Knowing how to read self-help books is essential to getting the most out of the material. And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I have a dirty little secret – I love personal development books.
So I suppose I should know how to read them effectively. In this post, I’ll share the strategies for squeezing the most out of this (addictive!) activity.
How to read self-help books
1. Choose carefully
It’s easy to become a self-help reading addict, with the demand for personal development content exploding every year. Such popularity is likely fuelled because people find this genre relaxing and therapeutic – more of an inspirational tonic versus an actionable resource. And that’s completely fine – any and all reading should be encouraged!
However, if you’re searching for specific advice, it pays to be selective. For definitive issues you’d like to address, it’s crucial to find the best resources on the topic.
That’s why I created the best personal development book section on this site, so you can uncover the most impactful titles in a fraction of the time. Alternatively, consult Goodreads reviews – I tend to find them more authentic than the Amazon ratings.
2. Read, don’t listen
Audiobooks have gained an incredible legion of converts, and for good reason – not only are they great for the visually impaired, but they’re easy to absorb while exercising or doing housework, for increased time efficiency.
Although some people may excel at retaining spoken information over the written word, I don’t find this to be true. Mainly because accompanying notes often aren’t written, which is a vital step in making the most of self-help titles. After all, if you’re listening to an audiobook on the treadmill, it’s unlikely you’ll stop your workout to write a reminder or leave yourself a voice reminder.
3. Do the exercises!
Many self-improvement books contain reflective exercises for readers at the end of each chapter. If you’re anything like I used to be, you skip over these as you can’t be bothered to do them! However, they’re there for a reason and it’s vital you complete every step to make the most of the book.
So fill out the forms, engage in the personal practices and complete the questionnaires. If you’re seeking to solve a genuine problem and make tangible progress towards your goals, it’s a small commitment to make and an investment in yourself.
4. Highlight important passages
This method will vary depending on whether you go analogue, or have embraced the digital revolution and, like me, succumbed to a Kindle. For me, in addition to a few other benefits (like not waking up my girlfriend at night when reading!), the main boon of a Kindle is the ability the highlight passages in my non-fiction reads.
I find this incredibly helpful in collating the most impactful topics and themes in the book, without breaking the flow of my reading and interrupting my enjoyment. If this is the only thing you do, I’d say it’s the most important part of getting the most out of self-help books. Why? Because you can export these notes (which can be emailed to you) for future reference.
If, on the other hand, you’re a staunch traditionalist and prefer physical books, notation remains vital. While many avid readers have detailed workflows for appending reminders, perhaps the simplest method is using sticky notes to highlight certain pages worth revisiting.
5. Write notes
Let’s face it – there’s an infinite amount of material out in digital candyland for us to binge on, with new self-improvement articles and books produced incessantly. It’s the reason why personal content management systems and second brains have exploded in popularity over the last few years.
Writing notes is one of the keys to remembering the content we consume, helping our already overloaded and overstimulated brains internalise the primary points.
When I’m using my Kindle, it’s a seamless process when using the highlight function as I can easily append a memory jogging note. This rough note will sometimes be a connection I’ve made to another book or an insight that I’d like to expound upon later. Keep these short and rough – the advice here isn’t to write an essay in the margins, but instead reminders.
When reading a physical book, you can always index your sticky notes and have a notebook next to the book where you flesh out your rough ideas on the highlight.
This is the step that most people don’t want to do, and that’s understandable – it definitely takes more work. And many readers may be content with some highlights in the books, accompanied by short-form notes for revisiting in the future.
If however, you’d like to squeeze all the available juice from the book lemon, summarising is a great way to do it. You can take your Kindle export or physical notes and simply transform it into a longer-form narrative, connecting the chapters and various themes in the book. So rather than being left with a disjointed set of notes, you have a readable, synthesised article for future consumption.
The most valuable tip? Imagine you’re trying to teach someone who’s never read the book everything they need to know. By adopting the mindset of a teacher versus a student, you must understand the material to a much deeper level, which you can then retain far more readily.
And we can see how popular these methods have become, just by looking at companies like Blinkist. For concrete examples, visit my own book summaries page here.
I recommend journaling to everyone, considering its proven scientific benefits concerning health and wellbeing. Contrary to summarising, where you are potentially publishing your teachings as a publicly available resource, like me, journalising is a personal process.
I use the technique of Morning Pages, outlined by Julia Cameron, which is freehand, stream of consciousness style writing. If I’ve read a particularly impactful self-help book, I’ll often reflect on it afterwards, finding that insights and connections emerge during my journaling.
8. Put the advice into practice
It’s easy to let self-help wash over us, using it as a vague pick me up – bite-sized inspirational aphorisms for when we’re feeling a bit low. You have general ambitions to improve your life and reading other people’s stories makes you feel like you’re making progress on your own goals. But how often have you put personal development advice into practice?
To get the most benefit from reading personal growth material, it’s essential to put any advice into practice immediately. I’m a huge fan of 30-day challenges, allowing us to experiment with lifestyle changes, without the psychological burden of a long-term commitment. Try the same technique with your self-help advice.
9. Revisit and reflect
Ideally, you’re using self-help titles to improve predefined aspects of your existence in a systematic way. Therefore, it’s beneficial to implement some form of tracking to monitor your performance. After any behaviour modification, it’s essential to reflect on your progress and iterate accordingly.
Revisiting your notes and summary and comparing these with your current behaviour is a good start. Note your successes and failures, along with the actions you found net positive or those which had no discernable effect.
Reading self-help books is hugely enjoyable, and can either be used as a form of escapism or an intentional practice. A mixture of both is often likely, depending on the specific issues you face and the goals outlined.
Either way, becoming more mindful in your reading routine allows you to extract the most value from your favourite titles.