A personal research assistant…you!

As I re-kindled my obsession with reading a few years ago, I discovered that after devouring a great book and learning a bunch, my goldfish-like memory failed me.  Other than the title of the book, or perhaps the colour of the front cover, I retained almost none of the learnings.  I’d lost all the nuggets in the sluice water.  Enter Tim Ferriss, his advice on indexing, and sticky tabs.  Mine is a simple process, and comes down to a few quick steps.

  1. Tagging & underlining
  2. Distillation
  3. Indexing

STEP 1. Tagging & Underlining:  Seems easy, right?  My first few attempts were unbridled disasters.  Bent over page corners when I didn’t have a pen made it impossible to tag things on two back-to-back pages, ripped up Post-It notes and scraps of paper that fell out made the whole operation look like a shambles.  $7 solution?  3 cheap pens in my work bag, and several packs of 3M Post-It flags to make sure things were organised and at least looked like I knew what I was doing.  It only got better from there.

Hot Tip #1 – tag everything that jumps out at you.  Quotes, lines, paragraphs, concepts, sketches, you name it, just tag it.  If it makes your eyes widen a fraction, or you get those funny pursed lips and a slight nod of the head in appreciation, tag it.  It’s far easier to cut back later than be at the end of the book and half remember something and finding yourself wasting valuable time skim reading the last 14 chapters.

Hot Tip #1 – Tag everything!

Hot Tip #2 – don’t worry about writing, underlining, or scribbling in your books.  They’re meant to be read, enjoyed, devoured.  I assure you, any author will be overjoyed to hear that you’re marking the book.  It means you’re not just reading, but you’re learning from it, experiencing it.  Embrace the guilty pleasure of defacing a book – just make sure it’s yours though!  I do most of my reading on the bus to and from work, so my tagging and underlining looks like I am being physically tortured while doing so, and it hasn’t in one bit lessened the experience of the indexing.  For those who e-book, they all have a highlighting function, so use it.  It works the same.

Hot Tip #2 – Write on the damn book!

STEP 2. Distillation:  This where the rubber hits the road.  Equally as important as the tagging and underlining, but orders of magnitude harder to get right.

This is where you need to think.  Consider.  Process and discern.  What is the real lesson here?  What jumped out at you and made you tag and underline?  The best bit about this process is when you come across that line, quote or paragraph, you have to really switch your brain to ‘Think’ rather than ‘Vegetate’, and for those who are used to leaving your brain in neutral, playing Candy Crush or creeping on people you used to work with on Facebook, the process of utilising your brain in the way it was designed for may come as a shock.  It did to me.  But I’m better for it.

Distil the point down to 2 or 3 words maximum, and move on quickly.  Multiple lessons are OK, just don’t make them wordy.  Hot Tip #3 – Don’t start writing your index straight away.  Just scribble the thoughts on the page and press on.  Inevitably there’ll be themes or threads within the book that you’ll pick up on, which will make your distillation easier as you continue.  Think of it like a fine extra anejo tequila, the longer you leave it, the more refined it becomes.

Tapatio Excelencia Extra Anejo – the finest liquid known to man
Note wobbly lines and messy tagging

Hot Tip #3 – Don’t start writing your index too early

STEP 3. Indexing:  Transferring all your distillations and their page number to the front of the book for easy reference in the future.  I use the inside cover as the paper is usually sturdier.  There’s no need to simply copy the distillations mindlessly, as by the time you’ve finished the book, there’s a good chance your overall perception will have shifted, and again, isn’t that what it’s all about?

I don’t worry about putting them in alphabetical order either, but just transfer them in the order I find them.  I also once tried to keep a nice gap between the text and the page number, but the ride quality on my bus home isn’t exactly smooth like silk, and it ended up almost impossible to see what page number aligned with what idea.  Lesson learned.

Step 3 is the easiest, but ultimately the most satisfying.  An entire book personally indexed gives an unusually large sense of completion.


It also makes for an invaluable tool in the future.  I recently was discussing Design Thinking with some colleagues who are Engineers, and had a vague recollection of a story I’d read about how engineers are renowned for diving straight into the solution space before properly defining the actual problem.  So when I got home, I pulled out my Tribe of Mentors index and took a few screenshots.  Took less than 2 minutes.  Satisfying.


I mistakenly believed there was an engineering fix for every problem”
– Temple Grandin

So for the first few books I applied this process, I had sticky tabs poking out everywhere, an index, and that’s it.  Again, there wasn’t enough distillation to provide any meaningful takeaway from the book.  Sure I could refer back to the index if I needed to, but I wanted more.  Answer?  Fine tune my understanding of the book by choosing three, and only three, actionable takeaways from the book.  Call them elevator pitches – you have to describe what you took away from the book in the time it takes to get to the 42nd floor.

Much harder to do, but like everything in life, the harder you work for something, the sweeter the reward.

Take the time to get this step right.  There’s no rush.  You’ve tagged, underlined and distilled the key points already, so they’re not going anywhere.  Embrace your inner Marcus Aurelius and try your best to operationalise the lesson for implementation in your day to day life.  I’m not convinced operationalise is a real word – in my head it “means turn something into something you can actually use“.

Then act.  Form habits around the takeaways.  Leverage off the lesson – the $20 you spent on the book is a fraction of the cost of a leadership seminar, and there are a lot less group activities and ‘Getting to know you games’….

Don’t be afraid that you can’t possibly form 3 regular habits from every book you read.  I read over 50 books in 2017, and I can assure you I don’t have 150 new habits.  I’d be lucky to have developed 10.  But that’s 10 more than I had in 2016, and isn’t that what it’s all about?

With all the books I review on the blog, I’ll be posting photos of my index, as well as providing a copy of the spreadsheet version, which will accumulate indexes as they arise.  Check out my recent review of Hal Moore: On Leadership.  Winning when out gunned and out manned.

Like the idea of indexing?  Are you an indexer but use a different approach?  Leave a comment below and let us all know your tips and tricks – even better, post a photo of one of your indexes!

3 thoughts on “A personal research assistant…you!”

  1. Pingback: Seeking stillness
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