How To Read Technical Books In 12 Easy Steps

Black ceramic mug beside black hardbound book on brown wooden coffee table

Last week I’ve written the post about technical book reading challenge, and 3 types of reading.

Today I publish first out of 2 parts post. Here I’ll list the practical tips on how to organize your technical book reading to get the most of it.

Before we’ll start.

Short question:

Do you want in further days / weeks / months (depends on which exam you are preparing to) to have accomplished something and learned a lot or do you want to have learned nothing, having sat in front of the TV , write your option here  ___________________?

If you are focused on the exam… choose the book format you enjoy (hardcover, kindle, audio) and let’s begin.

Part 1 | Part 2

1. Schedule the time to read and recall session

You are too busy to read.

Schedule the reading to make your certification done in time. 30 min – 1 hour for reading when you have much free time and the highest focus.

Substitute your bad or useless habits with short recall sessions. Cut some time from your social networks, news review, coffee breaks …

Just make sure you always have the book you’re reading with you so you can take advantage of any free time you get throughout the day.

Do not cut the time from the gym, food time, sleep. It’s important.

If I’m working through not a small book (500+ pages) I try to read early in the morning, when I first wake up, when my mind is free, when the rest of the family sleep. In silence without distractions. I find that I’m able to understand the material much easier at that time of day and I retain more. Some of you may find concentration much better at night. It’s OK. It’s your schedule.

Don’t forget about the forgetting curve (I wrote about it here and here) and schedule the time accordingly.

You can check my study plan and approach.

2. Set up a special reading area with no distractions

You can do all the scheduling, timing you want, but if you don’t have a comfortable place to read without distractions, it’s not going to do you any good. This place is different for everyone, but the idea is pretty simple. Find a place where you can get away from your phone, your family, and any other distractions and just read.

There’s nothing worse than distractions, whether it’s traffic, kids playing, or the general ambiance of people hovering around – and although you might not notice, your subconscious will.

The idea is to create a place where you can focus and enjoy what you’re doing so you can absorb what you’re reading. Cause you need to keep focused, stay productive.

Get access to the “Effective Techniques for Improving Focus and Attention” mind map I’ve prepared earlier:

Can’t concentrate? Breathe

When you find your mind running away, close your eyes and slowly count to 10. Repeat if necessary. It works.

Make sure you are drinking enough water too – as that can effect concentration.

Listen to music before you get started.

Not during. Some people are OK with that. Try avoid music with lyrics then. Scientists have proven that listening to music before a task such as learning, helps you concentrate better. The type of music doesn’t matter, so long as you enjoy it.

3. No speed-reading, neither quick reading

In the century of efficiency, we are trying to absorb the information as soon as possible. But reading demands time. All it benefits are not seen immediately. Usually, after you’ve read the big part of the book. Speed reading is not working here.

4. Read in stages

  1. Start by reading the title of the manual, the publisher’s blurb (if there is any), the preface or introduction, and then study the table of contents. Then start reading parts of the sections that you discovered are most relevant to you (summary paragraphs at the beginning or end of chapters are especially good to read when prereading).
  2. Go to the questions at the end. Read them, answer them to the best of your ability, and then begin your actual reading strategies. This will sort of “prime the engine” of retention.
  3. Look at the headings and subdivision of the chapter.
  4. Sketch a mind map about what you are reading while you are reading it. Check the practical guide here.

5. Come back to difficult points

  1. Read the whole book. Try not to spend too much time. Let’s say “high-level reading”.
  2. Understand the book content, don’t focus on details now. Do not try to clarify or understand everything. Make a note and move forward.
  3. When you finished the book then work slowly in reading the important areas, come back to those parts and clarify all of them. Look at additional or recommended reading, read them one more time, find references, examples, real-time implementations of tough concepts. As a result, it shouldn’t be any black holes in the material you study. Don’t be afraid to take a step back. Trust me you won’t be wasting your time – repeating is reinforcing. So even if you’ve covered the topic before, going over it again will still be highly beneficial.
  4. After every tough topic take a moment to try to recollect connections, dependencies and visualize. To really ingrain the concept.
  5. Make a point to go over what you’ve studied because this will help reinforce what you’ve learnt.
  6. Making notes are better than not to make them. My point is: don’t limit your study techniques with just taking notes. Make them clever. Do not conspectus. Ask questions and search for the answers. To organize the notes try to use Evernote or simply buy a notebook if you prefer to write by hand.
  7. The most important thing is asking the questions. Questions force you to stop, think, explain what you read. This is true learning. So close the book after a few minutes of reading, and explain back to yourself what you’ve just learned. My good friend recommended to explain tough concepts or reading it out to rubber duck. The duck simply will help you understand it more 🙂 As far as I remember he bought the “black version”. I’ve tried to explain and read the stuff like “security guidance for critical areas of focus in cloud computing” to my 4 years daughter. She goes away. The duck will not 🙂
  8. Knowledge like repetition. So the key ideas will always be at a distance from the hands of their practical use.

6. Read last thing at night

Simple experiment: read something in the morning, and something in the night – the following day see which you remembered best. I would rather recommend to have 10-15 min recall session of what you have studied and remembered this day.

7. Apply the knowledge on practice

You need to start with right questions. Ask yourself:

  • Do you agree with written or think that author is mistaken?
  • What makes the material you’ve just read so special?
  • Why author raised those problems?
  • How his arguments correlate with your job responsibilities?
  • Do you have additional questions that appear during the reading?

Answering those question you will understand how to use the knowledge and benefit from them.

I’ll post remaining not so obvious 5 steps next week.