If you’ve managed to find your way to this website, it goes without saying that personal growth and development is up there on your list of priorities. For the busy person who has neither the time nor the money to go to weekend seminars or to hire a personal coach, books are among the best methods for further developing ones self. They are easily accessible, you can read at your own pace, and they are written by people who are very knowledgeable in what you want to learn (if you pick the right books).
However, many people find themselves experiencing something similar to the following scenario that is all too common: Tom discovers a great book on personal finance that he is eager to read and begin applying to his daily life. Although his job is a little hectic, he is able to find an hour or two to read each night before going to bed and he is able to get through the book within 2 weeks of diligent reading. After he finishes the book, Tom puts it back on his bookshelf, ready to apply the lessons he has learned. Fast forward seven months later: Tom becomes frustrated because he hasn’t noticed any change in his financial situation, only to realize that this is because he has slowly drifted away from the lessons he learned from this particular book over the months and now applies none of it.
Sound familiar? Unfortunately, books are not the best learning medium out there. Most people can read straight through a book and then three days later forget they even read it, let alone actively apply the lessons and ideas found within it. Therefore, here are 5 steps to maximize your retention and active application of any and all personal growth and development literature:
NOTE: These principles can be applied to many other practices outside of personal growth and development, but considering the theme of this blog, it will be applied specifically to that.
Step 1) Get productive
Let’s face it. We all have busy schedules and don’t always have hours on end to dedicate to thoroughly reading the latest book on our topic of choice. It would be easy for me to stand on my soapbox and preach how you must be willing to sacrifice some activity or relaxation time in order to make room for self growth in your life when you’re always busy with work, relationships, etc. However, that’s not a sustainable choice for many people and sustainability is key to your success, as we will talk about in more detail later in this post. For many people, in order to find any consistent, sustainable period of time to clear your mind of worries and start reading your favorite magazine, blog, or book of choice, you will have to increase your productivity in order to get your other priorities done sooner.
One easy way to instantly motivate yourself to get more accomplished is using procrastination as a driver for productivity. First, sort a to-do list in descending order starting with the task or chore you LEAST want to do. Therefore, at the top of your list should be some task that you would like to procrastinate for as long as humanly possible. What you have to do is look at the list and ask yourself ‘Do I want to start the first item on my list or the item at the bottom?’ Obviously the item at the bottom of your list will look a lot easier by comparison, and the urge to procrastinate the first item on your list will be the motivation to complete the item at the bottom of the list. In this fashion, work your way up the list until the first item is all that’s left. From there, just picture how wonderful it will feel to have completed the whole list and imagine all the free time you will have after you finish that last task. I use this method all the time and it really helps me get into the flow of accomplishing my daily tasks.
For those who are simply disorganized and need a better system for keeping track of appointments, commitments, chores, and tasks, I highly recommend Getting Things Done by David Allen. This book is the sole reason I have been able to stay on top of all my responsibilities while being a full-time student. There are also some great productivity tips in The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris, which is another excellent book.
Step 2) Get an attitude adjustment
If you find yourself to be a highly goal-oriented individual, this step applies particularly to you. Setting goals can be a superb way to motivate yourself and measure your progress. However, if you focus ONLY on your goals and progress, you may be doing so at the expense of your long-term commitment to personal growth in that particular area.
In his book, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, George Leonard writes:
“To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so–and this is the inexorable fact of the journey–you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.”
There are many highly goal-oriented people who, upon seeing that they are no longer making progress and achieving set goals (read as: are on a noticeable plateau), can quickly become discouraged and slowly drift away from the path they were on.
I could write for hours on this subject because it is so crucial for developing the right mindset for personal growth and development, but I don’t think I could do a better job than George Leonard has done in “Mastery.” Do yourself a favor and pick up this book either from Amazon, Half.com, or your local library. It’s a quick read that will deliver enormous results for you in the long run.
Step 3) Get simple
This particular step was inspired by The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. He discusses the benefits of going on a “low information diet.” Living in today’s age of information, it is possible to get seemingly infinite amounts of information on just about any topic we want. We can easily get flooded with e-mails, spend hours a day catching up on all our favorite blogs, get caught up on an interesting article on a local news website, and then later read any book or magazine we’ve been meaning to go through.
All this information can easily clutter our brains and ensure that none of it sinks in and gets internalized. A year ago I used to subscribe to 5 self-improvement blogs, get daily e-mail updates from various self help websites, and aim to read 2 books a month related to the various areas of self improvement. This quickly became too much and I found myself rushing through the literature just to have it completed, rather than slowly and diligently go through each piece of material and really absorb the message contained within it.
Ever since I reduced my information load to checking e-mail twice a day, reading one book at a time, and checking out my favorite blogs once every few days, I feel less pressured to finish a book quickly, and I find that I get more out of the books I read.
In summary, even though the internet has so many wonderful resources, be careful not to overload yourself with too much information, which will be counterproductive to reaching your goals.
Step 4) Get thorough
Studies have shown that re-reading books increases your retention rate of the information found within it. Therefore, I re-read my favorite classics in self improvement literature often, such as “Think and Grow Rich”. The best part is that I always find myself picking up new ideas that I missed the previous time. I highly recommend regularly re-reading your favorite articles, books, and/or blog posts to really squeeze out all of the valuable lessons they have to offer.
Additionally, it’s not likely that you will be able to integrate all the lessons and ideas found within a particular book within a week or two. The general consensus among researchers is that it takes roughly 21 days for something to become a habit. If you read a book once and then let it collect dust on the shelf, the lessons will slowly begin to exit your memory, making it unlikely that you will be able to effectively continue applying them.
Step 5) Get systematic
Last, but not least, we want to get systematic with the knowledge we absorb out of the resources we read. By organizing, indexing, and recording the lessons and ideas most applicable to us in a particular book, it will cut the time needed to consistently review the book (as discussed in step 4) to a fraction of what it would have taken to re-read it from cover to cover.
I am aware of two methods through which you can accomplish this step.
The first is to buy a little notebook. Whenever you come across any good advice–whether from a co-worker, a book, a blog, or your 15 year old cousin–you will write it down in this little notebook. By capturing all that you learn and wish to apply to your own life into a portable, easy to browse through notebook, it is a lot easier to dedicate one or two nights a month to re-reading these lessons and tips to see how much progress you’ve made with each one. I’ve found that the best way to capture these ideas, is to record them on a voice recorder (or the recorder function on your phone) as soon as you can, and then write them down at your convenience later.
I give credit to Tim Ferris for this second method, in which you create your own index on an empty page either at the front or the back of the book you are reading. By indexing the parts of a book you found most applicable and valuable, you can use the index to quickly review the most important parts of a book much more efficiently. It also helps to underline to specific parts on a page that you found important, so you can find them later with greater ease.
Below is an example of an index I made while I was reading the aforementioned book “Mastery”.
(Right click and click on “View Image” to see a larger version)
Creating a system for isolating key ideas for quick and easy review can be invaluable to keeping you on track with periodic reviews of whatever literature you are reading. But keep in mind that it is not a complete replacement for re-reading chapters in their entirety. By re-reading chapters, it allows you to discover ideas and concepts you may have glossed over the first time around. I suggest you do both.
Think of steps 1-3 as prerequisites before you even begin reading. These first steps will clear your mind of information overload, stress, and unfulfilled commitments, in addition to putting you in the right mindset to begin the dynamic path of self growth and continued learning.
Steps 4 and 5 are designed to keep you immersed in the lessons and ideas found within the book through consistent review, noting and recording the most important and relevant ideas to you, and creating a system to make review simple and efficient.
While I don’t claim that this list is 100% complete in all the ways one can maximize their results from self improvement literature, it is a solid start for going above and beyond simply reading a book once, putting it back on the shelf, and expecting the results to come flying in. This topic may even become an ongoing series. Feel free to comment and/or add to this article in the comments below.