How to get the most out of every book you read

Millions of books at your fingertip

I was not a reader two years ago. The last book I read from cover to cover was XXXXXX, an historical novel for kids. That was 10 years ago.

Increasing my work-independence in 2018 and 2019 motivated me to prioritize self-organization and productivity. In those two years alone I read 40+ books on habit building, personal organization, productivity and learning. It is not so much about the sheer number of books I read, but about their applicability and relevance to that period of my life.

We live in an unprecedented time:There are an estimated number of 130 million books in the world*, of which a growing amount is available right at our fingertips. You would need around 1000 lifetimes* assuming you don’t do much else then reading, not counting in the new books released every week.

How can we use this privileged position in order to use reading as the primary learning skill to arm us for career and life?

The key success factor is to filter and prioritize as early as possible in the process. In 2001 the Agile Alliance formulated the Agile Manifesto*, including 12 principles to guide teams working in agile projects.

"Simplicity - the art of maximizing the amount of work not done - is essential." - 10th principle of agile project management

I always wanted to "do it all". Maximizing the work not done is the antidote, filtering the noise and separating the important from the insignificant. With millions of books at your fingertip and only one lifetime worth of reading, applying the principle of maximizing the amount of work not done will help you to spend your time wisely.

The following paragraphs are my take to combine the essence of this principle with other project management methods to create a system to identify, organize and prioritize the books you want to read.

Identify - How to find good books.

Exploring alternatives is the first step of every research process. In the so-called diverging phase, we check whether the first books we came across were really the once most beneficial to our project. In this phase it does not matter whether you are searching for books on a specific topic or are trying to establish a reading habit on a broad range of topics. The approach of diverging and subsequent converging stays the same.

When I picked up reading again three years ago I really had no idea where to start. I might have had two or three books in mind, but really I was lost.

Most public figures post their "best reads of the year" or "the books that change me most" online. Checking the reading lists of e.g. Barack Obama and Tim Ferris were the ones which provided me with my first reading list. They overlapped so that I ended up with 20-30 unique books.

Alternatively, if you have a specific topic you want to dive into, the wikipedia article is a great place to start. Seriously: References, bibliography, further readings and external links provide you with a solid starting point for your research. In addition try finding synonyms (through thesaurus)and related keywords (again, wiki) and proceed with the same pattern.

Of the 2-3 sources named over and over again, you either browse again the bibliography, oryou dive right into them. In addition you can put those books into amazon and check out the "Customers who read this book also read" section or check the curated list by goodreads.This again will leave you with a sizable list of 20+ books.

You will need a tool to hold this list. I have set up a template for you to create your first reading backlog. My tool of choice is the free project management tool Trello.

When designing a workflow, such as this reading process, a Kanban board can provide you with the structure needed. As a widely-used project management method, this simple but effective visual tool, enables you to create an overview of what you are reading by assigning the phases of reading. I will keep referring back to it in this article.

Next, you will need to organize and prioritize the books in respect to their value to your project. Even if you end up reading them all, which is very unlikely, general literature will improve your understanding of more detailed books you read later on.

Organize - How to manage your reading backlog.

Going through the backlog of your reading kanban you will get a good idea on what categories you could assign them to.

The main purpose of reading for me is to acquire knowledge on e.g. personal organizing, learning methods or my current learning and research projects (currently it is stoicism: Give that a google-search and it is midnight before you know it.) Therefore categorizing my reading backlog into corresponding subsets has helped me to read the right books at the right time.

Adding categories does not make your backlog any smaller but prepares the prioritization and actual identification of your next reads.

Prioritize - How to read the right books first?

After exploring and diverging to identify possible reads and organizing them into categories, you now need to prioritize the literature. Assuming one solid hour of reading every day you end up with the average reading time equal to one book a week.* You will need to be selective and attentive to what you read.

The often referred to pareto-principle, in variations stating that 20 percent of the effort accounting to 80 percent of the outcome, once again applies.

Think of every book you read and never use as mere amusement in the moment. Which is fine, if you enjoy the author's formulation, story-lines and characters. When talking about non-fiction this is not our prime focus though.

That is why I want to once again stress the point, to be sure you read what is valuable to your life and projects before you start investing those seven hours of reading time.

One principle that helped me has been to select information that survived the longest. Depending on the volatility of your topic this can ensure that the written thoughts you are engaging with are the ones of the best experts on the topic.

"Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers." - Charles W. Eliot

Another angle of identifying which books to start reading is to check interviews with the potential authors, short summaries like blinkest, get abstract or youtube videos. Many of the most-read authors put their main findings on their youtube channels. You can use those teasers to either decide that those information are sufficient for you or move the book up the priority.

By managing and prioritizing your backlog you balance the topics you invest time in, hence leveraging what person you become. For me this meant adding one book outside of my current field of focus and a minimum of one fiction book to decrease the bubble I live in.

Reading - How to find purpose and motivation in the process.

As with every activity that does not provide instant gratification, you need to apply deliberate tactics to keep motivated throughout the process. Reading can be such an activity. Having a goal and purpose in mind keeps you excited and driven over extended periods of time. As for our approach to reading, organization and prioritization have done exactly that: Each book you hold in our hands has a place and purpose and there is no doubt in our mind that it will enrich and improve our life.

Key success factors for getting the most out of your reading:

  1. Read with purpose: Remind yourself of the larger project.

  2. Focus: Concentrate on what you are reading. Check out my Deep-Work routine for inspiration on getting in the zone.

  3. Environment: Create a physical location, with your current reads and aids in arms- reach.

  4. Finger tracing: Use your finger to guide your eye, eliminating regression (i will keep you updated on my speed reading learning project).

  5. Set time aside: Create a routine around reading and don’t leave reading to chance alone.

In order to deeper engrain this feeling of purpose you can remind yourself of the larger project, the reason why you are reading this particular book. I like to take 1 minute to visualize the related project succeeding prior reading. It keeps me focused during the reading process and facilitates filtering applicable information.

When starting to read a new book I like to go through the following steps:

  1. Read title and back cover

  2. Read table of contents

  3. Read introduction/ preface

  4. Scan chapter titles and sub-headings

  5. Scan through the index

  6. Read the first chapter

  7. Critical step: Decide on continuing to read or not

If you have found information that makes you assume that the book will be beneficial to you after those seven steps, keep on reading the most valuable chapters first. Free yourself from the need to read a book from cover to cover in linear fashion.

If not though, put the book aside. Add a note in your reading list and restart the process with your next priority.

As humans we tend to get attached to the things we invest time in. Known as the sunk-cost bias, failing projects are continued in order to not waste what has already been invested. In order to not fall prey to this bias in your reading process, you have to weigh the attention and time you will invest from your decision point on, against what you have invested so far. At this stage of the process we are talking about 10 Euro for the book plus 30 minutes to follow the seven steps above. If you keep reading those 30 minutes will become 6-7 hours. Be strict with books that don't excite you at this stage and put them aside.

To track this stage in the reading kanban I like to keep two columns: Reading next up, Reading Work in progress. This helps me to strategically decide in advance on what books to read and not grap just any book when I finish one.

Taking notes - How to make the reading sustainable.

Besides creating reference material for later use, the act of taking notes increases your attention and focus while reading, resulting in improved retention and value of the read material.

With improving our current life projects as the main purpose, retention and connecting the new knowledge to what we already know, is our main goal.

One of my latest learning endeavors being speed reading I have been introduced to a note taking scheme, which is a free recall pattern in the form of a fishbone diagram.

Similar to the concept of mind map, the central line resembles the main thread of thought with each branch and sub-branch representing detailing ideas. I use this pattern for speed reading practice but have not yet integrated into my daily reading.

One of my favorite techniques when reading articles, is to imagine that I will be interviewing the author the next day. This puts me into the right mindset of remembering the right level of detail.

For note taking on books, my personal process is far from great. SQ3R/SQ4R, Cornel, Free Recall: Those are some of the ophisticated methods* I have not yet tried or failed to implement.

I have found that reading mostly on a e-book reader (and in bed), limits the options to take notes. I mark passages inside of the document and export them as a pdf to digest laster.

Generally speaking, taking notes and marking sections should be a conscious act. Depending on the information density of the book and your prior knowledge of the reading topic you should try to be as selective as possible. Each marked passage, each quote or paragraph will add to the material you will need to revise later on.

I realized being more selective on what I highlighted makes the successive process leaner. Ten pages of notes can seem quite daunting to start with.

Good notes are the basis of using what you have read in your project: During the process of reading they motivate you to read with the purpose in mind and after the process they serve as a reference.

For the reading Kanban I have created the columns Notes_Backlog with the list of books which I have read but not checked the notes again.

Digest the notes - How to use what you have read.

Improving this phase of the reading process has had the largest impact for me: When picking up my reading habit two years ago, it took me three month until I first went through my reading notes. Browsing dozens of pdfs, ideas fell into place with every line I read. I made it a habit to read the notes before they pile up.

In the digestion phase the notes can go three different ways:

  1. become an item on the short-term to-do list

  2. become an item on the long-term action list

  3. become a flashcard in my learning system

At this point you should already be reading only the books directly applicable to what you are currently doing. Therefore you are expecting 1.) short-term items to be the largest portion. Directly applicable to our current work, those are points you can integrate and digest right away.

Some notes fall into the category of ideas, which need further elaboration. I create tasks or schedule slots to think about what those ideas in 2.) mean to me and how I could use them further.

For 3.), e.g. new vocabulary, terms, quotes and concepts I create an entry in my flashcard software, resulting in recalling the information in an intelligently timed manner (search Spaced Repetition System on further information).

After going through the notes of a book I store them as a searchable pdf, tagged for later reference.

Concluding this process I move the cards in the reading Kanban over into Digested. By that I keep track of the notes I have already transferred into actionable steps.

Your Reading Kanban - tool and governance for the job.

If you have followed the suggestions in this post your reading kanban is up and running and single cards, each representing one book, follow the process:

In order to make this system sustainable and keep it improving I suggest you schedule time to reflect on what is working and what is holding you back. Here are some of the questions I ask myself monthly to reflect on the system.

  1. Are there new book sources I want to scan for inspiration?

  2. Are there new book recommendations I haven't included yet?

  3. Are the categories actually helping me or holding me back?

  4. What book notes waiting for digestion are applicable to my current projects?

As part of my weekly review, where I take one hour each Monday to review and plan from the mid-term perspective, I go through my reading backlog and ask for example the following questions:

  1. What books will I prioritize to read?

  2. Which notes will I digest?

  3. Which books will I stop to read?

Setting up a system like this ensures that you relate your daily reading to your mid-term projects and long-term goals and aspirations. Once again the importance of the glue between short-term and long-term actions can not be overstate. (check here on the importance of a weekly review)

I strongly encourage you to take action on organizing your reading process. Identifying, prioritizing, documenting and digesting are a way to improve your efficiency and effectiveness. For me it has made an extreme difference to my learning progress. Having a trusted system gives me the piece of mind to focus on reading itself, staying motivated and getting the most out of every book I read.

Further reads:

On Reading: How to read a book - Mortimer Adler

On Speed Reading: Breakthrough rapid reading - Peter Kump

On Selforganization: HBR's 10 Must Reads on Managing Yourself

On Essentialism: Essentialism- The Disciplined Pursuit of Less - Greg McKeown

On Reference Systems: Das Zettelkasten-Prinzip Erfolgreich wissenschaftlich Schreiben und Studieren - Sönke Ahrens

On Biases: Thinking fast and slow - Daniel Kahneman


*Calculation: 130m books * 2h/ book = 260m h required reading time. 80y * 265d * 10h = 292k h available reading time, google estimate on available books:

*The Agile Manifesto:

*Agile project management: Iterative approach, where mostly software but as well physical products, are developed and created in fixed and undistracted iterati