Photo courtesy of Horia Varlan

I’m an information junkie, but I’ve noticed that unless I take action I end up forgetting everything in a matter of days. I’m also a pretty slow reader so if the information finally goes down the drain, it’s really nothing more than a waste of time. And if I’m simply wasting time, and not even amusing myself, then I’d probably be better off digging holes in a bog.

Unless you’re reading a teach-yourself book for mere entertainment (which I sometimes do), it helps to put the book aside for a moment and actually apply some of the tips and techniques…

During my first read-through of Unclutter Your Life in One Week (which, btw, is an excellent step-by-step walkthrough on how to organize your home and office) I didn’t take any action. And although I was constantly given brilliant techniques, I didn’t even scribble down any notes. When I finally put the book down, I felt as if I had read a novel—but this time I could remember neither the plot nor the characters.

Even a five-year-old kid knows that there’s a difference between believing that you’re an astronaut, and actually manning a space shuttle and journeying to the stars. When you believe that you’ve learned new skills, you’re desperately trying to convince yourself that what you did wasn’t just a waste of time (as was my case with Unclutter Your Life).

You have to be aware of the tricks your mind plays on you. Reading Think and Grow Rich alone won’t grant you the master key to riches. The key is to transmute the information into actionable steps so that you can reap the benefits.

So how should you do things differently?

The important thing is to reactivate your brain. When I read my favorite work of fiction, The Silmarillion, what I like to do is prepare a large mug of hot tea, get comfortable in my chair, and let the story unfold. In other words, I just let my brain relish the prose. With educational books, however, you need a different approach. If you’re reading a book in order to learn something from it, there are two key things that you might want to try:

  1. Take notes. (Not just mental ones.)
  2. Create actionable steps for yourself.

Taking notes stimulates your brain. What I’ve found is that putting the information you’ve absorbed into your own words and context extends its lifespan a hundredfold. Copying and paraphrasing are the easiest to do, but if you really want to get a good grasp of the subject, I recommend discussing it on paper. Dissect the topic. Write down your opinions and thoughts. Reteach the subject to yourself in the simplest terms possible. When you’re unsure or have questions, refer back to the original text.

Since you’re using the book to elicit changes in your life, you also need to draw a map for yourself. With a reader-friendly book like Unclutter Your Life, the steps have already been given for you, but you can still tinker with them a bit and personalize them to suit your particular needs. Remember that the steps have to be actionable, and not too vague.

The important thing is to do the above steps as you’re going through the book. As you come across new principles and techniques, it’s your responsibility to properly digest and implement them. If you rush through a book, you’ll only be left with vague ideas. So stop rushing and savor every sentence with thought, and act on them.