How to get the most out of reading non-fiction books

Jeremy Jensen

My “stack” of reads in early 2018.

My “stack” of reads in early 2018.

Howdy comrades!

We’ve all heard about the benefits of reading books. It’s well documented that most of the world’s successful and interesting people read incessantly.

Without a doubt, it’s one of the best ways to stay fresh on the latest thought leadership and build continuous learning into your life. I’m not here to convince you of this though, at this point it’s basically conventional wisdom.

What I am here to do though, is to help you read books more effectively. 

First though, I want to articulate why this matters.

The Problem

Let’s face it, most of us don’t have a photographic memory. If you’re anything like me, I will read something and even if it’s fascinating or had a big impact on me, I struggle to remember the details even within a week or two. This is a real shame because honestly, what’s the point of even reading it in the first place if you can’t ever remember what you read. 

I used to get so frustrated trying to recall something I’d learned or read and drawing a blank. I would think to myself, “I spend all this time reading, what is it all for if I can’t remember what I read and adopt what I learn into my life?”

I’m not saying every little thing that comes in one ear goes out the other. I was retaining some things that I could act on, but if I’m being real with myself the vast majority of the knowledge was being lost. 

So I decided to do something about it. 

The Solution

Eventually I realized I needed a system to solve my problem. 

My goal was to quickly and efficiently be able to reference things I had read whenever need be. I literally wanted to be able to pull a book off of my bookshelf I read 3 years ago and turn right to the page and passage I wanted within minutes.

Well my friends, after many mistakes and trial and error I’ve finally developed a system where I can do just that. But before I go into the details of my system, a couple of disclaimers are in order. 

First, this process is only necessary for non-fiction and content-rich books. If you’re reading a romance novel or cracking yourself up with some Vonnegut or Sedaris there’s typically no need to dissect the wisdom nuggets in quite the same way as a dense read from Steven Kotler or Tim Ferriss

Secondly, be prepared for your reading pace to slow down. Obviously, taking the time to mark up your book isn’t as time efficient as speed reading your way through, but I promise the time you invest upfront will save you time and headache exponentially in the future. 

Lastly, this article is mostly for physical books, you know those old smelly heavy things sitting on the shelf of your dad’s home office. Remember those?

Yeah, old school actual books are the shit guys. I’m sorry, the Kindle or iPad version just isn’t the same. I’m yet to run across an e-book interface that allows me the same freedom as a good old fashion bound book with a pen.

How am I supposed to write what’s important to me in the column with a Kindle? The exception is a good guilty pleasure fiction book or novel. I have no problem reading Water for Elephants on my iPad on the beach, in fact I recommend it. But devouring Deep Work on an e-reader, I wouldn’t be caught dead!

Okay, I digress. Back to the topic at hand. 

The System

The system I’m about to lay out for you took me years to develop and get right. In fact, I’m still making tweaks and optimizing the process. It’s also worth noting that I stole some of the techniques from all kinds of sources; college professors, professional peers, and of course the internet. 

Think of each technique listed here as an additional layer of convenience. Again, the goal here is to QUICKLY and EFFICIENTLY access information. It functions almost like an old school search engine for texts. 

Okay, without further ado, here’s how it works. 


Emphasizing text you read via underlining with a highlighter (not advised) or pen/pencil is perhaps one of the most obvious tricks, and I’m sure you used the technique back in your college days, but I’m shocked how many people don’t do it with non-fiction. 

I see people reading incredibly valuable non-fiction books on the plane without a pen, just flipping through the pages and I think to myself “WTF?!” Are these people geniuses or what? How do they retain all the good shit they are reading?

Contrastly, when I get on a plane and sit down and realize I forgot a pen I start to freak out! Oh shit, I’ve got 4 hours of good reading time and I don’t have anything to underline and notate with. I have literally asked dozens of people on planes if I could borrow a pen LOL.

Example of my notation system for non-fiction.

Example of my notation system for non-fiction.

No shame.

Btw quick tip, ladies with purses are your best bet;-)

Anyway, utilizing underlining is a sure fire way to identify what’s important to you and a great way to remember key takeaways when you open the book a year later. 

Column Comments

Summarizing the main concepts of a passage or paragraph in the column of a book is incredibly useful. 

I usually jot down the main gist of an important paragraph in the column just so I can know what that paragraph talks about without actually re-reading it. That’s pretty straight forward.

Finding this article cool or useful… please consider sharing with a friend! 🙏

Something that might be a new concept for you however, is my “letter” system. I used letters outlined in boxes to denote a particular kind passage I might want to reference later. For example, if I read a quote I like or the author defines a key topic (shown in picture above) then I denote those sections with “Q” and “D” respectively. That way I know exactly what I’m looking at when I use the tabs to go back to that page.

My “letter” notation system.

My “letter” notation system.

Post it tabs

This for me has been the biggest game changer, by far. Having labeled tabs is the best way to turn right to the topic or reference you’re looking for. It’s so fast and also helps remind you of other topics that might be relevant to the issue at hand. 

Example of how I utilize tabs for super quick reference.

Example of how I utilize tabs for super quick reference.

I used to use Post it tabs that were small, and that simply marked a page or spot of interest. But I quickly realized that system is not nearly as effective as it could be. 

Seriously, learn from my mistakes and don’t use tabs like this! I actually need to go back and read the books again where I used this system, because finding the topic I’m looking for using this old system is kind of a nightmare. 

Instead, get the Post it tabs you can write on. I like these. You’ll thank me later I promise. 

As I read, if I come across a topic that I know I will want to reference later I’ll immediately make a tab for it. Other times, I won’t know if a topic is worth referencing until the context of the chapter unfolds, in which case I will go back and create a tab with that additional context. 

Aside from the obvious benefits of implementing tabs into your book reading, there’s also perhaps a more vain reward - it looks cool and makes you feel proud. Maybe it’s just me, but when I finished a book where I implemented the above system I feel like “I owned that shit!” It now is part of my artillery. I am armed with quick, useful, and super accessible knowledge at the drop of a hat. Trust me, that is a very satisfying feeling!

Chapter Summaries

Shame alert!! - I’m not quite finished writing this blog post, but I’m a big fan of starting before you’re ready, so I posted anyway! Check back soon to read a little more about how to get through books fast and some of my own stories about the benefits non-fiction has had on my life.

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