How to Get the Most Out of Your Books

Posted by Donald Latumahina

Reading a (nonfiction) book is one thing, but getting the most out of it is another thing. Too many people only reach the surface of the book and never really get into the treasure that is hidden below it. Or maybe they get a portion of the treasure, but they lose the chance to get the whole treasure.

How do you know that you get the most out of a book? You get the most out of a book when it significantly improves your life to the greatest possible extent. Because of that, an important goal of reading books is getting actionable ideas. To get the most out of the books, you should then put those actionable ideas into action.

Here are some steps you can do to get the most out of your books:

  1. Preview the book you want to read
    Before spending too much time on a book, you should know whether the book is worth reading. Preview the book by reading its cover, introduction, table of contents, and skimming through the chapters.
    Besides helping you decide whether a book is worth reading, previewing also helps you be familiar with the structure of the book. It helps you understand the big picture of the book so that whatever you read later can be put in the right context.
  2. Decide your purpose and the depth of your reading
    If you think the book is worth reading, you should then decide your purpose of reading the book. Your purpose states the kind of actionable ideas you expect from the book. Is there a problem you expect to be solved? Is there an area in your life you expect to be improved?
    Next, you should decide how deep your reading will be. It deals with the amount of time you are willing to spend on the book. The more actionable ideas you think it has, the deeper your reading should be.
  3. For each chapter you read:
    1. Preview the chapter
      Go through the titles, subtitles, and pictures in the chapter. Just like previewing the book, previewing the chapter builds your familiarity with it and helps you put the details you get later in the right context.
    2. Quick read the chapter
      Next, you can quick read the chapter. This step fills in the details of the context you build in the previous step while giving you a glimpse of which might be the important ideas.
    3. Reread to highlight important ideas in the chapter
      This time you reread the chapter to decide which are the important ideas of the chapter. I’d suggest highlighting the important ideas you find. I personally use two kinds of highlights, one for important ideas and another one for very important ideas.
  4. Create the book map
    After reading the whole book, I’d suggest creating a book summary of your own. Creating a book summary helps you internalize the ideas you get.
    The first part of such summary is a book map. A book map maps the structure of the entire book. Normally you can just use the table of contents as the book map, but don’t use a very detailed table of contents. The purpose of a book map is to quickly give you a glimpse of the structure of the book. Too much details may distract you from the big picture.
  5. Write the ideas you get from each chapter
    Next you can write the ideas you get from each chapter by simply looking at your highlights in that chapter. Remember, your goal is to get actionable ideas, so you should focus on them. Writing the ideas you get helps you further internalize those ideas.
  6. Write the main ideas you get from the entire book
    A good books often contains a lot of actionable ideas, so the list of ideas in step 5 may be too long to act upon effectively. You should then have a separate list for the main ideas from the entire book. This list helps you focus on the most important ideas so that it will be easier for you to apply them.
    If you use two kinds of highlight I mention in step 3.3, you can get the main ideas of the book by simply looking at your ‘very important’ highlights.
  7. Create next action list
    Application is what puts you ahead of 90% or more other people who just read the book but do not apply what they learn. In fact, application is key. Actionable ideas are useless if you do not put them into action.
    To help you apply what you learn, decide what actions you will do to apply it. Look at your list of main ideas (step 6) to decide what the most important actions are.
  8. Integrate the next action list into you master next action list
    After creating your next action list of the book, you can then integrate it into your master next action list. If you use GTD, I’m sure you have a master next action list. By putting the actions for the book there, the application of the book is now integrated into your daily workflow.

Don’t forget to be flexible. You do not need to apply all these steps to every book you read. For not-so-important books you can eliminate some steps. The more important a book is, the more steps you should use. ‘Important’ books are those which have bigger potential of changing your life.

Using these steps, you dot not just read the book; you mine it.

Please use your real name and note that I reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

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  • Brad Rhoads

    I wonder if mind mapping would be better than flat lists.

  • Donald Latumahina

    I believe the key is using the tools that work best for you, Brad. Mind mapping is a great tool, and you can use it if it works better for you than flat list.

    In my case, I prefer lists over mind maps. Often, there are so many ideas I want to write (each of which could be a paragraph long), that putting them in a mind map confuses me more than helps me.

    Again, the key is using what works for you.

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  • Shawna R. B. Atteberry

    Thank you. I do a lot of reading, and this will definitely help me. I found you via Lifehack.

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  • Raul F.

    A lot of these steps sound very similar to the material you’ll find in Mortimer Adler’s “How To Read A Book”. That book is worth reading if you really want to get serious about extracting and retaining information from a book.

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  • Donald Latumahina

    You’re very welcome!

    I’m glad you mentioned the book. I put it in my reading list a few days ago and I’m now waiting for it from the library. Your comment motivates me even more to read it.

  • Tom Ritchford

    Because of that, the goal of reading books is getting actionable ideas.

    How miserable. I’ve literally read thousands of books, perhaps as many as 10,000 of them. I’ve certainly got actionable ideas from some of them — but some of the best of them, fiction and non-fiction, have been entirely for the pleasuring of furnishing my mind.

  • ivan

    youre the kind of person who read those ‘choose your own adventure’ books as a kid but skipped through all the pages to find the best ending.

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  • Jason

    Great tips — I’d like to add another that I find useful:

    9. Borrow the book you’re interested in from the library if they carry it.

    I’m a programmer and I find a lot of programming books that look great on the surface but are actually quite useless once you’ve dug into them. If I find that I like a book after I’ve borrowed it, I’ll usually buy it to use for reference.


    Donate them to a prison library. On your shelf they’ll get read once, maybe twice max, and collect dust. Donated to a prison, they will be reread thousands of times, until they virtually fall apart and are held together by clear packing tape. In the real world, you don’t have time to read. In a prison, you have nothing but time to read.

  • Donald Latumahina

    This article is about getting the most out of a book. It’s as if we try to exhaust all possible value of the book. While I agree that reading nonfiction for pleasure is a good thing (I myself really enjoy reading books), I’d say that we can always dig deeper than that. We can try to find the lessons that we can apply to our life, even if they are hidden. This way we exhaust all possible value of the book.

    This article is written with nonfiction books in mind, not adventure books. Of course, for such adventure books you do not want to directly read the ending.

    Good idea! I have similar experience myself, so I can attest that what you say is absolutely correct.

    Interesting idea :)

  • Tom Ritchford

    Thinking about what you read is one thing! But it’s not true that “the goal of reading books is getting actionable ideas.” Certainly it’s a goal of reading books…

    It’s not that I don’t get tons of ideas that I can and do act on — my career depends on this even :-D but it’s often better not to have such a judgemental mask when reading a book and look for all possible value in it, not just “things you can act on”.

    The non-fiction books I’m reading or just read or am about to read include “A People’s History of the United States”, “More Effective C++”, “Breaking The Spell” (Dennett talking about religion) and I’m about to start on a biography of the famous New York gangster Joe Gallo.

    The C++ book has direct bearing on my work but even then I read it for many different reasons. Unless I go back in time or become a gangster, I’m unlikely to be able to directly get “actionable ideas” from any of the other books. There’s usually more science in there — but again, I’m not going go go out and perform experiments.

  • bliz

    You forgot something important which should be the first thing one should always do.

    Download the errata. ;)

  • Ron Barrett

    Thank you for the posting on how to get more out of non-fiction books.
    Do you have a real-world example of the steps that you could post or email?
    All the best.

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  • Donald Latumahina

    I believe that getting actionable ideas is a very important goal of reading nonfiction, but you are right that it’s not the only goal. Because of that, I just updated the post from “the goal” to “an important goal”. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Honestly I’ve never done that. Thanks for reminding me :)

    I don’t apply these whole steps to all books I read, only to the important books. For steps 4-7, I put my notes in OneNote. Since OneNote has outline feature which can be collapsed, the book map (step 4) is integrated with the ideas I get from each chapter (step 5). This part is usually pretty long since there are a lot of ideas I write. Then I put step 8 in my master to-do list (I use Outlook) which I remove when I complete them.
    So I don’t have a complete example in one document, the biggest chunks are in OneNote pages.

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  • Mike Wagner


    Great post and very helpful. Thanks for sharing your insights.

    I listen to a lot of audio books as I drive. Do you have any suggestions on “how to get the most out of your audio books”?

    Keep creating,

  • Donald Latumahina

    Thanks, Mike!

    I like listening to podcasts, but I still don’t have enough experience with it to give comprehensive tips. What I do so far is trying to grasp an actionable idea or two while listening to the podcasts. I will then write those ideas in my journal.

  • Watch TV

    Yikes, the list is good for books that you enjoy – but I’ve read some books that would have be practically suicide if I was to do all of these things to them.

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  • Leona Seib

    Thanks Donald,

    I have just finished another technique. but an important point is to set the intension. Why are you reading this book and what do you think it will teach you.

    Leona Seib

  • Donald Latumahina

    Watch TV,
    Yes, flexibility is important. We should not do all these steps to all the books we read. The more important a book is, the more steps we should apply.

    You’re welcome. I agree, setting our intention is important. It prepares our mind to absorb as much as possible from the book.

  • @Stephen

    Actionable ideas are useless if you do not put them into action.

    Absolutely! How many people will buy the “4 hour work week”, looking for a simple fix for getting out of working for a living, and not follow the steps, not learn from the experiences.

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  • Donald Latumahina

    Yes, Stephen. Putting the actionable ideas into action is probably the most difficult part of reading, but it’s also the place where we can make the most difference. So I think it deserves special attention.

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  • alan


    Now i can read more book with detail understanding than in past. thanks for the Great tips.


  • SwordFinder

    the action list part is the tricky one. many just stop there, it takes commitment and constant patience (some read constipation) to put that list into action/execution.


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  • Andika

    Your suggestion number 4 gives me idea to make a map from the book. It’s interesting. Thanks.

  • joker159

    beggining with the end in mind ? :)

  • Tony El Khoury

    Exactly what I was looking for.
    Can`t wait to start using this plan. Thanks