall book content.

Recently, I started to experiment with Copilot for this step. I ask Copilot to generate an executive summary of a book, for example.

Step 3: Note

Then, I create a new Markdown file for the book note. For every note, I use the date and the book title as the title.

I divide each book note into two halves. The first half is for questions and connections, and the second half is for the actual notes.

a rectangle divided into two halves
My note structure and links between notes

Also, I link to the new book note from the book index and the subject index. The book index is a note that links to all books I have read, in alphabetical order. The subject index is a note that references all other notes related to a specific subject. These two types of notes are entry points into my note vault.

For example, I could link to “The E-Myth Revisited” note from a “Consulting” index note.

Step 4: Question

After creating a new note, I read the table of contents, introduction, and conclusion looking for the book’s structure and interesting topics. I skim through the book to find anything that grabs my attention: boxes, graphs, and tables.

In the first half of the book note, I write questions I have about the subject and questions that arose after skimming the book. I got this idea of asking questions about a book before reading from Jim Kwik’s speed reading videos on YouTube.

If I decide not to read the book from cover to cover, I create an index of the chapters and sections I want to read or the ones I don’t want to. I keep this index for future reference. I learned this idea from SuperOrganizers’ Surgical Reading.

Step 5: Read

Then, I read the book while keeping note of interesting parts and quotes in the second half of my book note. I try not to copy and paste passages from the book into my notes but to write things in my own words, except for quotes.

After every chapter, I stop to recall the main ideas from that chapter.

Also, while reading the book, I answer the initial questions in the first half of the note.

Step 6: Connections

While reading or after finishing a chapter, I notice connections with other subjects and my existing knowledge. I use the first half of the note to write these connections and link to other notes.

This is the step where I write my book critique: how this expands or contradicts anything else I’ve learned.

For these connections and critique, the Zettelkasten method recommends a separate set of notes: the permanent notes. The original Zettelkasten proponent used separate handwritten notes and slip boxes for his permanent notes. I keep my permanent notes in the same file but in the first half. This way, the next time I open it, I find my connections and critique first.

Voila! That’s how I read non-fiction books. It’s a combination of the Zettelkasten method with a pre-reading step and my own note structure.

For more content about learning and reading, check my takeaways from Ultralearning, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, and Show Your Work.

Happy reading!