Read. Comprehend. Apply.I’m a bit of an information freak…

StrengthsFinder says one of my top 5 strengths is “input”.  Input translates to collecting and archiving all types of information for potential use later on.

This is true… I do this, and I enjoy it.  But, I find it to be a weakness as well.

I’d find myself spending hours on things I’d probably never need, and none of that time was spent on comprehending and applying what I learned.

So, finally, I address that…


Low Information Diet and The 80/20 Rule

First things first… time to cut down on the volume of content I try to consume.  I did an 80/20 analysis.

If you aren’t familiar, the rule says that 20% of your input gives you 80% of your output.  In other words, I needed to find the 20% of things I did that gave me 80% of my results; results being new knowledge and skills.

The first thing I cut was blog subscriptions.  (Credit to Tim Ferriss for encouraging low-info diets, and as far as I know, coining the term.)

I cut out a lot of blogs/newsletters.  Lately, I began using podcasts to consume content and enjoyed it much more.

It was a challenging first step to unsubscribing to so many blogs that I enjoyed reading and have followed for so long.  But, I did what I needed to do.


Podcasts and Books

Like I mentioned, podcasts became my main way to consume content.  I listen while getting ready in the morning, taking the dog out, in the car, washing dishes, and at the gym.

Podcasts are easy to include in my day without setting extra time aside for it.  (Can’t do all those things so easily while reading a blog!)

That said, reading continues to be my favorite medium for quickly building expertise.  Books are like blogs, but given with a structure to support learning.  A good book is comprehensive, concise, and builds upon itself, page after page.

It’s also easier to pull out the best information when it all flows in some order.  (Reading on a computer screen is killer anyhow!)


My Learning Method

I have four parts to my method.  Let’s look at how each part is important.  Hopefully, this will help you also.


1. Read and Highlight

This seems pretty straightforward, but here’s my thoughts on the best method to read.

Print over Audio and Digital: I find comprehension and note-taking best in print.

Kindle has done great in providing cheap books with note-taking and bookmarking tools.  However, I don’t find it as enjoyable or effective as putting highlighter-to-paper.

In Neuro-Linguistic Programming, there’s a technique called “anchoring”.  You program certain feelings based on your physiology and mindset.  A rule in this is that more senses incorporated into your anchor means it will be built into your physiology and memory better.  I have a feeling the same may be true for highlighting, which on paper has a more physical, feeling component.

Regardless of if you buy into that, figure out what works best for you.  This works best for me.

As far as audio, it’s awesome for fiction.  However, when you want to take notes, you end up pausing every few minutes.  That gets very old, very fast.


2. Write a Review

One week after completing book.

Reviewing your books forces you to articulate the benefits, as well as what you and the book are still lacking.  It also makes you think about who this book was intended for and what the prerequisites may be.

Then, you can see if there’s something at a more basic level you should look into, or something more advanced next time.

The structure of the review is roughly:

  • Benefits
  • Drawbacks and What It Lacks
  • Who Should Read It

BONUS: You’re doing a favor to the author and your fellow readers.  Leave reviews!


3. Copy Down Notes

At least three weeks after leaving the review.

When you were reading, you should have taken some good notes by highlighting the important parts.  If not, you’re best off going back and starting over.

All you have to do at this point is type out all the highlighted portions of the book.  I always tell myself I’ll limit it to 1-2 pages, but I find my documents to range from 2 to 14 pages (including visuals).

The key is to copy the main points, formulas, and things you need to ingrain in your memory.


4. Create an Action Guide Checklist

At least two months after copying notes.

Finally, I find it helpful to create “action guides” based on what I learned in books.  This is particularly helpful for business books, as well as some self-help.

The purpose is to create a checklist, so that next time I have to complete a task of some sort, I can simplify the process with a “just do a, b, and c” methodology.

Keep it simple.

I build these checklists in Excel, with the first column as the note title.  I use the “comment” feature to add more detailed notes that don’t fit in the title cell.

The second column will be titled “DONE?”  When I use the guide, the cells under it will either have a date of completion or just list “DONE” – whichever makes the most sense.

The third column can be used for further notes.  Again, the comment feature over the title is best for long notes, while this can be a few more words to add to what the title says.

That’s it!  But, it’s one of my favorite ways to make my books actionable.


Notes for My Learning Method:

Spaced Repetition

I use spaced repetition as a way to increase comprehension.  I want to permanently learn something, rather than read it, note it, and forget it.

You see this in my method by how I give minimum time-frames between tasks.

The idea is that if you progressively review material over time, with increasing intervals between reviewing it, you learn it permanently better.

The standard intervals published by Pimsleur were 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, and 2 years.

I decided on 1 week, 3 weeks, and 2 months.  I found this to be good enough timing for me personally, but also set that as a minimum.  I’m sure there’s some action guides I won’t get to for 6 months after reading.


Scheduled, Focused Time

I set one hour a week on Sundays to do my reviews, note taking, and action guides.  I try to be serious about this, as I find it very important and helpful.

You can set your own schedule based on when you want to do it, how long you want to dedicate to it each week, and how much you read.  These factors are different for everyone – the key is to experiment.

Some people say Sundays should be taken off.  I agree, but I usually find this fun.  I hope you do, too!


The Result

There’s no way for me to use metrics to figure out how much more information I retain.  However, I can feel the difference.

When I read, I read with purpose.  I read with confidence that I am going to see a return on my investment of time.

And I do believe I retain more, while also pushing myself to apply the concepts in the books I read.

The slight extra effort pays dividends now that I read, comprehend, and apply.



Do you have your own system?  Have any questions about this one?  Let me know in the comments below!