If you’re an avid reader, you’ve probably been there…
You’re reading a book, making notes and highlighting passages that are meaningful to you, and you say to yourself, “There are so many great ideas in this book. I’ll write up my notes when I finish.”
But for one reason or another—you never get round to it.
Maybe you forget. Maybe you immediately move onto another book. Or maybe you plan to, but you get caught up in the minutiae of everyday life.
And over time, those passages that were once so meaningful to you fall by the wayside, never to be read again…
This happened to me for years. I would read a book, feel excited about a new idea and make plans to return to my notes—only to forget a week later.
Worse: I would encounter a challenge in my life or business and recall a specific quote or idea that I knew could help me, but would forget who said it or where I read it.
It was incredibly frustrating.
So, three years ago, I started building a note-taking system in Evernote, one that would allow me to remember, organize and apply everything I ever read. 
I called it, “The Evernote Card System”.
This system has allowed me to maximize my creative output (my book summaries inspire many of my articles), identify recurring ideas from books I’ve read and most important: internalize what I’ve read.
Be warned, though: this system is not for everyone. And it might not be for you (especially if you prefer to read print and hardcover books).
But if it is for you, and you want to become a more efficient reader and note-taker, I promise you: this system will change how you read (and maybe even your life.)
Let’s get started.
How to Remember Everything You Read
Step 1. Make Highlights and Notes
This is the easy part.
As you’re reading, highlight passages that are meaningful to you. While I like to highlight anything that makes me think, I love to focus on what Derek Sivers calls “directives.” These are passages that just tell you what to do.
In my experience, there are three types of directives.
1. Direct Directives.
These instructions are easy to follow and fully understood with or without context.
Here’s a good example of a direct directive from The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday:
Here, the instruction is clear: there is no good or bad but thinking makes it so. Simple.
2. Indirect Directives.
Sometimes, a directive is hidden in a long passage of text, either because of the author’s writing style or a minimal clarity in thinking. Here’s a good example from The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gruber:
Whenever I encounter an indirect directive like the above, I rewrite the in Step 2 so it becomes more direct. In this example, I would rewrite the passage as, “Great people create their lives actively.”
3. Context-Dependent Directives.
These are directives that need more information to be fully understood. Here’s an example from Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed:
In the above example, the highlight prompts you to ask, “What is ‘It?’ What creates systems and cultures that enable organizations to learn from errors?”
In instances like the above, I add a note to remind myself of what “It” is when I’m writing my book summary (in this instance “It” is a definition of Black Box Thinking).
Another example of a context-depended directive is when an author quotes a researcher but omits their name in the takeaway.
Here’s an example from Drive by Dan Pink (you’ll notice I added a note so I know who he’s quoting):
If you’re unsure whether to add a note or not, ask yourself, “Will I understand this highlight if I’m reading it a year from now?”
If the answer is no, add a note so when you’re writing your book summary, you’ll understand the context (and so will anyone else who’s reading it).
Step 2. Export Highlights and Notes
Go to Kindle.Amazon.com, login and click “Your Highlights.”
This will display a page will all your highlights and notes.
First, copy a book’s highlights and paste them into your preferred word processor (I prefer Google Docs).
Then, click “Edit > Select All” followed by “Normal Text” from the dropdown in the toolbar. This ensures your highlights and notes format correctly.
Here’s how it will look after selecting “Normal text”:
Next, remove all instances of, “Read more at location [NUMBER],” “Delete this highlight” and “Add a note.”
Finally, go through your highlights and notes and rewrite any directives that need further clarification.
Once you’ve done that, you should have something that looks like this:
Step 3: Add Notes to Evernote
Login to Evernote and click, “New Note in Cabinet” (or whichever notebook you’re using.) Then, copy and paste your book summary into your new note.
To format it, go to “Edit > Select All” followed by “Format > Simplify Formatting.” At this stage, your note should something look like this:
Step 4: Organize Your Notes
A crucial part of The Evernote Card System is how you organize your notes in Evernote.
Without an organizational system, you won’t know where to locate your highlights and will unlikely review your notes on a regular basis (which is the overall goal).
How you organize your notes is a matter of preference, but I recommend organizing using tags, specifically: parent and child tags.
I have a parent tag called, “.Book Summaries” and within that tag, I categorize my books summaries by category, for example, “[BS] Business”, “[BS] Psychology”, “[BS] Self-Help” etc. Frontloading the tag with “[BS]” doesn’t just tell me which parent tag the child belongs to; it creates specificity.
Here’s a visual representation of what this looks like:
After copying and pasting your notes and highlights in a new note, all that’s left to do is tag your note accordingly. The above example—A Guide to The Good Life—is tagged under, “.Book Summaries” and “[BS] Philosophy.”
And that’s it!
As your library grows, so, too, will your knowledge. Whenever you need inspiration or encounter a specific challenge, all you need to do is type a search query into Evernote and read a summary that will walk you through what to do.
Let’s say you’re feeling down and you don’t know why. What could you do? Well, one solution is to search a phrase like “cognitive distortions” in Evernote, revise your notes from a book like Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns and follow the directives to change your state.
Can you imagine the impact the above could have on your life?
It’s no secret that having more information gives you a tremendous advantage over those who don’t.
Having more knowledge equips you with the resources to change your habits, make better rational choices in life and work, and most important: live a good life.
But the goal isn’t to read more for the sake of it. Or to come across as sounding smart in conversation.
The goal, to paraphrase Ryan Holiday in The Daily Stoic, is to turn words into works, to apply the knowledge we gain to make our lives—and the lives of those around us—better and more fulfilling.
Because if we achieve that goal, and apply the knowledge we acquire, who knows—maybe one day our works will be words others can act on.
Do you take notes from books? If so, how do you do it? Leave a comment below.
Ryan Holiday for introducing me to note-taking. While Ryan’s notecard system offers a great starting point on note-taking for books, it doesn’t apply to readers who prefer to read digitally. It’s my hope my article bridges that gap.