Books give us the chance to tap into another person’s life. A way to learn the same lessons others have without requiring that we live the same experiences that taught them. Reading makes us better communicators, better thinkers, better people. Books inspire creativity and ideas allowing us to travel beyond our own lived experiences. It's not an exaggeration to say that a good book read at the right time can change our lives. Often times however, we fail to read with intention and more than that, we struggle with retention.

I recently saw this tweet from Anne-Laure of which captures an experience familiar to myself and many others:

What you get from reading and absorbing highly condensed ideas rich with meaning is a mass amount of input that - without an anchor or immediate outlet for expression - doesn’t necessarily translate to effective learning.

Reflections Solve Retention and Intention

Reflections are a powerful tool to solve the problems of reading with intention and retention. They encourage us to (1) take smart notes (2) retain what we read (3) revisit lessons and turn them into action and (4) capture who we were when the ideas of a book resonated with us.

Taking Smart Notes

As Anne-Laure suggests in her tweet, the solution to remembering more of what we read comes from taking good notes. If we are truly to derive value from a book it should be clear to us that we need to take notes on what we are reading.

As David Allen, the author behind Getting Things Done, says:  “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” which is why we need to offload the storage of information into more permanent places like a Personal Knowledge Management system. If you are unwilling to put in the work to take notes and intentionally reflect on what you are reading, insights will tend to go in one ear and out the other.

Your purpose for taking these notes should come from a desire to receive lasting value from the ideas you are exposed to but a book reflection gives you yet another reason to compile this filing drawer of insights. Just as preparing for a test gives you a reason to focus and take notes in class, knowing that you will be writing a book reflection after you finish a book motivates you to engage more while reading, make highlights on key phrases and take smart notes on the ideas you want to remember.

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”- David Allen


A book reflection exercises the skill of turning the ideas we come across into something of our own. It is a way to take advantage of the generation effect which tells us that repurposing content helps us to internalise it better. Putting into our own words the lessons we take away from a book is a way to engage with the content and come away with a better grasp of what it has taught us. Furthermore, writing provides the chance to organise your thoughts and draw connections with other material you have consumed to develop a multi-dimensional understanding of the things we read.

Writing also uncovers the holes in our understanding. You will come to see that many of the things you thought you knew are hard to put into words and as the philosopher Mortimer Adler says "The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks." This shouldn't be something to get upset about. When you know what you don't know, you can take active steps to change that and apply a growth mindset for deeper learning.

Writing some form of reflection is also a chance to look back at your Kindle highlights and the notes we talked about before. We commit things to memory through active recall and spaced repetition which naturally arises from writing a book reflection.

Taking Action

By revisiting our notes, a reflection provides the chance to ask yourself why an idea or string of words resonated with you, what that has actually meant for your own life and how these ideas might take shape in future action. It reminds us to do something with what we have read and avoid making baseless claims about how these books have 'changed our lives'. Without acting on what we take away from a book, we can hardly say that it has changed our lives.

Whenever I read on my kindle, I highlight and tag notes with different strings of text to remind myself to take certain action when revisiting those notes. This includes writing "[TA]" (for 'Take Action') in the notes of highlights for excerpts that inspire me to do something: this may be a specific method to test in my own life, something to research more in the future or just a story that inspired a future course of action. Either way, once I return to my notes, these tags remind me to change my life instead of just claiming that the lessons from a book have done so.

Capturing The You That Resonated

There are so many books out there. Books encompass the vast expanse of different people and experiences that make up humanity. This is a great thing in that anyone can stumble upon something that resonates with them - a book that is the right one to meet their specific needs. As a caveat to this however, it also means that it is easy to settle on the wrong book for the person that you are at this moment.

As Salman Ansari says:

"You need to be in a place in your life where you are ready to receive the message being presented by the author."

Choosing the wrong book can be a waste of time and lead us to get stuck in our reading which is why it is important to practice Brian Tobal's idea of surgical reading and take note of the context of the books you are being recommended - who is recommending them? for what reasons? and how is their situation different or similar from your own?

By capturing who you are at the time of reading something, it helps you to make better recommendations to the people around you and form stronger communities and relationships.

There is another upside to this: when you revisit your reflection, you will be able to see the person you were at this point in time, how you've grown and how you've changed. Hopefully this will make you smile in the same way that finding a piece of childhood art or rereading an old diary entry does. You might even take it as a recommendation for rereading the same book.

A book reflection is a time capsule of who we were when an idea resonated with us and changed our lives.

The Bi-Weekly Book Reflection

Folder stack
Photo by Beatriz Pérez Moya / Unsplash

The bi-weekly book reflection is one such attempt at taking what I learn and putting it to use - an idea that combines two of the habits/goals I have set for myself this year: reading more (finishing a book every two weeks) and writing regularly (publishing at least once every week).

Every two weeks I will be publishing a reflection on the book I just completed which will include a brief summary and overview of the key ideas that stuck with me, my favourite highlights and quotes as well as any ideas it has inspired. I will also provide answers to the following questions:

  • How can the lessons I learned be transformed into action?
  • What things are you going to do right now?
  • What things are you going to start doing from Today?
  • What future project can these lessons be applied to?
  • Who that I know should read this book and why?
  • What would my elevator pitch for this book be?
  • What do I want to know more about after having read this book?
  • What questions did the book leave me with?
  • What is the next book that will help me explore these related areas?

These reflections will also serve as recommendations for others looking to pick the right book for themselves. They will give a sense for the value you can expect to derive from these books and what they were able to teach me. More importantly, they will capture the person I was at the time that those lessons and ideas resonated with me - who I was and with what context I was seeing the words on the page through - to give readers a chance to decide for themselves whether that person aligns with who they are right now.

You can look forward to some upcoming reflections on the books I've been reading including:

  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear
  • The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami

Until then, keep reading and reflecting.

Have a great day,