How I take smart digital notes—Part 2: Highlights and reading notes

Ramses Oudt • Reading time: 9 minutes

Click here to read part 1 of this series

How confident are you that you remember what you read?

Until a year ago, I would have said: “Not very.” I was certainly reading a lot and somehow remembering quite a bit, but something was missing.

I always had the feeling I was learning something by reading, but I had nothing to show. Every time I had a conversation about an idea I had read recently, I would blank on the details. Revisiting books was a daily ritual, simply to ingrain the concepts.

Now I read less and slower but retain more. How is that possible?

Because I have a reading system. Every time I pick up a book, I have a reading goal. Every time some idea resonates with me, I have a pre-defined way to highlight and capture it in a note. There is no guessing, I execute.

Precisely because of my reading system, I can retain what I read. My approach also allows me to build on the ideas I store in my second brain, progressively gaining more insight.

The two tools that I lean on most are highlighting and reading notes.

How do you use these tools to learn from a text? Let that question simmer while we dig into how I approach texts.

Why I care about highlighting and note-taking

I see reading as an investment; I trade time and energy to become better in the future. But without proper techniques, my effort is wasted.

Research has shown that reading techniques improve students’ ability to identify the important information in a text. That’s why every time I read, I have an intention what I want to get out of it. I also have a fixed approach to what I want to remember.

Because my decisions are made upfront, I don’t need to waste mental space on what to do at each stage of my learning process. This is in line with Sönke Ahren’s advice in How to Take Smart Notes:

“In the way we organise our research and writing, we too can significantly reduce the amount of decisions we have to make. While content-related decisions have to be made (on what is more and what is less important in an article, on the connections between notes, the structure of a text, etc.), most organisational decisions can be made up front, once and for all, by deciding on one system. By always using the same notebook for making quick notes, always extracting the main ideas from a text in the same way and always turning them into the same kind of permanent notes, which are always dealt with in the same manner, the number of decisions during a work session can be greatly reduced. That leaves us with much more mental energy that we can direct towards more useful tasks, like trying to solve the problems in question.

Working with restrictions removes many distractions. When you limit yourself, it becomes possible to focus and play with and within the boundaries. In the case of highlights and notes, the border is that they’re short and contain one idea.

Tiago Forte summarized the need for structure in his summary of Ahrens’ book:

By standardizing and streamlining both the format of our notes and the steps by which we process them, the real work can come to the forefront: thinking, reflecting, writing, discussing, testing, and sharing. This is the work that adds value, and now we have the time to do it more effectively.”

If you don’t have a reading system that includes highlighting and note-taking, you are doing yourself a disservice. Highlighting and writing notes don’t need to distract from the content, as long as you’re consistent in applying your system. The problem arises when you don’t know what’s worth capturing or how to capture.

Having a clearly defined reading system is essential if you want your future self to benefit. There are many ways to approach a text, but here’s what helped me.

How I highlight

Highlighting seems easy, but it’s not. Marking up a page is an art. Because few people have mastered this art and do something with their highlights, the practice has gotten a bad rep.

That sucks because extracting the essential parts from a text is super valuable. Most articles, books, and other writing contain a lot of fluff. At most, 10% is worth keeping. That’s what you’ll want to highlight.

Collecting interesting bits is only part of the story. You also need to cultivate the mindset of a curator. Carefully choose what you read; make strategic choices for your information diet. Ask yourself with everything you highlight: “Am I highlighting this because it truly resonates with me, or because I think ‘I should know this’?"

What helps me not highlight too much or too little is to do several passes of the text. I first skim by looking at the structure, headings, and images—I build a mental map of what I’m about to read. Next, I read the text once and make a mental note of interesting bits. Last, I reread and mark up the things I want to remember. This is not how I approach everything; sometimes, I only skim and then highlight directly. What guides me is how important the text is and if I need to remember what’s in it (= more passes).

Before I knew what to highlight, I would often capture way too much. My Evernote had become a dumping ground of mostly irrelevant notes, which caused me never to reference them.

Through Tiago Forte‘s Building a Second Brain course, I learned what’s worth saving. Here’s a visual from the course that better explains it than I could:

Knowing what to save is half the battle. Every piece of knowledge comes in a format that requires different tools. In the case of text, it either comes in analog (paper) or digital form.

Paper highlights

For many years, I stepped in the trap of highlighting too much on paper. Some of my old textbooks look like they were dipped in ink, it’s that bad. Why? Because I completely missed the purpose of highlighting on paper: to pick out important parts and make review easier.

On paper, you always have the context, so it’s not necessary to mark entire paragraphs. Limit yourself to just a few words here and there to draw your attention.

On paper, you also have the freedom to use other techniques. For example, you can write questions below subheadings and mark the answer in the corresponding paragraphs. This will make it easier to turn the text into flashcards when you review it.

There are more best practices. Use question or exclamation marks for things you want to revisit. Use a different color highlighter for what you want to remember and what is unclear to you. This will help you when reviewing.

I don’t often read paper books, except for my college textbooks (I’m pursuing a second bachelor’s degree). What helps me to make most of them is the technique that I found in this highlighting guide by Dunwoody College (PDF alert). In summary, these are the essential points to remember:

Digital highlights

You cannot directly translate paper highlighting techniques to digital devices. First, most reader apps only allow you to highlight and add notes, not providing any tools to mark up the rest of the page. Second, digital highlights tend to lack context because they’re often exported to note-taking apps.

Whereas you need to be sparse with your paper highlighter, the digital highlighter needs to be handled differently. You’ll likely want to export your digital highlights, so you need to save more context.

There’s a thin line between saving too much and saving too little. Balance is key.

For digital extracts, I keep the principle of atomicity in mind. Atomicity is the same principle I hold myself to when taking notes; every note should contain one idea and be understood on its own. Likewise, all my highlights explain exactly one concept that I can understand without any additional context.

Cutting out the fluff from digital highlights is easier said than done. Often, there’s an interesting bit at the beginning and the end of the paragraph, but everything in between is useless for me. That’s what caused my Evernote to become a junkyard of mostly irrelevant snippets. Luckily, I discovered Readwise about a year ago.

Readwise has different components for learners; it’s a Spaced Repetition System, a highlight extractor, and a database of quotes to be shared easily. But the service has something that’s extremely powerful and enables me only to save stuff that’s useful: tags.

Readwise tags are not just for sorting; they are also to stitch together highlights. If you add the note .c1 to a snippet and .c2 to another, the two will become one highlight. This enables me only to take the useful bits and leave out the rest.

As I’m obsessed with making my learning process frictionless, I use the TextExpander keyboard on my iPhone to quickly add these tags to my highlights:

How I take reading notes

Highlights are nice to have, but alone they don’t do much. To learn, you need to wrestle with the ideas and make them your own.

You don’t learn if you don’t understand. Highlighting gives the illusion of understanding because the explanation is laid out in front of you. But when you take away the text, how well can you explain the ideas? Chances are, you’ll fail miserably.

When reading, have something nearby to take notes. Make sure you always use the same note-taking gear to reduce cognitive load (see Ahrens’ quote earlier in this article). Then, while you read, you take short notes of what catches your attention.

Make no mistake, writing notes while reading definitely slows me down. The upside is that I much better retain what I read. Because I need to find the words to describe the idea to myself, I’m processing it on a much deeper level. By trying to find the right words, many related ideas will cross my mind, which provides a latticework to hang the new ideas on.

I always make sure to keep my notes short and to the point. Like my highlights, every note is atomic in the sense that it contains one idea that can be understood on its own. To provide extra context, I usually read digitally and attach my notes to parts I’ve highlighted—this also allows me to reference the section that triggered the thought. I got this idea from Nat Eliason, who only allows himself to tab/highlight something when it inspired him to write a note:

“As a rule, only tab a section if it inspired you to write an idea down in your notebook. Then mark the idea with the page number you got it from, and leave a sticky tab in the book. Don’t be tempted to mark things that “seem” important, only save the ones that speak to you.

Imposing limits on what I highlight and what deserves a note is part of my process. I also ask myself why I’m reading the text and what I want to take away from it.

As I have too many interests, almost every text seems exciting and should be remembered. The truth of the matter is that few ideas are worth remembering. We encounter most ideas more than once, and much of what we save is not even relevant at the moment. Having a set of challenges in mind that you want to learn for is an excellent filter to not jump on every idea.

How I process my highlights and notes

Knowing how to take notes is a good start. The mere act of thinking about what you read and writing short summaries for yourself is a great learning tool.

For most people, however, that’s where it stops. Maybe you already mark up pages and write notes about what you read, but what you do with those snippets is just as important. Without a system that resurfaces your notes and enables you to learn from them, you won’t bother taking them for long.

We tend not to do something when it doesn’t serve us. Make sure your note-taking system helps you and that you know it works.

Another motivator is to automate the processing of notes and highlights. I use several reader apps, and my highlights and notes are scattered around the web. Until a year ago, I’d have to manually extract them from those apps and import them into my note-taking app. But then came Readwise, which automated this entire process for me.

When you process your notes automatically, you are much more likely to do something with them. When they are in your note-taking system, revisiting them becomes a breeze. When you’re more likely to encounter a highlight or note, it will likely influence your thinking.

In a future article of this series, I’ll zoom in on how I process my notes. I’ll touch on how I use Readwise to extract knowledge, how I use it as a Spaced Repetition system, and how I send everything to Roam—my second brain.

But first, we need to make a stop at another type of resource: audio and video.

If you have questions or comments after reading this article, shoot me an email or tweet at me.

Next in this series: How I take smart digital notes—Part 3: Videos and podcasts