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The Ultimate Guide To Reading Non-Fiction Books

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Small Disclaimer - This entire post can also be found on my blog. But this forum is definitely the audience for it. SO ENJOY :)

The Problem With Non-Fiction Books

If you like reading non-fiction and especially business books and "self-help" books you will have noticed that these books are sometimes entirely filled with fluff.

The books always contain some very valuable ideas and takeaways but it's as if the author is taking you hostage and you have to follow the flow of the book in order to be rewarded along the way.

The more books you read the more you start to realize that some books are mostly filler and therefore a giant waste of valuable time.

In our capitalist society it's normal this happens. The author has some "breakthrough idea", goes to a publisher and gets commissioned to write a book. But nobody is going to buy a 20-page booklet.

No, it's almost like the bigger the book, the bigger the idea inside must be. So they fill up the book with examples, testimonials, samples, etc..

A while back I was reading "The Total Money Makeover" by Dave Ramsey. Half of his text is made up of transcripts of interviews with his customers. You could in fact summarise his entire book on one (1!) page.

Why should I spend 12 hours reading about couples from Florida and Arizona that are now finally "debt-free". (By the way, this was before I read TMF - I wouldn't read this crap ever again)

Look, books are dirt cheap. Certainly if you compare them with the time it took for the author to write them.

What does not come cheap is our time. It's the number one issue I have with most non-fiction books nowadays. It's ironic how many books on productivity just end up wasting our time instead of helping us be more productive.

Is there a solution? Should we stop reading them altogether?

To Blinkist or not to Blinkist?

If you like to read the occasional non-fiction book you will probably have heard about Blinkist.
Blinkist is a Berlin-based startup that offers written and spoken book summaries in which they present the ideas in a book.

They distill a book down to just 15 minutes. Just the central ideas, no more fluff, no stories.

Aha! This sounds like the solution to our problem.

Sadly it is not.

Not at all, in fact.

Because strangely enough, you forget the central idea of a book extremely quick if you use Blinkist.
At first I thought that was just me and perhaps the crazy way my brain works. But I asked around, typed in the same question on a few internet forums and I'm not alone apparently.

I was a subscriber for over 2 years, but I just didn't use the service because I wasn't retaining anything.

Instead, I used it in order to look for my next read.

Because that they do well. They find everything that is new, trendy and groundbreaking.

Blinkist is like junk food. It's the quick fix. It's mostly empty calories.

In order to retain any of the ideas there are two things you absolutely have to do:

You don't have to spend the twelve hours it takes to read a book in its entirety. But you need to put in more effort than just spend 15 minutes reading the "blinks" to a book. You have to work for your reward.

What I'm going to teach you here is my method for reading non-fiction books. I don't claim originality because it's a combination of a few speedreading courses as well as personal experimentation.

What I can promise you is AMAZING results if you follow the steps.

Before we start

What you need:

- A paperback version of your chosen non-fiction book.
- A number 2 pencil
- A computer with internet connection for later steps
- (optional) A journal to take additional notes

You will also have to let go of a few conceptions about books you probably have in your head. For example, I hated writing in my books. A book had to be CLEAN.

With this method you will be writing in the book. You will be highlighting and circling sections from the book. If you really are uncomfortable with that you can always buy a new version (have I mentioned books are cheap). But a book with your notes in them is worth more than a book without it. Think about it.

Another "idée fixe" you'll have to abandon is that in order to "finish" a book you have to read it front to cover. This is not true. Good books are never finished. They are like conversation partners you interact with on a regular basis. You and your book are going to have a relationship (this sounds strange and all kinds of wrong but bear with me throughout the 12 steps and you'll understand).

Some relationships last a long time, others last just a few hours.

A last thing you should be aware of is that this does not work for certain types of non-fiction books. Some of the best non-fiction books out there are written in a narrative style. They are made up of stories and might as well be fiction style-wise. Notable authors like Neil Strauss or the master of this form , Michael Lewis (The Big Short) write very engaging non-fiction that forces you to read the book in its entirety.

It also does not work for highly theoretical, mathematical works and computer books.

Are you ready?

The 12 Steps
Here we go.

Step 1 : Study The Front Cover

Study the cover of your chosen book for a few minutes. Weigh it in your hand. Is it thick or thin?

Ask yourself this question : why are you reading it? Why have you picked it up? Was it something on the front page? What are you hoping to get from it? How does this figure in your life at this moment? Is it related to your work or are you just casually interested in it?

The book I have chosen to use as an example is "Deep Work" by Cal Newport


The reasons for someone reading what they are reading are deeply personal, but i'll share my reasons with you. When I saw this book at first I was slightly disappointed and angry with myself, because for a few years now I was telling myself I was going to write a book about how to focus in a world that is distracted. I have taught myself how to do exactly that. In fact: it's the whole premise of the website you are on right now. I was ready to dive in and write that book. Ironically, I didn't actually do the "deep work" required and Cal Newport beat me to the punch. Good for him.

A few years ago I read Cal Newport's other book : "So Good They Can't Ignore You" and really liked his no-nonsense style. Notice how the success of his previous book is mentioned on the front cover.

The words DEEP and WORK are displayed in a very large font. Deep, being only 4 letters, is spread out over the width of the book. The color of the cover is a bright yellow. An interesting choice.

The subtitle of the book is "Rules for focused success in a distracted world". Now I'm really curious to find out what these rules are they are talking about. This tagline promises us focus and success. Yes, please !

Follow along and do the same with your book of choice. It's important that you sit there and really reflect on the cover for about five minutes. Write down your ideas about it in your journal.

Also remember that the cover (and back) of the book is there for the purpose of SELLING IT. It plays an active part in the marketing plan the publisher is deploying for this book. It will try to grab the essence of what is inside and try to lure you in.

Step 2: Study The Back Cover

Here's where the marketing department really goes to work, usually. You can expect a short summary of what is inside the book, together with what is called 'book blurbs', critical acclaim for this book usually from celebrities or well-known authors. There's of course also the ISBN number and a barcode on the back.

The goal of the back cover is to get you to purchase this book. You can witness this process in bookstores everywhere. People pick up books, read the front first, then flip over the book to read the back. This is where the sale happens.

Once a reader has bought a book the back page doesn't matter anymore.

In our example we have already bought it but let's look if we can gather some more information about "Deep Work".


As you can read here, the publisher selected a few well-known authors to heap praise onto the book. Seth Godin and Daniel H. Pink are very successful authors in their own right.

Note the language and the further promises of what's inside.

Daniel H. Pink suggests that in the age of automation that is coming, this is the one skill we are going to need. "Fast powerful learning and performance".

"A compelling case for cultivating intense focus and actionable steps."

"Science and passion". "Brave work."

"Unique and useful insights".

And the last promise might be the clincher: to achieve "true differentiation in a crowded talent marketplace".

Well, that is a serious promise. If you read this book and apply what is inside you will rise to the top of your field. Because you are doing what no one else does and that is FOCUS.

The back page is important because it tells us more about the central theme of the book and it will help us identify it in the next step.

Step 3: Study The Table Of Contents

This is one of the most important steps. An index is like a coat hanger. It's the structure to hang your knowledge on. It tells you what idea can be found where.

Get the feel for how the author has structured his ideas. Are there any sections that speak louder to you than others?


The table contents for the Kindle version of 'Deep Work'

The table of contents for 'Deep Work' is very clear.

In part 1 the idea of "deep work" wil be discussed. Deep work is valuable, rare and meaningful. In part 2 the author gives us the 4 rules of deep work: work deeply (ok, bit of a stretch there), embrace boredom (that doesn't sound too good), quit social media (whaaat??) and drain the shallows (i don't know what that is).

I'm becoming slightly intrigued now. I like the simple structure, but it's clear there's a lot more to discover. Right now I am drawn towards the "Quit Social Media" rule. It's something I have contemplated myself many times. I'm anxious to hear what he has to say about that. In fact, I really want to check out the 4 rules, rather than to sit through why "deep work" is important.

Note that there is also an introduction and a conclusion.

Step 4: Read the Introduction (Skip any forewords unless they are by the author himself)

The introduction sets the tone for the book, and frames it in its context. It's usually not the most interesting part but I consider it a bit of a warmup for the real stuff.

Use your number 2 pencil liberally to take notes.


Not the book we are using as an example, but not far from how my books are looking

In his introduction Cal Newport makes a very compelling case. He tells us that the most successful value creators out there have the ability to focus and not be distracted. He opens with a story about how Carl Jung built a stone tower in a forest, disconnected from the world, in which he could think and write.

Newport defines deep work and shallow work.

Deep work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Shallow work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Most knowledge workers, states Newport, have lost their ability for deep work and focus. Thanks to the constant distraction of mostly social media.

The following quote was very interesting:

Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century philosophers. It’s instead a skill that has great value today.

There are two reasons for this value. The first has to do with learning. We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. Some of the computer languages Benn learned, for example, didn’t exist ten years ago and will likely be outdated ten years from now. Similarly, someone coming up in the field of marketing in the 1990s probably had no idea that today they’d need to master digital analytics.

To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances. The second reason that deep work is valuable is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless—which greatly magnifies your reward.

On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online. Whether you’re a computer programmer, writer, marketer, consultant, or entrepreneur, your situation has become similar to Jung trying to outwit Freud.

To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth.

The growing necessity of deep work is new. In an industrial economy, there was a small skilled labor and professional class for which deep work was crucial, but most workers could do just fine without ever cultivating an ability to concentrate without distraction. They were paid to crank widgets—and not much about their job would change in the decades they kept it. But as we shift to an information economy, more and more of our population are knowledge workers, and deep work is becoming a key currency—

Ok. Ouch. I will now definitely delve into this book more.

Finally, Cal Newport, tells us more about the structure of the book

This book has two goals, pursued in two parts. The first, tackled in Part 1, is to convince you that the deep work hypothesis is true. The second, tackled in Part 2, is to teach you how to take advantage of this reality by training your brain and transforming your work habits to place deep work at the core of your professional life.

Step 5. Read Chapter 1

Here's where it all really begins. The story opens. How is the author's writing ? Is it entertaining? Are there stories? Do you like the writing style? What do we learn in Chapter 1?

The purpose of reading the first chapter is to familiarise yourself with the author's way of communicating his ideas.

In the case of 'Deep Work', this is probably not the chapter you want to read right now. I have a strong urge to start at the rules for deep work. This might ironically demonstrate my own tendency to be shallow.

This is where you need to show discipline.

The chapter is called "Why Deep Work is Valuable" and it's an in-depth look at how our society and specifically the nature of work will change in the future. Cal Newport, who is a professor in computer science, is convinced that three different classes of people will rise to the top.

In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.

By the way, if you are reading on a kindle, you can see highlights by other readers of this same book. This section caught their attention.

I notice how Cal Newport likes to structure his text, it's not one big text but there's a lot of headers and paragraphs , bullet points, etc ..

To be continued in the next post ...
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Jan 21, 2019
Step 6. Read The Last Chapter From The Book

You can probably see why you should not use this method for anything else than non-fiction.

The purpose here is still to get a feel for the value of this work. Is it as riveting as the introduction or the first chapter? If not, perhaps you should consider not pursuing this book.

In 'Deep Work' the last chapter is "Rule 4: Drain The Shallows". I'm interested in finding out what that means.

Scanning this chapter i can see right away it has all kinds of subchapters with some very practical tips. This is indeed the 'how to' - section of the book.

- Schedule Every Minute Of Your Day
- Quantify The Depth Of Your Work
- Ask Your Boss For A Shallow Work Budget
- Finish Your Work By 5:30
- Become Hard To Reach

After reading this chapter I got even more excited about this book. It has very workable and practical advice. It delivers exactly as was promised on the back.

Step 7. Read the Conclusion (if there is one- if not skip this step)

In the conclusion the author usually summarises all the ideas from the book. Very important that you read the conclusion attentively.

It's usually shorter than other chapters or the introduction.

In the case of 'Deep Work' the conclusion is a small personal story from the author rather than a summary of the book.

Step 8. Read the comments on

Now it's time for some out of the box fun. We let the book be for a short while. We have a very good idea already about what's inside. We have studied the back and front, looked at the table of contents and read 4 sections: the introduction and conclusion and the first and last chapter.

Now I want to know from the people who have read the full book. What did they think? Not only read the positive, read also the negative reviews.

I really like this part of the process because it's like a book club. Other people's opinions can really be eye-opening and allow you to get a different perspective on the ideas in a book. Of course opinions are still opinions. Do you understand why someone would have a more negative view on this title?

A book usually is the author monologuing at you. Step 8 is a lot of fun, because you get to have other people with wildly different backgrounds participate in a conversation.

It helps to select "Top Reviews" because they were the most helpful to others.

In the case of 'Deep Work' the top commenter is someone who wrote the 15 takeaways he got from the book:


Step 9: Read the Comments on

Aha. My favorite site for everything book-related. This is even more a sort of online book club- social networking for book lovers (how ironic that we chose "Deep Work" to illustrate the 12 steps, a book that tells you to stay away from social media).

Every book has a landing page where you can find a lot of information about it.

The comments here are usually a bit more elaborate than on Amazon. The difference with Amazon is that this is more of a discussion platform. Sometimes, these discussions can get heated

First of all: here's the page of "Deep Work" on Goodreads.

You can find the "community reviews" at the bottom of the page.


Step 10: Read the Quotes page on GoodReads

Somewhat hidden, the quotes page is a real goldmine. These are quotes and insights from the books. Goodreads users can -much like on the Reddit website- upvote or downvote these quotes. In time, the quotes that are more memorable rise to the top.

In addition to the other steps you have taken above, this really helps to see what others thought was valuable information.


Click on the 'More quotes" - link

Here are a few of the top quotes from 'Deep Work'


Step 11. Reflect on the central themes of the book and if you are going to pursue it further.

Decision time. Do you like the ideas enough to continue reading? Take a while to reflect on what you have learned and if you want to continue your conversation with this author.

What are the central themes of the book? Do you like its style? Have you learned anything?

You should have a very good idea by now if this is one of those books that are mostly filler, or something really special.

If you don't enjoy it or haven't learned anything new, then it's time to let this book go. Put it back on the shelf.

Perhaps you'll come back to it later.

Step 12: Pick a Chapter that you think will be interesting. Read it.

You decided to continue. Congrats!

Welcome to the beginning of a deeper relationship with your chosen book. This is where you start reading the section you want to learn more about.

I've been waiting for a long time to finally learn about the chapter where Cal Newport urges us to ditch social media, that'll be my next destination.

After this you should have captured the essence of the book, the central themes and the whole purpose of this method is to bring you into the book intelligently.

If you have followed along you will have felt the power of this method. It seems a bit odd and quirky at first, but you'll soon discover that you will retain a lot more of a book's content by engaging like this.

You are not the passive reader anymore, you actively participate, you are critical, threatening to withdraw your attention at every step.

Very cool, by the way, you have made it right until the end of this guide. Let me know in the comments below if this method is as powerful to you as it has been for me.

Until then,

Signing off...


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Thanks, that's a lot of good advice. I tend to read the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads first as that is also how I base my purchase decisions. I had forgotten about Blinkist.

I'll read the first and last chapter then go through the index. If it's large I'll just pick out the sections in the index that are of interest to me then read others if I have to 'backtrack' for context etc..

The book I'm currently studying is full of sticky tabs, highlights and notes (and as you say it can take willpower to 'deface' a book). I tend to highlight only the most important sentences and add notes where appropriate. I'll highlight most of the text in yellow and anything I consider of extreme interest in green. I couldn't handle the volume of notes and markings you have in your example as it is pretty much the entire page. I only want the bare key points.

For this current book I type out all the highlighted sections adding my own notes as I go along so I have a condensed version that is edited and added to. It's not something I regularly do but as it is for my current business it's beneficial if a little time consuming. My notes are in a different ink colour and again anything that I have highlighted in green will be highlighted in my written document.


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Jul 15, 2017
Hey man,

this is a very interesting post and your 12 step process is great! Thank you for a lot of valuable advice. I am going to take some of the steps and combine it with my process (even though I don't have a fixed process at the moment. But after reading you post I think I defintely should have one)

I have thought about this issue a lot too and I am still struggling with it (I will tell you in a minute what I am doing currently)

I would like to add that you also should define what exactly the problem is or what you expect out of a book. I think you are already covered the most important problems, but (at least for me) it would help to define the problems exactly:

1. Too much fluff in the book leads to "unnecessary" long reading time
2. Not enough information gets memorized after having read the book

For me, the main problem is 2. I read a book, I find all this useful information, all these methods that are great but when it comes to "execution time" I either a) can't remember anything at all or b) I remember "there was something in some book I read XYZ days ago".

Of course, it depends heavily on the book you are trying to "process". For example, some books just cover general concepts and (subconsciounsly) form your personality. Others provide concrete tools, methods or processes. Oftentimes things that can help you in certain situations. If you can't remember these tools or just vaguely know about them there is 0 value (at least to me). And then there is books that you can just read when you face the problem itself and you don't have to memorize anything (e.g. Facebook Advertising or something).

For me, a good test is when I tell somebody about the book that I have just read and it goes like "You know, there is this book which perfectly explains ahm you know this concept is can read a lot faster and there are studies and research and and..." So in my head, I think I totally got the book and I completely understand it. But in fact, I just scratched the surface and don't remember anything.

So what I am doing with >some< books (the ones which I feel are really important and valuable for my development) is the following:

1. Mindmaps
I write down the most important concepts in my own words and put them on a mindmap. One mindmap per book.
This is helpful if you REALLY take the time and revisit the mindmap every now and then. Problem: This is exactly, what I am NOT doing. I just don't have the time and energy....I rather read a new book instead of cementing the knowledge I already gained.

2. I prepare a Powerpoint presentation about the book (and I am the presenter/teacher)
So, I take the book and I imagine that I have to teach the most important topics of the book in a lesson to a group of young adults. I try to distill the content into key messages. This goes a bit in the direction of the Feynmann concept. I imagine their questions, their critique (etc.). I feel, this is better than using Mindmaps because I have to process the content even more and I really have understand it. Problem: Same as above. I have created a couple of presentations and for SOME time I can remember the stuff very well. But when I am not continously (like every week or so) looking at the presentations, I tend to forget almost EVERYTHING. Sometimes, when opening up one of the presentations after a couple of month I almost think "hmm WOW this stuff is interesting...never heard of that" (I am exagerating but you get what I mean).

So, the gist of what I am trying to say is: Repetition is everything...Maybe I need to schedule weekly, monthly sessions in which I go through the presentations I have already created. That's why I don't annotate my books. I would have to find all the valuable parts again or re-read big parts of the book etc. instead I go through my summaries.

P.S. Great website you have there Will look into it a bit depper. Also, will send you a PM.
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