Build. Hack. Play. It's just what we do.
Build. Hack. Play. It's just what we do.

We've all seen the 8 million articles telling us that being an "active reader" helps us gain a deeper understanding of material, helps our creativity, and helps us retail the information.

But most of those articles end there, without explaining exactly how to be an active reader. And those that do explain tend to include a process so long and convoluted that you need a nap after reading said article.


Luckily, active reading doesn't need to be a long, arduous process that takes forever-it can actually be pretty quick, painless, and takes about three steps.

Step 1: Skim

How: Do not just start off diving in to the book. I repeat, do not just start diving in to the book. The first thing you should do is skim the chapter-read only the headings, any charts or visuals in the chapter, and the end of chapter summary if they have one.


Why: By skimming through headings, you'll have a much better idea of not only what the chapter covers, but what's actually important. You're gearing yourself up for being able to pick out the important pieces when you do your actual reading. Also, it gets your brain churning-by reading those headlines you're getting your brain started thinking about those ideas and concepts and how they relate to other things.

Step 2: Casual Reading

How: Put away your pens and highlighters-you don't need them yet. After you finished the skim through, read through the chapter like it's a beach read. That's right-don't think, don't analyze, don't take notes, don't read in-depth. Just to a quick read-through to get the basics down.


Why: Your brain is already churning with the basic concepts because of Step 1. By doing a casual read-through you're getting the basic concepts flushed out and into your head. And just like with Step 1, this allows your brain to process and identify related concepts you already know. If you absolutely must take notes, then keep them ridiculously simple. Like "not sure about P. 35" or "web site listings to check out on P. 73" or "maybe turn P. 63 into a worksheet or table?"

Step 3: Taking Notes While Reading

How: Now that you have a pretty good idea of the basics, it's time for a deeper read while taking notes. While, you COULD take notes the way you took them in high school, and do the equivalent of copying notes of an overhead projector from your book, that's essentially a waste of time and not overly helpful in the long-run.


Cal Newport has some great advice on taking effective notes for different subjects:

Other ideas for taking notes can include:

  • Lists of websites, other books, and resources listed in the book.
  • Turning main ideas and key terms into a chart or table for quick and easy reference.
  • Turning different steps and ideas into a worksheet format for you to fill in later.
  • Don't forget to make connections between the material and real-life!

Why: Now that you've read through the basics, taking notes can help solidify the information in your mind, explore topics that you might not have a firm grasp on yet, and can become invaluable references.


For Bonus Points: Make a Reference Summary

How: Take the notes you made in Step 3, format them to make them all pretty, and then store them in your location of choice.


Why: Let's call a spade a spade-when you need to quickly reference something, tracking down the book, finding the information in the book, and then applying the information in the book is a pain in the ass. When that many steps are involved, you probably just won't bother. But if you have a quick reference summary located in Evernote or a Word doc or even printed out and put in a folder or binder, you reduce those steps and make it waaaay easier to actually reference what you learned. Which helps to keep your skills sharp and lessens the likely hood that you'll forget the material you learned. Now, it might sound overwhelming to essentially be going through a book 3 times, but look at it this way:

Have you ever sat down to read a textbook and take notes on it on the first read? Not only does it seem to take FOREVER, but how hard is it to focus? How hard is it to retain that information? How long do you actually have to block aside to do that?


Now, look at the 3 steps again. How long would it take you to skim a chapter? 10 minutes? On average? How long would it take you to casually read a chapter and not worry about anything, but just casually reading through it? Not that long-especially since you've already take a few minutes to run through the headlines and have some semblance of an idea on what it's about? So, by the time you're sitting down to do the traditional "text book" reading, you don't need as much time (you already have a pretty good general idea of the material), you don't need to do as much thinking (since you've been processing this stuff in the back of your mind, you already have connections, ideas, etc.). and you don't need nearly as much focus because you've already gone through it. When you look at it that way, it all seems pretty reasonable and do-able. You might be incredibly busy, but you still can find a few small chunks of time to do those small steps, whereas you probably wouldn't be able to find the time to do the traditional textbook reading way. Not to mention, you'll retain the material better, understand the concepts on a deeper level, and better be able to actually apply it to your life. And isn't that the whole point of reading after all?

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