My (Mostly) Paperless Reading System

My (Mostly) Paperless Reading System

I started writing this article about my reading system for my Paper Cuts newsletter, but it started getting too long for an email and turned into a blog post.

Growing up, I was one of those kids that would go to the library every week and walk out with a bag full of books so heavy that I could barely carry it. I was a voracious reader.

A few years ago, I realized that my reading had become almost nonexistent. Whatever time I had spent reading books had been replaced with flipping through social media. I decided to make a concerted effort to start reading again.

At the same time, I stumbled across this article by Greg Hickman about his adoption of the Miracle Morning. I decided to structure my morning more or less the same way, and I decided to put some structure around my reading to make sure:

  1. That I read every single day
  2. That I read books that were helpful
  3. That I review and implement what I read, and don’t just forget about it the second I close the book

I’ll be the first to admit that this system may be on the more structured side. It works well for me and the way my brain works, but it may not be something you want to go with. That’s cool! Hopefully you’ll at least pick up a few tips.

Reading Format

Even though people call me “Mr. Paperless”, I do like paper books. Having said that, I find ebooks more practical in most cases (I did not enjoy lugging around 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow in hardback!).

The majority of books I read are digital, either by buying them for my Kindle or by taking the ebook out of the library.

If it is something I want to keep/treasure/refer to a lot, I do pick it up in paper format, and I do take paper books out of the library if they’re available.

I’m also a big audiobook fan, so I always have one audiobook going on in the car. As much as I love hearing people on sports radio debate for 25 minutes whether a Canucks forward should be on the 2nd or 3rd line, it is not the best use of my time. I love lengthy biographies on audiobook, and I have an Audible subscription for these.

Reading Types & Capturing Ideas

I split the types of books I read into three main categories:

  • Fiction
  • Non-Fiction
  • Biography

When I’m reading, I rotate between these three categories. I’ll read a fiction book, then non-fiction, then a biography, then back to fiction, and so on. This keeps me engaged in reading and stops me from feeling too one-dimensional (reading “only” business books for example).

There is one thing I do that is the key to this reading system. I have lists of “To read” books. You could keep this in a notebook, but I use four iOS Reminders lists: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Biographies, and Audible. Whenever I come across a book that someone smart mentions, I add it to the list.

Since I use Reminders for this, I can capture the books with Siri or do it on my iPhone, iPad, or Mac.

Capturing these book ideas is important because a significant point of friction for me was not knowing what to read. Now, this is never a problem. At the time of writing, I have 47 fiction books, 160 non-fiction books, 86 biographies, and 24 audiobooks in my list. These are all books that were recommended to me either directly or indirectly, so I know at any one time I have 317 awesome books racked up.

There’s no decision fatigue because when I finish one book, I just read the next one in the list. Easy.

Taking Notes

When I started reading again, I realized I had a problem: I am apparently like Dory in Finding Nemo. The second I closed a book, I would forget everything in it.

I experimented with different ways to take notes, but I settled on one method that works well for me:

As I’m going through a non-fiction book, I create a mind map (currently using MindNode) to capture ideas and central themes. I might do this on my phone or iPad, whichever I have around me at the time.

Then at the end of the book, I have a nicely structured and visual representation of the key things I want to remember.

Side note: I know and understand all the arguments and research that says physically writing down notes enhances memorization and deepens understanding. If that works for you, awesome! For myself, I have found that when I try to write down notes as I read, I don’t do it, or don’t do it well. As Tim Ferriss says, “the decent method you follow is better than the perfect method you quit.”

I hedge against the limitation of digital note taking in the next section.

When I finish, I export this mind map as an image and save it to Evernote.

Reviewing Notes

It’s one thing to take notes, but taking notes isn’t helpful unless you do something with them.

I wanted to make sure that I review the information I’m capturing, so I ripped off the structure from this oldie but a goodie Asian Efficiency post about reading books.

I review my notes from a book:

  • After 3 days (at this point I pull out any action items)
  • After 3 weeks
  • After 3 months
  • After 1 year
  • After 2 years
  • After 4 years

To accomplish this, I have a template set up in my task manager. Here’s how it looks:

When I finish a book, I add these tasks to my task manager with a link to the Evernote note that contains the notes.

Then in 3 months or 2 years, that task will pop up, and all I need to do is tap on the link and I’m reviewing.

I find this review structure helpful for keeping the information top of mind, and more than once I have come across something in my notes that wasn’t actionable at the time but is now 2 years later.

(This review structure works well for conference notes too!)

Is this all too much? Maybe!

Again, maybe this is all too much structure for you. Perhaps you just want to pick up a book and read it. For me, I’ve been doing it for almost four years, and it has helped me accomplish the three goals I outlined at the start.

(How do I know it’s been almost four years? My first 4 year review task is about to hit!)

Do you have a reading structure that works for you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

About the Author

Brooks Duncan helps individuals and small businesses go paperless. He's been an accountant, a software developer, a manager in a very large corporation, and has run DocumentSnap since 2008. You can find Brooks on Twitter at @documentsnap or @brooksduncan. Thanks for stopping by.

Leave a Reply 10 comments

Champs - January 6, 2020 Reply

Thanks for sharing, have you ever used any knowledge management platform? Do you have any thoughts about that?

kshitij - June 16, 2019 Reply

thank you for this article this is very interesting

Emilee McKnight - September 26, 2018 Reply

Geez, this is quite the reading system. I struggle to get myself to even read a single book at all.

    EverettFrart - March 14, 2019 Reply

    Now that you’ve set up some initiatives and gotten your team on board  for going paperless, it’s time to start the dirty work. Before you begin scanning your physical documents into their  new home in the cloud,  an electronic system, read these ways to organize what you have—and odds are, you have a lot.

Andre - March 21, 2018 Reply

As Mary Anderson I also would like know which task manager you are using? The screenshot looks very interesting.


Mary Anderson - March 7, 2018 Reply

I also would like to know what your task manager is. It looks interesting.

The blog post is great. I love to read, too, but, like you, I sometimes forget what I’ve read. I read so many books that they start to blur together, I think.

Allison - March 6, 2018 Reply

I’m new to ScanSnap and new to your blog, but I want to ditto “Goodreads” as a reading tool. Your libraries are automatically sorted into categories like “biographies” and it would be a good way to share your recommended books with all of us followers. Maybe you could paste your mind maps there.

Diane - March 3, 2018 Reply

Brooks Thanks for this post, I love it. What do you use for Task Management? I love that template idea but am unclear how to do that. I use a Windows laptop, but a iPhone and iPad too….

Julie Bestry - March 3, 2018 Reply

Brooks, I’m impressed with your rigor, but it does sound a bit wearying. I wish you were on GoodReads so that you would add your reviews/notes there. Lisa Montanaro and I (and many of our cohort) share titles and find new options there. Given your detailed review of non-fiction, I’m curious what you do to remember what you read of the fiction on your list!

casey chambers - March 2, 2018 Reply

Brooks, I enjoy all your organizing tips and advice. I’ve especially enjoyed your YTs discussing Evernote…(both alone and with Dotto). Anyway…to get back on track…lay on me a few books that will always be on your “great-read’s list (Nothing about business, work etc) just a few good Fiction.
Take care…~casey

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