Building a Better Book Club: a 5-step Strategy for Efficiently Ingesting Nonfiction

Business self-help books like Deep Work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Triggers, and Atomic Habits are super boring to me. Which kinda sucks, because there’s some really good ideas hiding inside them. I read them anyway because I’m fascinated by ideas, and I’m always looking for a new thinking tool for my brain to use, but I have to fight my brain’s time-waste immune response the whole time.

📚 Read more, slog less.

As part of the Atomic Accelerator, I like to share the good ideas and thinking tools with new Atoms so they can expand their brain toolboxes and build even better things even faster. Teach and Learn. But asking everyone to deep read Deep Work is a bit like asking your friends to read a $25 nonfiction book that explains a postcard’s worth of information in a tight 50,000-word package. Good luck with that.

Smart, motivated software consultants do not put up with things that are boring. It’s one of the characteristics that makes them great software consultants. So, how can we do this better? How can I share the good ideas that Stephen Covey has, without forcing my coworkers to slog through 384 pages of ponderous prose? Here’s the new process, in five easy steps.

TLDR, Brought to You by GPT-4

Discover the best ideas from business books with a fun, 5-step approach using AI, human-written summaries, and focused reading on engaging sections.

🤖 Step 1: Enlist the help of a GPT.

Take 2 minutes and ask any GPT (ChatGPT, Bard, etc.) for a summary of the book you’ve chosen. This will give you a decent idea of the main points of the book. It won’t give you everything, but you’ll have the gist. If you only have 2 minutes, stop here. You might learn something that you didn’t know before.

🕵️‍♂️ Step 2: Seek out human-written summaries.

Take 15 minutes and find one or two human-written summaries of the book. These provide different perspectives and highlight key points that the AI may have missed. By comparing these summaries, you’ll get a more comprehensive understanding of the book’s content. If you stop here, you’ll have a pretty accurate view of the main ideas in the book, ideally from multiple perspectives. Bonus points if you can find and read a summary critique of the book.

📖 Step 3: Read the table of contents.

Take five minutes and read the book’s table of contents. This is basically the author’s key points, in outline form. Reading it gives people who thrive on outlines something to sink their teeth into. It also helps you identify the sections that you care about the most. Take special note of any sections that don’t fit the mental model you built in steps 1 and 2.

🔍 Step 4: Skim the chapter summaries.

Take maybe 30 minutes and skim the summary for each chapter. Most business and self-help books provide chapter summaries, usually at the end of each chapter. Skimming these builds a somewhat deeper understanding of the book’s key concepts, arguments, and examples. This step will also help you decide which sections warrant a more thorough read.

📚 Step 5: Deep-read the interesting sections.

Now that you have a solid grasp of the book’s overall content, it’s time to dive deep into the sections you find most interesting or relevant to your work. By focusing on these areas, you’ll gain valuable insights without getting bogged down in less pertinent information.

If you find everything interesting and you’re eager to learn more, great! Read the whole thing. You’ll have a more thorough understanding because you took the time to build a mental framework for the ideas before reading the prose.

If you find there are chapters that you have no or little interest in, skip them with pride. Life is too short to read prose that doesn’t interest you. You can always come back to these chapters later if you change your mind.

🤩 Like a Progressive JPEG for Ideas

This strategy has a great failure mode that’s a bit like the progressive JPEGs from the dial-up days. If you only have a little bit of time, you’ll get a surface-level understanding of the author’s intent. If you have a bit more, you gain a bit of clarity. And if you have plenty of time, you can absorb every bit of intent available, or at least, as much as can be expected from a lossy compression scheme that turns ideas into words, and then a separately implemented lossy decompression scheme that turns the words back into ideas.

Our brains are really good at preventing us from doing things that are boring and for good reason. Usually, at least for me, business books aren’t boring because the ideas are boring, but because when the author compresses those ideas into written language, they use an algorithm that bugs me. Some people really like relatable stories. They help concepts stick in long-term memory. Me, I’m all about the outline and the argument. Give me the most distilled version of your point, and I’m a happy reader.

🎓 Acquire Knowledge Like a Pro

With this five-step strategy, we’re making absorbing the good ideas locked in business books a bit more efficient, and hopefully a bit more enjoyable. We want to stoke lively discussion and build a well-equipped collective brain. This lets us do that with less effort, less time investment, and less pretending that you totally read the book we all agreed to read. Leveraging the power of AI, human-written summaries, and strategic reading, helps us learn more, faster, and ultimately, to build cooler projects.

Bonus 6th Step

If, like me, you have a brain that’s particularly good at flushing things out of cache, try using Obsidian to quickly jot down the ideas in a durable, linkable, external cache. And if you really want to keep the ideas in your brain, try using Anki to turn them into a few flash cards. It takes almost no time, and is shockingly good at forcing some brains to retain keys to the associated information.


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