The Focus Course

How To Build Your Own Index of Notes and Ideas When Reading Books

It was in early 2015 that I pretty much stopped buying books in digital format.

At first, it was all about the money.

In my research for creating The Focus Course I was buying a slew of books. And used paperback books from Amazon are often half the price or less of their Kindle counterparts.

But as anyone who has bought their fair share of used books knows, it’s not just about the money. Used books also come with their own charm.

From time to time, I’ll get a used book that holds the previous reader’s highlights — a glimpse into what another person had gleaned from the same book I’m now reading. Or sometimes I’ll get a book that had been given to someone else as a gift, because written on the inside cover is a note from one friend to another. A few books are even signed by the author with a brief salutation to the someone who had probably waited in line at a book signing.

But price and charm aside, the real reason I prefer physical non-fiction books is that they’re far easier to read and take notes in.

Physical books are easier to read and digest quickly.

When reading for the sake of learning, I have found it to be far more efficient and more effective to have a physical book.

With a physical book it’s easy to skim through certain chapters and headings. I can jump forward and backward to different sections of the book without losing my place, and also having a context for where I am in the book.

When I was writing The Focus Course, I loved having a dozen books all spread out at once. I would pull text from different ones while interweaving their overlapping ideas. This is something you just cannot do with digital books unless you buy a dozen Kindles.

Up until early 2016, my approach to taking notes in books consisted of simply highlighting phrases that stuck out to me. Highlighting is great, but…

With a bit more energy you can take your note-taking to the next level.

Create Your Own Alternate Index of Ideas

This method is something I learned from Maria Popova during her podcast conversation with Tim Ferris, and it’s simply brilliant.

For those of you who don’t know Maria Popova, she writes the incredible site, Brain Pickings. Here’s a well-known photo of her with one of her indexed books.

Maria Popova

In the year since I began using the Popova Method for my note taking, I’ve since added a few additional components. Which we’ll dive into in just a moment. But first, I can hear you asking…

What is an alternate index of ideas?

An alternate index is no more than something you list out in the back of the book you’re reading, that you create and update as you read through the book.

It’s a list you create in real time that is comprised of the book’s themes and topics that most resonate with you, and the pages which have the best quotes and ideas around those topics.

Here are a few examples of alternate indexes from books I’ve read:

Alternate Index of Ideas

Your alternate index should focus on the topics, themes, and ideas that most resonate with you.

Because it’s an alternate index, there is no need for it to fit perfectly in line with the main theme of the book you’re reading. For example, my index for The Personal MBA includes a topic on Audience Building. There are no chapters or sections within The Personal MBA that discuss building an audience, but for me, that is a critical component to my business and there were ideas in the book that I was able to adapt into my own use-cases.

Here’s How to Create Your Own Index

It’s quite simple:

  1. As you’re reading a book and encounter a quote, phrase, statistic, or idea that stands out to you, then you highlight it.
  2. Now, think about the theme(s) or idea(s) that this highlight fits in to. How would you “tag” this highlight?
  3. Go to the back of the book where there will always be a few blank pages.
  4. Write down the name of the theme or idea.
  5. Write down the page number of your highlight.

Maria Popova says that “it’s an index based not on keywords, but on ideas.”

The Beautiful Language Index

This is something you’ll want to include in all of your indexes. You can call it “Beautiful Language” (or B.L. for short). Or “Turn of Phrase”. Or “Quotable”.

The point of the Beautiful Language tag is that it serves as a catch-all for those phrases or quotes that really stand out to you but which may not necessarily fit into a particular category of your index.

The Action Index and Key Takeaways

Thanks to the advice from Todd Henry, something I’ve recently started including in my notes is a list of the key takeaways from the book.

While you may think that the entire aforementioned index of ideas is already the list of key takeaways, that’s not entirely true.

A book can be full of awesome ideas, insights, and beautiful language. But you can’t implement all of it at once even if you wanted to.

The Action Index / Key Takeaways list is there so you can make notes about what you are doing differently or thinking differently now that you’ve read the book. If it’s not your actions that are changing, then what is the key takeaway in this book that has given you a fresh mindset or more clarity about something?

In short, what are you primarily walking away with?

Who, Why, When?

As soon as you buy a book, something you may want to write down right away is the following:

  • Who recommended the book to you?
  • Why did you get it?
  • When did you buy it?

I have books on my shelf that I bought months if not years ago that I haven’t read yet. And while I know those books are all there for a reason, some of them I can’t remember how I came across them or why I bought them.

Which is why I’ve started putting a sticky note on the inside of the front cover and writing down how I discovered the book or who recommended it to me. When I bought it. And why I bought it.

Turns out . . . this extra information gives a ton of helpful context related to my original state of motivation when I picked up the book. Also, the backstory is fun. It’s the little tidbits like this that make you smile years later when dusting off the old pages of a book you haven’t read in a long time.

The Next Challenge: Organization

While there are advantages to the analog approach, there are also challenges.

The most-obvious challenge being that a hand-written index in the back of a physical book is trapped there. If you don’t have physical access to the book itself, then you don’t have access to those notes and highlights.

And so, the next challenge for me is to get my notes and highlights out of the books and into something that is searchable and organizable.

It would be great to have a single repository to organize, sort, and search all my highlights and notes.

For instance, I’d love the ability to bring up all the highlights related to “focus” from all books I’ve read. Or, perhaps, to view my notes and highlights related to “time management” but only from those books which are about entrepreneurship. And then compare those same notes and highlights against books that are only about creativity.

For those curious, the two apps I’m looking at for this task are Together and Evernote.

BTW: If you have an idea or suggestion for how to approach the information organization, please let me know via Twitter.

Update: After spending time with quite a few different apps, I’ve landed on Ulysses and it’s fantastic.

Worth It

Reading a book can be difficult enough in its own right. And at first glance, the above alternate index stuff may sound like a lot of extra work just to read a book.

In practice, I’ve found that it’s hardly any extra work at all. In fact, I enjoy the process of taking notes and cataloging them.

Taking that additional amount of time to add a few extra tidbits of information can give a significant amount of context to the information in the book. Moreover, these are massive assets you can return to and use in many different contexts.

Happy reading!

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