How to Read Self-Help Effectively for True Growth

May 22, 2020
Created by the author — original image from Pexels


You’re in the right place if you actually want to learn from self-help books. This isn’t going to be about speed-reading and boasting about the number of books you’ve read. We want to stop reading mindlessly and instead grow mindfully.

I only count a self-help book as read if I can spontaneously use its lessons in conversations. I formed a system because I was ashamed of all the books I read but couldn’t remember. My process takes just 2 hours in 8 separate rounds.

I read fiction for pleasure but self-help for me is all about the ideas. Most non-fiction is full of fluff to reach a respectable number of pages. We know being concise makes a message much clearer but paradoxically we won’t pay $10 for a 5-page book.

It takes roughly 7 hours to read a 250-page book. But we aren’t going to be reading books all the way through. Instead, we are going to draw on neuroscience backed research to retain more information and to understand the subject better.


How to choose a book

We need to pick the right books to not waste our time. There are so many choices of books and so many curated lists of books to read.

I trust in the wisdom of the masses for selecting books unless it’s highly specialized. A larger sample size means an average rating is more likely to reflect the true value of the book.

I use Goodreads online and have my formula to determine a book’s score. The nerdy formula is below but I’m simply looking for books with both a high rating and a high number of ratings. My formula is subjective but works for me. The Ride of A Lifetime by Robert Iger and Mindset by Carol Dweck share the same score because the former’s higher rating (4.45 vs 4.07) is balanced by the latter’s higher number of reviews (73k vs 8k).

Book score = (((Ratings^(1/5))*(Rating^5))^5)/12.72*100
*Books divided by 12.72 which is the highest score so far to standardise out of 100

Whenever something new catches my attention, I pop it into my formula and it is ranked on my to-read list. We don’t need to be complete robots here and a recommendation you trust can trump this system.

Ok, you have chosen your book. Now it’s time to introduce the 8 round system.


The science behind the 8 round system

As you may have gathered, I’ve read a lot of self-help books and used the lessons to form an effective reading system. I simply started writing notes and it slowly expanded into 8 rounds as I experimented. The core aim is to increase the cognitive difficulty to activate more of the mind.

Recall not passive reading

As we read all the time, reading isn’t a hard task for our brains. This means there are better ways to create strong neural pathways. The midbrain fundamentally wants to do what is fast and easy so it can focus on potential threats.

To remember more, we overcome this by using recall which is proven to be more effective than reading alone. Recall forces our brains to realize the information is important and be ready for future testing.

Spaced repetition

If you want the information to be useful to you in the future then you must repeat the information regularly. Think of how you cram for exams but remember nothing a week later.

I like to see this as carving a path in a thick forest. The more often you push through the overgrowth, the easier it becomes as the vines haven’t recovered yet. Leave it too long though and the path becomes wild again. Try to keep at least 3–5 days between each round.

Short bursts of focus

We all struggle with focus. There are a million and one distractions around us at all times. This system keeps every round short with breaks of several days in between. I made this as a system I wouldn’t burn out on.

The Pomodoro method promoted by productivity gurus and neuroscientists everywhere is focused attention for 25 minutes. I’ve made it even easier and no round is longer than 20 minutes. This means there are no excuses for not being able to focus and it doesn’t feel so scary to try.


Every round is different so we are attacking the same information from many directions. We’ll be using our eyes and our ears to test ourselves. Early rounds allow familiarity to get the general idea before zooming in on the detail.

By changing the way we engage, we don’t fall into zombie brain mode and our misunderstandings are more likely to be noticed. Dr. Barbara Oakley, the creator of the course Learning how to Learn, includes alternating as one of her key lessons.


Do you want to understand a book or the underlying subject?

When I read a book on habits, I want to know everything about habits. By grouping information from different books, we will be able to remember more and increase our creativity. Instead of needing to recall 10 different books about habits and trot out the lessons one by one, we can retrieve all at once.


Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash


Round 1: First listen (10 minutes)

As a bonus, I’m going to save serial book buyers a lot of money. Buy a subscription to one of many summary apps. I use Blinkist and love it but I don’t work for them so pick whatever works best for you.

What is great is they have most books in two formats, audio and written. This helps us by forcing different parts of the brain to engage in the content.

The first listen is unfocused and all we want is the big picture, I usually do this while walking. Normal speed grates on me for being too slow but 1.25x allows time to process.

You’ll be alone with your thoughts and can think about what you’re hearing in a relaxed state. From this listen you’ll have some foundation set for the later rounds. I assure you when I’ve only done this one round, I can’t remember anything after a few weeks.


Round 2: Second listen (15 minutes)

A few days later, it’s time for the second listening round. This time we are going to be slightly more deliberate. We need to make sure we follow along and pause then rewind whenever we get lost. We’ve already heard the material once so now our brain can challenge itself more. While listening, if you can’t remember what you just heard, you go back again until you can.


Round 3: First read and notes (20 minutes)

Now we are in focused mode with the book summary. No distractions and sit with a pen in hand and paper in front of you. Handwriting notes helps because it engages more of the brain. We are engaging for the third time so the overview should be formed already and reading may feel easy.

Instead of being passive, we will read a section then rewrite the key points in our words. Look up and check that you didn’t miss anything important then move on. We want to keep this to under a page as anything more means you’re not being concise enough. We have our base!


Round 4: Use other sources to complete notes (15 minutes)

As we are using a summary, we need to make sure our image of the book isn’t distorted by what’s missing. The simplest way to do this is to check out other summaries and articles online.

I’ve found 3 main free websites I use to critique my notes and check I haven’t left gaps. These are:

Not every book will be on all 3 but you can compare your notes easily and use the wider web if you feel more context is needed.

Direct quotes are something we miss by using summaries. The author can sometimes have an incredible way to portray their idea so next go to the Goodreads page of the book and take down any quotes you think are worth remembering.


Round 5: Critique with external sources (15 minutes)

No self-help book is perfect otherwise the industry would be dead. It excites me for knowledge to keep evolving with different studies. There’s no point in knowing the information in a book if you haven’t checked its validity.

I have two methods for doing this: reviews and cross-checking other books.


No matter how good a book is, it won’t be hard to find critical reviews on Goodreads or Amazon. Find these and read them. Are they valid issues? Even if you disagree it’s worth adding in the margins of your notes about how others perceive the lessons.

Other books

This will be simple if you’ve been following this system for other books. I have a bank of books stored in my brain that I can use to dispute points in the book I’m reading. Check previous notes or the books themselves to find counterpoints.

An example I love is David Epstein’s Range and Gary Keller’s The ONE Thing. They take the complete opposite sides of an argument about whether to specialize or generalize. By comparing their information, we can work out what resonates with us the best.


Round 6: Build (15 minutes)

Now it’s time to add everything you know about the topic and what you’ve previously read. Add examples of where a piece of advice in the book has made sense for you. Add supporting evidence from other books. We are making connections and a coherent message for the subject.

For example, in Sapiens and Thinking, Fast and Slow, the fallacy of human thinking are discussed. By doing this, the knowledge chunked together in your mind. Now, you’ll be able to form holistic arguments based on many sources of information.


Round 7: Complete paraphrase (20 minutes)

You have your perfect set of notes now but that’s not enough for us is it?

The next step is to paraphrase the notes line by line to a new piece of paper. You mustn’t copy the words across. This adds a layer of cognitive difficulty. We must process the words to capture their meaning to reword the messages. It’s time to cut anything which you don’t feel is worth remembering as well.

By the end of this, we have a powerful set of notes we have interacted with 7 times to create. Congratulations!


Round 8: Action plan (10 minutes)

Throughout this entire process, you may have already been applying the lessons which stood out. In this final round, you will pick out what can add value to your life and define actions to take.

Examples of personal actions I have taken from different books:

  • Sleep with my phone in another room — Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
  • Read the news for a maximum of 15 minutes per day — Factfulness by Hans Rosling
  • Get rid of clothes I’m never going to wear again — Minimalism by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus

These are all actions I’ve followed through with and kept because I’ve engaged with the ideas so many times.


Bonus Round: Regular flashbacks & rewrites

Round 6 is incredibly important to long term understanding. If every time you read a book on a subject, you check other related notes, then you are spacing your repetition forever.

Importantly, we are engaging with each work and updating the notes if later books support or contradict it. “Seek first to understand, then be understood” from 7 Habits of Highly Effective Minds is a great way to summarise an idea in many other books. I added this note to several other books which caused me to refresh on those too.

If I ever flick through my notebook and feel unfamiliar with a book. I will rewrite the notes for it.


All you need to know

Many are trapped in a cycle of reading self-help but not remembering anything. By engaging many times with the material, we can strengthen our bond which makes it easier to convince ourselves to make the change.

Some books are incredible and after this system, I will buy them to read for pleasure. I am chewing on 21 Lessons from the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Hariri after completing the rounds. Yet some books add no value to me and don’t get past round 3!

I hope this system will help you to take more from what you read and feel free to drop your tips in the comments.

The 8 rounds of Effective Reading Cheatsheet (120 minutes):

  1. First listen (10 minutes) — Play without stopping and only try to remember core ideas.
  2. Second listen (15 minutes) — Play and stop when you can’t recall anything from a section.
  3. First read and notes (20 minutes) — Read the summary and make handwritten notes.
  4. Use other sources to complete notes (15 minutes) — Check your notes against other free sources online.
  5. Critique with external sources (15 minutes) — Use book reviews and ideas from other books to find flaws in the message.
  6. Build (15 minutes) — Add related notes from other books to build on top of the ideas.
  7. Complete paraphrase (20 minutes) — Rewrite the notes line by line in a different way.
  8. Action plan (10 minutes) — Create clear actions you can take to learn from the book.

Thank you for reading, I hope you have a wonderful day!

Amar's Letter

Real talk on driving impact as an imperfect human.