Before the summer of 2020, I set a goal for myself: to read one book per week for 12 weeks. I failed that spectacularly. And yet I’m still happy about the outcome.
The challenge – read and take notes on 12 books in 12 weeks
The reason I set the goal in the first place was because I wanted to start reading books. I kept coming across titles I wanted to read but I didn’t have any kind of reading habit whatsoever. My book list was only growing longer and longer, while the main content I consumed was online articles or listening to podcasts.
And while I’m a pretty fast reader, I didn’t have the habit of blocking out any time in advance for doing it. I thought I’d spontaneously find pockets of time where I could sit down with a book. But the days where I could do that are long gone now. I don’t have that kind of leisure time available in this season of my life.
If I want reading to happen these days, I need to plan it in advance and set aside time for it. This project was aimed at fixing that.
Some items on my list were books whose ideas and content I sort of knew already, but I was tired of getting other people’s versions of them. I wanted to go to the source in order to make up my own mind. Other books were recommended to me by several channels and I was curious about them.
I chose a theme for my book reading project: habits and creativity.
By connecting them all to a common theme I’d get synergistic benefits from looking at the same thing from different perspectives.
A main part of the goal was to take notes on each book for the future. After going through the Building A Second Brain course, I have a completely different outlook on note-taking. I never used to highlight passages in books, or take any kind of notes on them at all.
This project gave me an opportunity to test this new-to-me thing of note-taking and highlighting from books. Since I didn’t read any books regularly before, I had never had a chance to try the techniques on books until now.
The whole project also fit the current times very well, since we couldn’t travel during the summer as we originally had planned due to the pandemic.
All in all, I was looking forward to a summer of immersion and reading.
The fail – I only read half of the books I decided to read
Things started to crack already by the first week. My first book took two weeks instead of one to get through.
Now I was working from place of constant catch-up.
The second book was no better, it also took me approximately two weeks to read. Now I was way behind my intended pace and I had to come to terms with the fact that I would fail my project right at the beginning of it.
Lessons – why I failed
While most of the reading project would fall during my summer vacation, I was working both during the beginning and the end of the twelve-week period. I had severely underestimated the time I needed to allocate to reading in order to finish a book in one week, and during my working weeks I simply failed to put enough reading in.
I had pictured myself reading during my vacation, and somehow assumed I would be able to follow the same pace also while working. Hah!
Even if I’d listen to an audiobook, that would take, say, 6 hours. To finish one book in one week would then require close to one hour per day of listening. During normal working days, I’d be glad to fit in 20-30 minutes of reading in the evening. Thus, no wonder it took me two weeks instead of one to get through a book!
The lesson here is to be realistic. I was not realistic in my goal setting, I was wildly ambitious. Reality taught me how wrong I was.
I feel fine about it though.
I’d rather be ambitious at the start and scale things back a bit than not trying to stretch myself at all.
When I realised I had fallen behind my self-imposed schedule – and kept falling further and further behind – I did the only rational thing to do: I renegotiated the terms.
I could have tried to speed up my reading in order to catch up. But then I would have been cramming just in order to say that I did it, which would make both my understanding of the content and my enjoyment of the process suffer.
Instead I decided I was going to read as much as I could, and get as far as down the list as I could, within the twelve week time-frame. The rest of the books would come in time.
The result was that I got through six of my short list of twelve books.
The win – I found the best way for me to read and take notes on books
The unplanned benefit was that the whole project almost became an exploration on how to take notes from books. I didn’t set out with that explicit intention, but because I had the whole range of dead tree books, audio books and kindle/digital books at my disposal I tried out different techniques of note-taking to find a way that suited me best.
It’s a bit meta, but it turned out to be just as valuable learning for me as the contents of the books themselves.
Book 1 – Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher, physical book
Note-taking strategy: Underlining with pencil
This was a standard dead tree book, where I underlined interesting passages in pencil while I read it. After I finished the whole book, I went through it again to enter my underlined passages into my digital notes.
The reason I used a pencil is because that’s erasable. I could never to something irreversible to a book, like using a physical neon highlighter pen. I shudder just to think about it.
Verdict: Tedious to enter notes digitally
This had the drawback that I took a bit too much time before I got back to extracting my takeaways. I already started reading my next book, and I had lost the mind-space of the first book. It felt very time consuming and tedious to manually write my quotes and summary of the book after I finished reading.
This was where I learnt that it’s not enough to read a book in one week. Ideally I would read it in 5 days and focus the final 2 days on extracting notes and thoughts. At least if it’s a physical book like this.
Book 2 – Company of One by Paul Jarvis, physical book
Note-taking strategy: Underlining + writing commentary
Starting the same as the first one, this was a standard dead tree book and I used pencil to underline passages. What I added was to write digital notes of thoughts and comments as I went along. I didn’t only underline the author’s thoughts, I captured my own to go along with it.
Verdict: Same as book 1, tedious afterwards
I still had the tedious process of going through the book after it was finished to extract the underlined passages and enter into my digital notes system.
Book 3 – Flow by Mihaly Csikscentmihalyi, physical book (borrowed)
Note-taking strategy: Screenshot text and highlight digitally on the photo
I borrowed my third book from my father, which had the drawback that he already had underlined passages that he found interesting. That meant that because I would need to return the book, I needed a different way of capturing interesting passages.
I took a picture of the page with my phone, and used photo annotation tools to highlight the passage that was interesting. These pictures all go together in my digital notes – in Evernote in my case.
Verdict: great for note context, bad for reading experience
This had the drawback of generating lots and lots of pictures. I ran into the note size limit of Evernote and had to split it up into two separate notes. The benefit is that I automatically got the sentences before and after my highlight so I always got it in context.
That’s good because I no longer have the book. This way of note-taking would be useful for things like library books, where you don’t own the book and can’t easily look things up if you want more context or info.
I do think that it would be beneficial to go back and actually extract only the highlighted sentences into a text note one day, but this will do for now. Evernote’s OCR works fine so I can still search in the text within the pictures.
But constantly stopping and taking pictures of passages was highly disruptive. It was interfering with my reading flow and thus enjoyment of the book. This felt more like studying than reading for pleasure. I would not opt to do this again unless I needed to.
Book 4 – Indistractable by Nir Eyal, audio book
Note-taking strategy: use the clip and annotate functions in Audible
The fourth book was an audio book from Audible. I listened during my lunch breaks and commute to work. I used both the clip feature, where you can set a bookmark with entry and exit points just around the section you want to refer back to, and the ability to write text notes to go together with that clip.
The clip was the author’s words, and the notes was my own thoughts and commentary.
Verdict: listening was a pleasure, note-taking a bit cumbersome
To listen while commuting or having lunch was an excellent way to get some reading in. I didn’t need to sit down after work to read, I had already done that during the day. This way I also got much more than 20 minutes in per day, and I did finish this book during one week only.
Clipping the bookmarks is pretty disruptive too though. I can just press the bookmark button and be content, but that gives me 30s of the book which may or may not be exactly what I need. I got the best results from selecting the clip, moving the markers, and re-listening to it over again until I got the right passage I wanted to bookmark. Not the smoothest experience.
Book 5 – Atomic Habits by James Clear, kindle and audio book together
Note-taking strategy: listen to the audio book and highlight the corresponding text passages in kindle
With this book, I used the “whispersync” feature in Kindle. That means that when you have both the audible version and a kindle version (that are compatible with each other), you can listen to the audio version and the text will scroll in sync so you always read what you hear. You can seamlessly switch between reading text and pick up listening to the audio. They sync together.
This meant that I could listen to the book, and if I found something I wanted to save I just stopped the audio and the current text was right there for me. I could highlight only the sentence I wanted or add a note, without any audio scrubbing, and simply press play again and continue listening where I left off.
This was a total game changer. So seamless to take notes, yet I got all the benefits of having an audio book. I could listen while doing the dishes or other chores around the house, and just pause briefly to highlight a paragraph whenever I found something I wanted to save.
I use the Readwise service to sync my Kindle highlights directly into Evernote.
Book 6 – Ultralearning by Scott Young, physical book
Note-taking strategy: underline with pencil, summarise each chapter
This was again a normal physical book. To make it a bit easier to extract my notes, I decided to stop and enter any notes and passages digitally after each chapter instead of waiting until I finished the whole book.
Verdict: a better way to deal with analog
This made things much easier. The whole entering of notes did not become a big project of its own, and reviewing each chapter after I finished was a good opportunity to review the material for key points.
While the content of the books have been valuable too, the main take-away from this project is that I found my preferred way of note-taking.
If possible, I would always look for buying the kindle and audible book together. I don’t have space in my house for getting a physical copy of every book I want to read, and listening + highlighting digital text was the best experience I had. So that’s a win-win situation.
As a second option, I would try to borrow the book from the library if I want to read it. Unfortunately, I often want to read fairly new titles and I want to read them in English if that’s the original language. This means that most of my reading list cannot be found at my local library, so I’d need to get the books another way.
As a final resort, I’d buy the physical book. I’d underline passages in pencil as I read, and then go back after each chapter and enter relevant things into my digital notes.
Not all books are worth keeping around in order to re-read them. If I ever want to get rid of a book, I always have the option of doing the “screenshot and highlight” thing before giving it away but I doubt I will.
I mean if the book is not worth keeping around, it’s probably not worth that much of a time and effort investment. I’d already have my book notes from entering and summarising chapter by chapter anyway.
My future intention is to make a summarising sketchnote of the main concepts from each book. Or at least, the books where I feel it would be important or beneficial enough to integrate the material more deeply.
But that’s for a future date, if and when I see the direct need. True to the principles of Progressive Summarisation, I don’t want to do that upfront time investment unless I have immediate use for it.
So I’m wrapping up this project as it is, and how it became. My book list have grown even longer since the start of the project, haha, because there are so many interesting things to learn. But now I feel much more confident in how I want to approach my (non-fiction) reading.
Before this project I had not read a single book in years, probably a decade at least. Now I’ve read six of them over the course of one summer.
As far as failures go, I feel pretty good about the results from this one.