I have now released
The Ultimate Commonplace System

How to Keep a Book for Summarizing Books

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IMAG1916Merry Christmas friends!

What you do when nobody’s watching matters.

How you spend your holidays matter.

How you spend your free time matters.

These things matter because they say something about who you are.

When you’re at work or in school you have an external pressure imposed on you to perform. On your free time you don’t. Therefore, this is the time when your real self shines through.

That’s why this is the time that it’s most important that you’re consistent in your execution.

Otherwise, you’re just a paper tiger. A person who puts on a show in public. A person who hides the fact that he’s being weak by relying on others for feeling a sense of purpose or getting the motivation to put in the work.

For that reason I’ve been sure not to slack off on my reading in the past week. I’ve read four books, though admittedly two of them were rather short.

Once I finished each of these books I’ve done something very important. I’ve spent some time summarizing the most actionable pieces of information. I’ve written this down in the white book that you see in the image above.

I keep this book specifically for the purpose of summarizing the information of the books I read. This is a great habit and I would recommend anyone who’s not doing it to start.

Let me tell you why I do this.

Learning and Adapting

I spend a lot of time learning new things.

I often decline or ignore offers to hang out or go to social events so that I can read books or practice a skill I’m trying to learn.

To me, learning is not a joke, it’s very serious business. I consider it my job.

I do not want to be average or mediocre. Therefore I must set myself apart by becoming better and more competent. Fortunately, that’s not very hard to do when you learn new things at a faster pace than the average person.

Apart from my hatred for mediocrity, another reason why I place a major importance on learning things is because we humans live by the rule of survival of the most adaptable.

It’s not survival of the fittest – it’s survival of the most adaptable. And the people who learn and apply things the quickest are those who are the most adaptable.

Because I am good at learning things I am not worried that I’ll be left behind and made useless or obsolete by some new trend or technology coming along.

I don’t waste my time fearfully pondering future difficulties. Instead I trust that I’ll learn as I go along – I trust in my ability of adapting to the situation.

Why Should You Summarize Books?

Because summarizing is note taking on steroids.

Not only should you summarize books, but you should summarize every piece of useful information that you come across.

The reason you should do this is twofold:

1.

You need to act while the information is still fresh in mind.

You must write, express, and summarize the information you’ve learned immediately while you’re still seeing the world from this perspective.

You might not realize it, but your frame – the way you interpret information – is constantly changing. As you’re reading a book you’ll become more and more immersed in the author’s way of looking at the world. You’ll start to see the things he speaks about in various situations of your own life.

While you’re still seeing things from this perspective you need to make maximum use of it and put down the core concepts on paper while it’s still fresh in your mind. The thoughts you’re having are often invisible to you right now because you’re too immersed in them. But that’ll change when you review your summarized notes later.

2.

You become better at distilling large chunks of information into the simple essentials.

And that’s always a great skill to have. All leaders are great simplifiers – and you should be too.

By summarizing the things you learn you’ll improve your big-picture thinking and your ability to get down to the core message of the book.

The Fallacy that More is Better

If you have any experience of the academic world you know that it secretly encourages and propagates the notion that it’s fancy to write or provide redundant information, in particular in research papers.

A lot of academic people foolishly pride themselves on this, and in university many teachers reward this kind of behavior.

But they’re wrong, and that’s why no one wants to read their boring papers.

Keeping a book for summarizing books is a good way to fight these negative influences if you’ve been poisoned by this fallacy.

Why Summarizing Matters

When you come across intelligent, motivated and successful people you realize that they don’t have that much time. They’re busy perfecting their craft, practicing their skills, and running their businesses.

In other words, they don’t have time for bullshitters or time wasters.

If you want to deal with them you need to say what you want to say and you need to say it now.

I struggle with this myself, but I’ve improved a lot over the past six months.  For example, I’m much better at pitching face-to-face and over email than before as a result of having become more succinct.

I attribute much of this improvement to my summarizing of books, articles and other information.

After the Book is Finished

Now you know why I write book summaries.

But you don’t know how I do it, so let me to explain the process.

I read a lot and I have slightly different systems for taking notes and storing information depending on what I read.

I keep different sections in my commonplace book for pdf-files, articles, blog posts, and online reading. If it’s a physical book I’ll write down notes on paper with a multicolored pencil.

When I finish reading a book I will do two things:

  1. Summarize the book in my book summary book.
  2. Do a video log explaining the main concepts and key takeaways from the book.

My Process for Writing Book Summaries

First I go through all my notes from start to finish. Then I begin summarizing the information from the book into my special book summary book by writing the most important things first.

I try to keep it as short as possible and cut whatever information I can.

To do this I ask myself the following questions as I go through the notes:

  • Will I have use for this information 5+ years into the future?
  • Can this be cut, or is it essential to remember?
  • Does this have any practical implication or is it merely cool trivia?

I try to keep my summary to 1-2 pages – and the pages are small: About half the size of an A4 paper. If there’s a lot of useful information in the book I’ll probably write a longer summary.

For example when I read Atlas Shrugged I ended up writing 6 pages, but that book is 1200 pages and 2 of those pages were filled with great quotes from Fransisco D’anconia and John Galt.

Make it Easy to Review

How to keep a book for summarizing booksThis is the first page in my book for summarizing books. What you see here is the content section. Each line is a book read.

I’ve written the following:

  • Title
  • Author
  • The date I finished the book.
  • Number of pages

By doing this you’ll make it easier to navigate when it grows.

Know Why You Do This

When you stack up a large number of entries in your book summary book you’ll experience a sense of pride and contentment. Probably because it taps into your evolutionary hoarding instincts.
This is actually good for motivational reasons, but it’s not your main reason for doing this.
You’re doing this to look through the book every once in a while – to rehearse the most important information you have learned.

This book contains only the most concrete, simplified and actionable information out of the books you read; the key takeaways that you’ll want to implement and remember for the rest of your life.

When you summarize books remember to:

  • Cut what you can – leave only the essentials and the core message.
  •  Keep only the most actionable and useful information.
  • Make it easy to review

Now go buy an empty book to write your book summaries in!

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Comments

  1. Kanye Smith says:

    That took you a while man. I was expecting a post sooner in the day :P

    survival of the most adaptable… Catchy expression, come up with it yourself?

    You make some good arguments for starting to do this. I’m going to pick this up myself.

    Ludvig I know ur into learning things – but what’s your take on accelerated learning?

    • Yeah, some things came up today and I wasn’t able to do it very fast.

      I’m not sure if I’m the one who came up with the expression or not. Maybe.

      Kanye, I have no idea what accelerated learning is.

  2. This is an amazing post, man. I just started my great 2014 Reading Adventure, looking to read a book a week next year. This came at the perfect time for me as I started reading the first book yesterday!

    So thanks for this, cheers!

  3. What you say about academics is true Ludvig. At least in my college. Recently I was in a group work and two of the other girls (both are A students) did the literary Review of the paper.

    For those who dont know what the literary review is, it is the part where you go thru what other researchers have said about the same topic.

    Anyway, they did a completely unreadable LR of 4 pages filled with citations of completely unrelated stuff. Guess what happened? We got an A. The prof loved it. So insane

    • That sounds familiar. It’s one of the reasons why I have a grudge against the school system.

    • That’s “literature review” and there are sound reasons for doing it right in the real world. You don’t want to be suspected of plagiarism or to make an ass of yourself by re-inventing the wheel. Or even worse, by publishing ideas that are already conclusively disproven.

      Professors don’t much care if the work you do is worth anything, they probably won’t even read it. Some of them are impressed by long strings of citations, in which case you can include all kinds of crap including imaginary works. This will not fly in the real world. Some bulldog like me will hang you out to dry for every little mistake.

      • Haha, you got me! I guess we all know why Im no A student myself ;)

        What you say in the second paragraph is what I was really trying to say Abgrund!! :)

        Ur a bulldog!

  4. 3. Putting something into words ensures that you understand it. It’s easy to have a feeling that you understand something but when you try to write it down you discover that you really don’t.

    4. The process of writing helps to store information in long term memory. If you think something is important, don’t just write it down, read it back the next day. That will ensure that your writing and understanding are clear, and reinforce your memory of the ideas.

    • On 3:
      –> I think this is especially true in retrospect. Sometimes when I review my notes I’ll be thinking “What.. how the heck did I come to this conclusion here!?”

      On 4:
      –> Yes!

      Thanks for the comment Abgrund.

  5. Great article again! Learning and summarizing books is very important. We have lots of same thoughts my friend. Reading your blog gets me pumped up to learn even more from all areas of life. I want to thank you of that.

  6. Michal Stawicki says:

    Your system is really cool Ludvig. I’ve never thought about the importance of summarizing from the perspective of successful people. Your conclusions are right on the spot.
    When the student is ready…
    I’ve started to log all the books I read in Goodreads just a couple weeks ago. And I was just playing with the thought to jot down at least a single takeaway from every blog post I read.
    As to blog posts I have a different rule, which helps me to clarify and retain what was valuable in them. I immediately comment every post I read. I’m very picky with which blogs to follow, because of that. If I have nothing constructive to say about a post after reading it means I’ve just wasted my time.
    And If my comment is longer than 400 words I save it on my disk for further use.

    • “I’ve never thought about the importance of summarizing from the perspective of successful people”

      —> I have. For a very long time.

      Michal, I have the very same rules (except the 400 word one). These type of rules are imperative in the long run and separates the averages from the winners.

  7. Already went out to buy a summary book, now printing out this article.

    I was thinking lately of starting to take notes of the books I read, and this article has actionable advice for that purpose.

    Thanks man.

  8. Wan Muhammad Zulfikri says:

    Great!

    Done. That’s my summary of your article, Ludvig :D

    Am I doing it right?

  9. Great post, Ludvig.

    Instead of summarizing books, I usually convert them to electronic format. Then I highlight and make notes on it, using the computer. I can review the main points rather quickly using my technique.

    For paper books, I type out the sentences or pages that really resonated with me and put it in a digital file. It is kind of like your summary book, but mine is all digital.

    Bottom line is that you’re actively reading and soaking in the knowledge, which is awesome.

    • Interesting approach:
      -What’s your “technique”?
      -Do you use different colors and bold/italics/underline for different things?

      I already do so much writing on my computer that I want to keep this separate. Also I treasure this book and want to be absolutely sure not to lose it if, for example, my computer broke down. Speaking of that.. I REALLY need to back up my commonplace book…!

      I agree with you. It’s about being active. Everyone has to experiment and find their own way.

      Alex is a smart man, and he reads a lot of quality books. Check out his blog – it’s almost solely dedicated to books.

      • I appreciate the shout-out.

        You’re right. The downside of keeping things digital is that it could get lost. Which is why I back up my files in a portable USB drive.

        I see that you use OneNote. I use PDF files, and I highlight, underline, and take notes directly on the PDF file. The cool thing about digital is that I can easily “erase” my mistakes. It is harder to un-highlight in a paper book.

      • I see.

  10. Interesting read.
    Got a question though:
    Why do you keep this as a separate physical book and not in your commonplace?
    You seem like a methodical guy so I’m wondering if there is some special reason, because I see none.

  11. Great post and something that i have thought about doing for a while, going to order some notepads on amazon now. Do you keep separate summarizing books for different subjects, like one for fitness books you have read and one for philosophy etc?

    • I’m glad you said it Paul, and YOU’LL be glad for it in a few months!

      I think it’s very interesting how a thing like this – a blog post – can provide the necessary impetus for picking up a positive habit. That’s one of my main reasons for blogging.

      Great question though. No, I keep every summary in my book summary book while my notes are kept either on physical paper, or digitally in my commonplace (EverNote).

  12. Hi Ludvig,

    This was an excellent post and I loved your approach to summarising books!

    What I can appreciate about your approach is how you note the most practical and actionable aspects. It is usually these nuggets that we will keep referring to over weeks, months and even years.

    Thanks for sharing, and Happy New Year!

  13. Ludvig, great freaking article man!

    Man I can’t even count the times I tried to keep a summary book :) I somehow always lost the zest over time, but now I’m going to do this thing with conviction!

    I actually went a step further … I tried to summarize every article I read on the internet, especially articles about fitness and online marketing. But this is I think better suited for my commonplace book (fantastic article dude!).

    I can’t wait now to start messing with my Evernote, to make a commonplace book.

    Cheers,

    Dejan

    • Haha. I actually got the tip about doing this habit from a friend in Toastmasters. When she told me I thought to myself: “Shit. Why am I not doing this!?” and I began doing it the next day. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought about it before!

      “I tried to summarize every article I read on the internet, especially articles about fitness and online marketing. But this is I think better suited for my commonplace book”

      —> I do the same thing. It’s great.

      • If I summarized every article I read on the Internet, or even just Wikipedia, I’d never get away from the computer long enough to avoid crapping my pants.

      • Haha!

        Ok, I don’t summarize everything. But everything that’s useful. And I try not to read anything else.

  14. What a great idea! I usually have a flash card while reading to make any notes from the book, then once I’m done reading it, I place the flash card in the front of the book. So for example I put, : PG. # and then a little note to remind me about what was on that page, like a good quote, thought, or idea.

    • Indeed a great idea. It adds up. I love every positive habit that cumulative adds up.

      I tried a similar approach when I experimented with reading many books at once, but it didn’t really work for me. I can’t read more than at most 3 books at a time, otherwise I don’t get “immersed” enough.

  15. Great post. I love the idea, but I’m going to take a slightly different approach. I plan on reading with a pad of post it notes so I can mark my notes where I find them in the book, then when I finish I can write up a summary of what I found useful.

    • Good plan. I sometimes use a sheet of blank paper for a bookmark. One side for writing page numbers and notes and the other for writing down any damn thing that crosses my mind.

      I don’t usually do highlighting or underlining, reason being it defaces the book and I might find a better statement of the same thing later on. It’s a pain in the ass to go back later and look for highlights, and even worse if you’ve highlighted half the book. A few pages into Das Kapital I started highlighting the key logical errors. Pretty soon I realized that I might as well soak the whole book in yellow paint.

    • Thanks Andrew!

      Good ideas yourself.

      Abgrund:
      – Haha

  16. This is an important practice. I have a similar habit though I summarize the contents of my reading electronically (so I can continue to access my notes on the move via my smartphone). Two quotes come to mind, both from Aristotle (I’m reading greek philosopher’s at the moment).

    ‘He who actualizes his potential is a virtuous man.’

    ‘We are what we repeatedly do, excellence then is not an act, it’s a habit.’

    And I couldn’t agree more on the point about how we choose to spend our free time and holidays. The last two weeks – though restful and fun – have been two of the busiest of my whole year. But in the end good things come from staying consistent and committed.

    PS. Best wishes to you and yours for 2014

    • Ah.

      Aristotle was a smart man. He once said something along the lines of:
      “Man has growth in common with plants and instinct in common with animal, but man alone has mind.”

      Point being: Develop your mind. Educate yourself. Philosophize.

  17. Looks like I’m going to get me a book of summarizing.

  18. The expression “Survival of the fittest” isn’t about physical fitness, but about the ability to ‘fit’ into a (changing) situation. Therefore, the expression is about adaptability. So “survival of the fittest” has the same meaning as “survival of the most adaptable.

    For the rest of the article, you’re spot on.

    • “Survival of the fittest” means the survival of those individuals best fitted to survive, i.e. it is tautological. In reference to biological evolution, it does not signify adaptability. I think Ludwig is referring to something other than mere physical survival.

    • You’re right Jacco, and I do know the concept as well. I could’ve expressed it better though.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Abgrund: Spot on. I am

  19. Getting into the habit of reading and taking notes is huge. I’ll admit that I haven’t been very good at taking notes unless it’s something extremely important. For example, two weeks ago I had to figure out how to put a book on Kindle and I wanted to do it before New Years so I furiously read books and took notes on key information.

    But most of the time I just read and retain whatever. So it looks like you’re generally not taking notes as you’re reading the book. Is that correct?

    Either way there’s no question this will let the information sink in much deeper.

    BTW – Great to see your blog blowing up! :)

    • Kevin,

      I sucked at taking notes before too. But it’s made a big difference in the past 1.5 year since I changed that habit. Many times when I am reading and taking notes I find myself writing a lot, many posts on this blog have been formed that way. It was merely something that I found interesting and kept writing. Gotta follow-up on those thoughts!

      I used to not take a lot of notes, but read very quickly. Now it’s usually the other way around.

      Thanks man. It’ll be interesting to see what you cook up in the coming year.

  20. Been reading your blog. very helpful to me.
    what would you say your philosophy is? who is your favorite philosopher?

    • That’s great, Abdi.

      As for my philosophy. Well, it should be all over this blog I’d hope. You might want to read my book Breaking out of Homeostasis if you haven’t already.

      I have no one “favorite” philosopher, but guys like Jean Paul Sartre, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Ayn Rand are great.

  21. I like this idea! I post book reviews in my blog and never thought of anything like this which is useful for two purposes -personal gain and sharing the book in my community! I hope you don’t mind if I borrow those three questions when doing my book reviews- they are specific and more personal.

  22. Sebastian says:

    I summarize most of the valuable content I read. What pushed my learning effect to the next level was writing the summaries in a foreign language.

    I am native in German, but I write everything in English. In English I have to think harder to find the right words. As a result my mind is memorizing the content better.

    Once I`ve created the summary, I create a final sentence in German. Switching back is the final challenge for my mind…

  23. I will admit that I haven’t summarized books in a while. I did it a lot during my freshman year of college but after 2 years I noticed that I didn’t sync in most of those concepts completely.

    I will for a very very very special book though. That has A LOT of good information.

    The way I summarize information now is by reading, then grabbing some information I liked and applying it immediately. That experience is my summary. That experience of whether it works or not. Is it useful or not to my life.

    • I think it’s a great habit.

      But I definitely do the same thing as you do. I always take a couple of things and try to apply it into my life any way I can ASAP.

      That’s what reading should be for. To gather actionable information to experiment with.

  24. This is a killer, killer post… inspiring me to get more regular with video summaries of books.

    • Thanks Kyle — that’s exactly what I was going for!

      Videologs are powerful tool for self-development & learning things. It’s a shame that so few people know about it, and that even fewer dare to do it.

  25. Hey Ludvig are you still summarising books as voraciously?

    Also, have you perhaps changed your method for doing it?

    Ive been going strong with this for the past several months now and it is truly a killer learning habit! Thanks for teaching me it.

    It really does boost your.motivation to read more, and also improves comprehension! :)

  26. “To me, learning is not a joke, it’s very serious business. I consider it my job.”

    This quote summarizes how I feel about myself. I am a voracious learner. Reading your quote has inspired me to live out the desire to make learning my job as opposed to my hobby.

  27. Hey ludvig,

    Do you think it’s better to write the notes while reading the book or after you have finished it? I think that If you write them all at the end you might forget some important things, especially if it’s a big book.

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