Most freelancers and business owners understand that reading books is an unbeatable way to get access to invaluable knowledge that can help your business grow and thrive.
Books capture decades of ideas and experience, and neatly communicate them in a deep way that few other forms can replicate.
So, as a freelancer, if you’re not avidly devouring the endless stack of books – and using them to stay inspired and motivated – you’re probably missing a trick.
If you need some advice on your next read, take a look at some of my favourites here – because we all love a good book list!
No one would argue that reading business and freelance books aren’t a great thing to do for expanding your knowledge and sharpening your skills. But it is worth asking yourself whether the time you are spending reading is actually as productive as it could be.
The problem with how you read business books
The problem that many of us have is taking what we read and implementing the content in a way that actually has some kind of impact on our business.
In reality, you might be shocked to realise how little you actually remember of the non-fiction books you read.
Think about the books you read last year. How many of the titles can you even remember, let alone the content?
If you don’t remember the information when you need it, what’s the point in reading it at all?
You might be able to recall broad concepts and ideas, but can you really make use of that knowledge? Can you call to mind the arguments and ideas when you need them?
It’s worth asking these questions because I believe there are two types of reading.:
- Reading that will help you and your business grow and develop
Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading for entertainment. The problem is when you convince yourself you are being productive but are really reading for entertainment.
If the information isn’t going to stick, then the truth is you are reading for mostly for entertainment, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
If you’re having a sinking feeling right now that you’ve been wasting your time, don’t worry – I was the same. Fortunately, I discovered a way to make the reading you do 100x more valuable and useful. And what’s better is that reading becomes even more enjoyable.
The secret is… taking notes. But not just any old notes – Smart Notes.
Why you should take smart notes when you read
Sigh… we all know that we should be taking notes when reading. But who wants to make slogging through a business book even more tedious? Or to make the process take even longer?
I used to think like this until I started to implement a system inspired by How to Take Smart Notes, a fantastic book by Sönke Ahrens.
The book makes an unarguable case for doing more with what you read.
And for taking things a little slower.
The key I found to having the motivation to read and take notes while reading, was to stick strictly to Kindle books. In one of my previous articles I in more detail about why I never read physical books anymore. But the long and short of it is it’s incredibly easy to highlight sections of text, which you can then easily pull out later on your computer.
This means you can read without interrupting your flow too much, and then revisit these highlighted notes later to do the more intense thinking and processing. This way, you still enjoy the reading element, because you’re not having to constantly switch tasks.
Introducing the Zetellkasten System
The other key is the system that Sönke Ahrens recommends, which was developed by Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist who published dozens of books and an outrageous number of academic articles in his outrageously productive career.
I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but it’s known as the Zetellkasten System. It works (very roughly) like this:
- Take notes from the content you are reading,
- Rewrite these notes using your own words,
- Stash the notes away in a (physical or digital depending on your preferences) box for future use,
- When creating new notes, you make connections with previous notes that you’ve taken, to establish trains of thought.
This might sound a bit tedious – but when you see the potential, and the results, it’s a real breakthrough.
This system was the key to Luhmann’s incredible output. He had 90,000 paper notes by then end of his life. Fortunately, we can now use digital tools like Roam Research, Notion and. Evernote to make our systems easier to keep track of.
Benefits of Zetellkasten System
The amazing benefit of implementing this system is that eventually, you have what effectively works as an ideas machine. You can use your system to churn out new, almost ready content – from email newsletters to blog articles and social media posts.
So you are essentially extracting the best ideas and insights from what you are reading. Then, you are combining and remixing them to create something entirely new.
Encountering ideas in different contexts allows you to see things in a new way. But also, to create content that you never would have thought of otherwise.
The key to avoiding writer’s block completely is to have a system like this. A system where you can store the ideas that grab your attention, curiosity and intrigue.
This is similar to the central idea of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. He is an advocate for getting ideas from your head and storing them in an external system – rather than relying on your brain to remember them. Modern productivity whizzes like Thiago Forte, have contributed to a digital renaissance for these proven techniques.
Saving the ideas you encounter
It’s so easy to encounter amazing ideas, and sources of inspiration, only to briefly consider them and let them slip away into the darkness again.
You may even kid yourself that you’ll remember the content in that moment.
This is a colossal waste. Scoop these ideas up and record them so you can encounter them again when you’re in a position to make use of them and combine them with other ideas.
Even better, the simple act of writing notes, and translating ideas into your own words has been shown to help the brain learn and remember information much more effectively.
And if you are taking notes, why not also cash in the major associated benefit of building a steady bank of content that will one day find a new life as published creative work?
I find this process helps me to read more, because I know I will actually use what I read. It also helps me to produce more actual content because the system is set up to give you everything you need at your fingertips.
The benefits of reading with a purpose
Simply knowing that you’re going to take the information you encounter and process it for use in future projects is incredibly motivating.
You’ll find there is a new joy in reading, as you see your bank of ideas and interconnected notes growing. You can’t help but engage more deeply with the content. Simply because you know it will have a practical use in the future too.
Knowing what you want from what you are reading, or at least having an idea of how you are likely to use the information in the future, breeds a newfound engagement that has probably been missing from your time spent reading previously.
The process of saving notes, and then processing them into your system also means there will be no more skipping over pages and kidding yourself that you understand fully.
You need to completely understand the ideas, or you will find it impossible to rephrase them in your own words accurately. This again forces you to engage with the concepts and thoughts in a much deeper way.
This might all sound a little bit confusing. But just by taking notes from what you read, you’ll be engaging with the content more. And that increase how likely you are to remember that information.
If you then translate the notes you’ve taken into your own words, you’ll already notice a big difference.
If you go the extra step and create an external system to store that knowledge too, you’ll discover that spending time reading becomes one of the most productive and fruitful things you can do.
I’ll write another post soon, explaining how I use the relatively new note-taking app Roam Research to create my external notes system, and how you can get set up. So stay tuned for that.
In the meantime, enjoy reading with a newfound sense of purpose!
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