The 6-Step Method to Reading the Shit Out of Books

What Were We Talking About Again?

If there is one thing I’ve struggled with over the years, it’s long-term retention.

Though remembering course materials has had its challenges, the struggle is worse with books.

Overconsumption was part of the problem. Trying to read faster, and across multiple unrelated books caused more detriment than use. Much as our attention spans can be overstimulated by abundant information on the internet, so to can we suffer this fate with reading? There are a lot of books after all.

While narrowing my reading focus has helped quite a bit, improving my reading strategy was equally important.

I remember one summer I made it my goal to learn how to shuffle cards. We played A LOT of cards on my family vacations, and I was tired of having to use the automatic shuffler or having someone else shuffle for me at the family card game.

It was time to become a man, damnit!

I shuffled anytime I had some free time during the day; which back when I was a kid led to multiple bouts of daily shuffling.

By the end of the summer, I was unconscious with shuffling, and still am to this day.

Frequent, quality repetitions at any task will likely lead to improvement. Learning material is no different, we must just foster an environment of multiple exposures to said material.

Here’s my latest attempt at doing so.

Reading the Shit Out of Books 101

I just finished reading “Extreme Ownership” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. It’s an absolutely phenomenal read, both in content and structure, and it’s hitting me at the right time. Actually, I needed to read it about five years ago, but that’s another story for another day.

There are many lessons throughout the book that I want to burn into my brain at all costs. So I’ve decided to take a different approach to the way I read, and I’ve noticed much greater retention.

Here are the steps I take with each chapter:

STEP 1: Read & Highlight 

Read & highlight is the first pass strategy. I read one chapter straight through, and highlight the portions that jump out to me. This strategy is commonly used.

STEP 2: Take Notes on the Highlights Immediately After Reading the Chapter

Most people, myself included, stop at step 1 and pat themselves on the back. This is the ideal way to forget what the hell you were reading. The first pass provides just a brief exposure to new concepts, and you won’t be able to retain as much of them. Similar to how you don’t remember all the details of a movie the first time you watch it.

Frequent exposure helps concepts stick, but simply rereading your highlights lacks salience. We have to apply this new material in some way. In this case I will look through the highlights and do the following:

  • Underline the most important sections of the highlight.
  • Write a note to myself on the highlight. This could include an anchor to a different thing I’ve read, something in my life where this lesson would’ve been helpful, a patient case, etc. The goal is to make the passage meaningful to you.

STEP 3: Immediately Write a Quick Summary of the Chapter

Once I’ve gone through my first two steps, I will write a brief summary of what I’ve read at the chapter’s end. This summary can range from just a few sentences encapsulating the most relevant points to a couple paragraphs. Whatever is going to be most meaningful for me.

STEP 4: Take Your Supplements 

Fortunately, Jocko is an absolute free content monster, because going through his other stuff is helping me get the most out of his book. Periodically over the course of a week, I will check out his youtube videos, TED talks, and podcasts (all are really good FYI). A lot of times he re-iterates topics he’s discussed in his book and hearing a different perspective, or application, of the material can aid retention.

STEP 5: Apply What You’ve Read Non-Textually

After you’ve beaten the writing medium to a bloody pulp, it’s time to incorporate other methods. Options involve discussing the material, reflecting on ways you could’ve applied the material in the past, or hell, actually use what the book has taught you.

Application is the best cue to remember something.

My personal favorite is discussing with my roomie Eric topics in the book that are relevant to our lives, typically at our evening nerd summoning. Not only am I helping myself learn, but I’m also helping out a friend. #service.

STEP 6: Archive Relevant Passages

Though you may remember a great deal from what you are reading now, how can I draw upon the material 10 years from now?

The answer is archiving.

Archiving involves storing what you’ve read in a database to draw from at a later date.

I usually do this when I’ve finished the book, and I use two methods:

First is the notecard system that I got from my good friend Matt Nickerson. Here I will re-read the highlights and summaries I’ve written in the book, and put the most important parts onto various notecards; using a color system to help link related concepts. The notecard is then categorized into a relevant topic.

I then take the notecard and put it with all other relevant notecards on the topic:

Then when I need to dive into something more in-depth, I just pull my notecards and review them.

If notecards aren’t your thing, I think Evernote also works great, and the search function is a bit more friendly than notecards. Though I feel I retain better when I write the information down. At some point, when I muster up the courage, I’ll make an electronic copy of all my notecards.

The second thing I do, if it’s a graphic or big passage that I may want to re-read specifically, is I’ll put a tab over that area. So I can systematize the tab, I’ll write a notecard saying:

“Hey, check out your tab on p. 62.” ~What Zac writes on his notecards

This allows me to go back and read that passage.


So that’s how I’ve been approaching reading as of late. It’s a grueling, arduous process, but it has been a fruitful way to help me retain what I’ve read.

To review the steps:

  1. Read & Highlight

  2. Note the Highlights

  3. Quick Summary

  4. Take Your Supplements

  5. Apply

  6. Archive

Have good insights on improving the learning process? Comment below.



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