I used to think that books are boring. When I was a teenager and I had to read a list of books during the summer. I used books as an excuse to fall asleep. “Oh, mom. I was reading and my eyes accidentally closed. No worries, I’m wide awake now and I’ll finish this chapter…zzz…” Now, my wife has to forcefully take the book out of my hands so we can have supper.
Besides the occasional couch naps that are still part of my reading routine, my view about books and reading in general rapidly shifted.
I transitioned from, “Ugh, books are so boring and useless, let’s go out and do something else…”, to “Can we just stay home and read this pile of books?” in just a few years.
Yes, nowadays, I obviously can shut up about how important it is to read books – that’s why I created this series of posts to document my reading process.
And as you’ll see below, it’s not only about sitting and reading. It’s about approaching the task strategically.
For instance, quite aside from simply reading books, I’ve also found a surprising number of things one should do while reading a book.
Before, I thought that you should just hold the actual book and read the words. Now, I have a whole game-plan that can seem like an unnecessary complication of the act of reading.
Still, the process is needed for the following reason:
When you’re spending hours on a particular subject – you literally spend a full-day reading a book. I figured that it’s best to squeeze the maximum out of the material.
So, in this post, I’m going to explain what you should do while reading a book, starting with why having a while-reading strategy is important.
Note: This post is part of a series on how to become a better reader. Here’s the overview:
- How to choose the right book
- What to do before reading
- What to do while you’re reading (the current post)
- What to do after you’re done with a book
Why Are While-Reading Activities Important?
While-reading activities keep you focused and engaged. You’re not simply surfing through the text, you have goals. You actively search for the main ideas the author is sharing and regularly stop to reflect on the material – think about how what you’re reading can be applied to your life.
For instance, you’ve probably heard that there are two types of reading: active reading and passive reading.
As the words themselves suggest, active reading is about reading and understanding the words, while passive reading is technically reading the text but absorbing zero material.
The first type helps you make sense of the text – what everyone wants while reading. In the second case, though, you just glance through the text. Basically, waste your time.
Our brain is a marvelous piece of machinery. It can imagine different ideas and combine them so we can reach an extraordinary conclusion that can theoretically change the world. But also, do things completely the opposite of what the body is doing.
If we don’t give it a direction, and if we don’t hold the steering wheel of our thoughts aimed at the thing we want during the whole process, we’ll quickly drift. Our brains will flood with different thoughts, completely unrelated to each other, and we’ll lose track of time.
Plainly, we need to forcefully focus on reading while we are reading to interpret the words – i.e., understand them and construct ideas and concepts in our heads.
This might sound simple when it’s verbalized.
Yet, I’m sure you’ve fallen victim to the following: re-reading the same passage in a book again and again because your mind starts to wander and think about something totally unrelated to the book you’re holding.
Sometimes this happens because the book is just too hard to get or extremely boring. Other times it’s our fault – we are either tired or not focusing enough on the activity of reading.
Whatever it is, since we choose to read a particular book, we should do our best to read it with intention.
Enter while-reading activities:
Besides helping you better understand the text – as you’ll see below – having a reading plan gives you purpose when going through the text.
You don’t simply read the text, you have goals: To understand the problems the author is trying to solve, to find the proposed solutions, to actively think about how the text can be applied to your life, etc.
All this helps you focus better on the text and prevents you from the agonizing circle where you read the same words over and over again.
8 Activities To Do While Reading Books
Here’s a list of during-reading strategies that will help you better understand and better apply the ideas shared in the nonfiction books you’ve selected for reading.
- Actively Monitor Your Level of Concentration
- Actively Take Notes
- Define The Problem The Author Is Solving
- Be On The Lookout For Interesting Ideas
- Separate The Facts From The Personal Experiences
- Point Out How The Problem is Solved
- Think About Whether You Agree Or Disagree
- Reflect on The Ideas and Find Alternatives
Actively Monitor Your Level of Concentration
The first while-reading activity is a bit meta. Yet, extremely important if you want to keep your focus on the book.
To avoid the tedious circle of reading and re-reading sentences without understanding the words, take a moment to relax. Remind yourself why you choose the book you’re holding right now.
You were curious about the topic and interested to find out more about this subject, right? Then, re-invite this thought in your brain. You need to be both concentrated and interested in what you’re reading to actively engage with the words.
The moment your interest interrupts, you’ll doze off.
Actively Take Notes
I use Google Keep to take notes while reading. Yes, it’s not a fancy app that requires taking an extra course to learn how to use it. But it works!
A lot of times, the simpler, the better.
Even if you prefer a notebook, I suggest the following structure when taking notes during reading:
- Save inspiring quotes.
- Outline the main ideas and the proposed problems.
- Write your own thoughts.
I take notes while I read for obvious reasons:
I use my notes to publish actionable book summaries and long-form articles. But even if you don’t plan to write a summary of the book, it’s still a pretty awesome idea.
Here are three reasons:
First, you save the best material from the book and you actively engage with the text. Second, you can easily revisit your notes later on – a lot better than having to scan the whole book if you’re searching for a particular concept. Finally, taking notes gives you space. Space to reflect on the ideas from the book.
Define The Problem The Author Is Solving
Mentally or inside your notebook, take a moment to articulate what exact problems the author is trying to solve.
Usually, there are different types of problems.
One bigger problem – the concept of the whole book – and the smaller problems that emerge in every chapter.
For instance, the overall goal of the book Atomic Habits is about helping you correct your habits. On a deeper level, though, every chapter tackles a particular smaller problem – how our environment is hurting our routines, for example.
Be On The Lookout For Interesting Ideas
There are more than problems mentioned in a book.
Usually, authors will include stories and ideas that reinforce the main argument. Take note of the most interesting ideas and concepts. These you can later revisit and even further research.
For instance, while I was reading the book No Filter by Sarah Frier, I was really intrigued by the following passage: “The app would give people the gift of expression, but also escapism.”
This brief psychological concept amidst the business lessons pushed me into extraordinary rabbit holes.
What Sarah Frier meant is that we use social media to escape our painful reality to feel better. Every time unpleasant sensations circle around, instead of examining them, we avoid them by indulging in destructive scrolling.
Separate The Facts From The Personal Experiences
Fact-based books are usually beyond boring – that’s why hardly anyone reads research papers.
Fortunately, authors know this and in addition to sharing science-backed data, they include personal stories.
This type of separation is something that you should consider doing.
Think about what part of the book is based on studies and what is based on the experience of the author.
Both are worth investigating for obvious reasons – facts and statistics give us average results that are useful when planning, while experiences explain the personal story.
In the book Effortless, the author starts with a personal story. He explains that after writing Essentialism, his first book, he found himself in a really nasty position. Namely, not practicing what he preached in the first book – doing less. Thus, you see how you can make adjustments based on his personal experience.
Point Out How The Problem is Solved
If you’re reading Obviously Awesome by April Dunford, you want the gist. Yes, all the concepts inside are cool and all, but you want to understand how exactly to “How to Nail Product Positioning so Customers Get It, Buy It, Love It” – the subtitle of the book.
For this to happen, you need to actively look for the solutions the author is proposing.
Usually, these are scattered around the chapters but when combined, can be boiled down to a couple of sentences. You simply need to be vigilant and to actively look in the text. Once you find all of the puzzles to a particular problem, take a note of them. Try to mold them into one piece of text that you can later use for reference.
Think About Whether You Agree Or Disagree
By now, you’ve defined the problem, and you know how the problem is solved. Pause for a moment and think about whether you agree or disagree with the proposed by the author.
If you agree, ask yourself why. If you disagree, do the same – why do you disagree?
Simply saying: “The author is wrong,” doesn’t help.
Even if you don’t think that the proposed solution is useful, think about why you think like that. After this, go and find a better solution.
After all, the problem is probably something you want to solve, and solely criticizing the text won’t be very helpful, will it?
Reflect on The Ideas and Find Alternatives
This is the most important step.
While reading, and also after finishing the book, you’ll want to regularly reflect on the text. However, don’t wait to finish the book to create one big outline of what the book is suggesting.
Each individual idea, problem, solution, deserves your undivided attention. Time to be digested and further interpreted.
For example, when I read, I stop almost all the time to write a couple of sentences based on the problems and ideas I find in books. I basically use my own words to explain what the author is trying to say.
This annotation helps me to 1) actively think about how the mentioned can be incorporated in my life; 2) allows me to faster and better write my summaries after I’m done with the book – in a way, I’m writing my summary while I’m reading the book.
Again, even if you don’t intend to summarize the books you read. This is an extremely important practice because you give yourself room to digest the material.
Some Closing Thoughts
We usually read to have fun, learn something new, and/or finish more books. Yes, some of us read so they can boast about the number of books they’ve read.
All of these are valid wants.
But to get the most out of any book, you need to engage with the text.
Actively reading, actively noting, and actively thinking about everything that interests you inside the text.
Consider the above while-reading strategies as your new reading tactic. The tips will increase your level of awareness, help you identify the main ideas inside the text, relate one idea with another, and generally, have more fun with the book.
To avoid forgetting what you’ve concluded in your head about the book, I also recommend taking your thoughts and ideas on a piece of paper or a reading app.
Continue improving your reading game by checking my fourth and final post in the mini-series on how to become a better reader: What To Do When You Finish Reading a Book (7 After-Reading Activities)
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