How to Effectively Leave Notes While Reading
What truly matters is how much of that information you’ve absorbed and used later on. If you’ve read whatever it may be for the sole purpose of going “huh, interesting”, and then discarding it, you...
Although reminiscent of a blackboard and piles of filled notebook pages, note-taking isn’t restricted to high school and college students. In fact, it should be a crucial part of an everyday learning process -- regardless of your occupation.
Even if you’ve been out of school for years now, taking notes is a lifelong skill that will help you really learn what you’re consuming. Not to mention, you’ll be able to keep that information ready for use when you need it most.
Interestingly enough, the act of note-taking doesn’t only concern school textbooks or technical subjects. We’re also talking about blog posts, novels, or any text-based information you’d like to remember in the long term.
Easier said than done, I know. Taking notes requires a bit of extra effort on your part. I’m not sure about you, but not everyone is willing to write down their thoughts no matter how easy it may sound. And there’s a reason for that:
It would be fair to say that most people value the act of reading more than the act of internalizing concepts after reading. As an example, what sounds better: saying you’ve read 100 books in the last year, or saying you’ve read 10 books in the last year?
Be honest with yourself. The former would make you sound like a brainiac, whereas the latter...would just make you sound like a regular human being. Props to you, though.
What most people don’t realize is this: what matters isn’t the number of books you’ve read. That in itself has never made anyone smarter. What truly matters is how much of that information you’ve absorbed and used later on. If you’ve read whatever it may be for the sole purpose of going “huh, interesting”, and then discarding it, you’ve wasted your time.
Who would do that kind of thing, right? That’s the equivalent of not reading a thing. Yet unfortunately, most of us do it without even realizing.
For instance, a lot of us set multiple reading goals for the day, week, or even year. “Read at least one article a day” or “read at least one chapter a day”. That means cultivating a reading habit, which is great. But how much of that reading are we putting to good use? How much of those quotes, insights, and teachings would we be able to casually slip into a conversation and make seemingly effortless connections with them?
If you’re just able to recite fragments of a text without knowing how they fit into different contexts, there’s still work to be done. Repeating what you’ve read is one thing -- learning it is another.
Still, it’s understandable why people would devour an entire library without annotating a word. Pausing your reading in order to write about what we’ve just read is hard work, and that’s why most of us don’t do it. Taking notes may double or triple the time someone would take to go through a single book. Stopping, re-reading, highlighting, and annotating may feel like you’re “stuck” to a book when you could already have gone through a couple more.
As much as I hate to tell you this, leafing through hundreds of books (which is essentially what you’re doing if you’re just reading) won’t do a lot for you. Unless, of course, you’re effectively highlighting the text and taking notes.
If you’re willing to change the way you read for life, keep reading. If you don’t mind decreasing your yearly book count, keep reading. And while you’re here, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind taking a few notes.
Is there a correct way to take notes while reading?
Gladly, the short answer is no.
Some of us will spend $12 dollars on a Moleskine notebook, only to never write a single word on it. You don’t necessarily need an entire note-taking ritual or a color-coding scheme to make your notes effective.
Try not to overthink it, and keep it simple. The truth is, the way you take notes doesn’t really matter, as long as you do it. You could write longhand, you could type, you could use your cellphone notes, or even use the margins of your book if you don’t see a problem with it. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re documenting your thought process.
Needless to say, you should also keep your notes where you can find them. Taking notes is largely about optimizing your time, and being organized plays a large role in the process.
Absorbing knowledge (AKA reading) is just the beginning.
Unsurprisingly, most people stop there. They just let whatever they’ve read sit in their brains for an undetermined amount of time. It can sit there for a while without a problem, but sooner or later it’ll have to scoot over. Especially if you’re reading multiple materials in a short amount of time, your brain will need to make more space for incoming information.
That’s one of the reasons why we often feel like we never remember anything we read. We’re just allowing what we’ve consumed to linger there. There’s no reinforcement, no repetition, no agitation, nothing. Your brain won’t keep inactive information stored for long, so if you’d like to keep it, you’ll have to do something with it.
The process of reading should be your canvas, a starting point you can harness in order to get your mind working. And your mind won’t do its best work without valuable connections.
If it’s any good, the text you’re currently reading will already contain multiple connections within itself. Connections such as examples, similes, and metaphors. That’s great. The only problem is, it was the author who came up with those connections -- not you. Their point of view, although extremely enlightening, shouldn’t be your only source of information.
I’m not saying you have to write an entire novel during your note-taking activity. In fact, your notes can be as disorderly and nonsensical as you wish, as long as you can understand them. The hardest part about the entire process is having to formulate different explanations based on your understanding.
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman cites an interesting point:
“Psychologists think of ideas as nodes in a vast network, called associative memory, in which each idea is linked to many others.”
Throughout generations, humans have gotten smarter with the help of one another: by observing, reading, and listening. This is the concept behind apps like Roam Research and Glasp, which rely on the connection and sharing of ideas to optimize note-taking and research.
In the same paragraph, Kahneman goes on to explain the different types of links ideas can be connected by. He writes:
“Causes are linked to their effects (virus/cold); things to their properties (lime/green); things to the categories to which they belong (banana/fruit).”
Using the above examples as a starting point, there are so many ways ideas can and should be connected to one another. The word “banana” could be connected to “yellow”, “potassium”, even “pajamas” if you’re willing to go a little bit further. This is just a brief explanation to illustrate that just a small idea has a myriad of connections attached to it.
That is to say that you haven’t correctly learned a concept until you can see it from multiple perspectives and connect it to different ideas.
Let’s elaborate on that.
Learning is about making connections.
One of the greatest feelings in the world is going through moments that make you think “hey, this is exactly what I was reading about the other day.” It’s like a metaphorical light bulb has just lit up above your head. You should be excited about it, because that’s a connection you just made. That’s you getting a little bit smarter.
Your brain can make connections like that by chance. It’s designed to do that because, well, your brain never stops working in the background. At unexpected moments, you may find yourself remembering things you’ve seen or read a long time ago.
However, you can fast-forward those connections by pursuing them. Instead of waiting for them to come to you, actively look for them. Go to Goodreads. Go to Reddit. Participate in book clubs. Talk to someone else who has read the same text, and exchange points of view. This is how you get smarter, and this is how concepts stick to your brain.
It’s about knowing that a concept doesn’t stand alone. Like the atoms of certain elements, it needs to be linked to something else in order to reach its ideal state. It could make sense on its own, of course. We know that a hydrogen atom is still an atom. But when it finally receives an electron from another atom, that’s when it becomes noble and stable. Isn’t that a lot more interesting?
MIT neuroscientists have recently talked about brain connections, and how they can be enhanced. According to them, “when the brain forms memories or learns a new task, it encodes the new information by tuning connections between neurons.” These connections, as you may or may not know, are called synapses.
If you’re willing to enhance those connections, you must challenge your mind by exploring different perspectives. Most importantly, challenge your brain to learn and attain novel information.
A great way to accomplish that? You guessed it: by effectively taking notes as you read.
How to effectively take notes while reading
Here’s what you’re here for: a few helpful tips that will optimize the way you take notes.
Avoid copying information directly. This is essentially what we did (or still do) in school: we looked at the board, or listened to the teacher, and tried to cram as many of those exact words on our notes. That’s okay to do if you’re pressed for time during a lecture, for instance. But if you do it, make sure to save some time to review these notes later.
Instead, use your own words to explain what you’ve learned. Once you’re no longer in a rush, revisit the text you’ve copied and try to summarize it in your own words. If you can include additional examples, that’s even better. Here’s a tip: try to keep your notes concise. You may feel tempted to write pages and pages, but avoid that. The shorter you keep your notes, the easier it will be to review them later on.
Wait until the end of a chapter, or the end of a text to take notes. Pausing your reading to take notes after every sentence isn’t optimal. Likewise, if you decide to take your notes when you’ve finished a book, you’ll basically need to reread the whole book. Ideally, you’d highlight important passages and take notes at the end of each chapter you read.
Doing this won’t interrupt your flow, especially if you’re planning on reading just one chapter a day.
You must combine effective highlighting with note-taking! The act of highlighting a text is almost automatic, which is why highlighting without taking notes isn’t as effective. You already know this, but it’s worth stressing that you should only highlight key parts of the text. Don’t just highlight passages because you feel like it, but rather because they incite your genuine interest.
Lastly, revisit the notes you took whenever you need a refresher. Learning doesn’t happen without repetition. Repetition, in this sense, differs from mindlessly and tirelessly repeating things until they stick into your brain by force. That might work if you’re trying to get the perfect grade on tomorrow’s test, but not if you’re trying to learn something in the long term.
Rereading your own notes, in your own words, with the examples you’ve provided to yourself is a lot easier. It’s like another version of yourself is giving you a hand when you need it most, which is fantastic.
Whenever you need a refresher, go to your notes. You’ll be glad you’ve decided to write them down.
The learning process is often personal. But it’s a lot better when shared.
Study groups are a perfect example of that. When you’re having trouble understanding a subject, the best thing you can do is to have it cleared up with someone else.
Most of the time, they’ll use a conversational tone. Essentially, they’ll be using their own words. They may even sprinkle in a few real-life examples, depending on the subject. And that’s what makes the experience of sharing ideas so valuable.
That’s also the reason so many teachers -- usually the ones we tend to like the most -- mix a couple of funny anecdotes in their serious explanations. They know full well that these stimulating “interruptions” will help students absorb concepts a lot better.
With that in mind, knowledge is better developed when like-minded people are involved. The reason being: sticking to like-minded people shortens the learning curve. The hours you would spend trying to decode what a piece of information means are shortened to minutes. Equally, the hours you would spend browsing for texts and then highlighting those texts will shrink. When you have access to the insights of similar people, learning becomes faster, easier, and more enjoyable.
Of course, I couldn’t finish this text without mentioning Glasp. After all, we’re all here to learn something new. With web highlighting and note-taking apps like Glasp, you’ll come across fine folks like yourself, who just want to skip straight to the learning part by sharing their knowledge with other people. If you’re interested, feel free to give it a try.
Take those notes. And while you’re at it, make them available to whoever might need them. Not only will you be retaining information as you go, but you’ll also be leaving your legacy behind, in your own words.
See you next time,