How to transform (a lot of) reading into awesome ideas

Our survival depends on coming up with ideas to make our clients’ businesses better. And we’re often asked where we get them from.

The honest answer is: we steal them.

Usually we’re not sure where we’ve stolen them from. We might take an idea that we read was used in a different industry, or combine elements of three different things we read about. Sometimes we’ll think we’ve had a totally novel idea, but it’ll turn out to be based on a comment on a blog post from six months ago. The common factor is reading: we read a lot, we read widely, and we put what we read into use. We dedicate a lot of time to reading because we enjoy it and it’s useful, but we don’t let it stand in the way of taking action.

This post sets out how we do it:

  • How do we find varied, fascinating, relevant sources to read?
  • How do we organise and stay on top of all that material?
  • How do we retain, combine, and make use of what we’ve read?

Before we get into the step-by-step process, let’s take a quick look at what we read, and why reading a lot is so helpful.

The two types of reading

Domain-relevant reading is essential for staying on top of your industry. Because we work in branding, we can learn from material about marketing, psychology, design, copywriting, analytics, and more. We’re always learning something new that we’ll be able to use to help our clients – maybe not immediately, but at some point.

General interest reading is fun, and it can lead to some of the best ideas. As well as telling you about how the world works in general, you can take ideas from a different industry (where they’re pretty standard), and apply them to your own market where they might be totally revolutionary. The interesting thing about reading a lot is that the benefits compound over time. The more you read, the more existing ideas you’ve got in your head to combine with the new ideas you encounter. It’s that combination of ideas that leads to new, exciting things.

Isn’t it bad to be reading instead of doing?

“I think there is a flow state that can be achieved where the entertainment you consume shapes the work you do rather than distracts you from it.” – Dan Andrews

Reading should definitely be a complement to action, not a substitute. If you sense that you’re reading more and more and you’ll only start when you know every last piece of information, step away from the blogs and the books and start doing. But if you’re in the habit of taking action, reading the right material can’t do any harm.

If you’re worried that you’ll start doubting what you’re doing by reading contradictory information, you can always switch to general interest reading for a bit – and expose yourself to new ideas without the possibility of being knocked off track. The other key factor is making sure you read material that’s useful, helpful and actionable. When Tim Ferriss talked about an information diet, he mainly meant news: if a major global event happens you’ll find out about it somehow, and tracking new developments 24/7 won’t give you any information that you can use or that will make you feel better.

So from the impossible amount of information on the internet and in books, how do you find the right things to read?

Discovering great stuff to read

Our resources list has a scary amount of blog and book recommendations (as well as podcasts and videos, which are an equally great source of information).

Curation sites for the topic you’re interested in are great ways to find new blogs to read. For example:

Prolific Twitter linkers are sources of curation too. Follow our list, or add it as a new column in TweetDeck, for some of our favourites – and we’ll be adding to it over time.

Reading lists from people you admire will make sure your Amazon wishlist never runs dry. These lists from Derek Sivers and Dan Andrews will keep you going for a while. See Dan’s list of blogs he reads too. And in our weekly newsletter we also share what we’ve been reading.

Reading an insane amount

Mish and I both have different systems for keeping on top of our reading list:

Rob’s technical setup:

  1. Pull feeds from all your favourite blogs into Feedly. Buy Press for Android to sync Feedly on your phone for offline reading.
  2. Create an Instapaper account and install the Instapaper bookmarklet, so you can save interesting finds for reading later rather than getting distracted now.
  3. Use an IFTTT recipe (like this one) to send an article to Instapaper when you save it for later in Feedly.
  4. Set up Instapaper to send all saved articles to Kindle automatically every day (over wifi).
  5. For sharing, use Buffer. You could also automate it with IFFFT so anything saved or tagged in Feedly gets Tweeted.

Mish’s technical setup:

  1. Set up Feedly, and create a new “category” called something like “Kindle” or “Geekery” or anything you like. Pull feeds from all your favourite must-read blogs into this category.
  2. Set up an Instapaper account. And install the Instapaper bookmarketlet. 
  3. Use an IFTTT recipe (like this one) to automatically send items in your Feedly category to your Instapaper account.
  4. If you see an article you like while browsing, use the Instapaper bookmarklet to add it to your Instapaper list.
  5. Set up Instapaper to send all saved articles to Kindle automatically every day (over wifi).
  6. For sharing, use Buffer. You could also automate it with IFFFT so anything saved or tagged in Feedly gets Tweeted.

The reading process:

  • Be brutally selective with blog posts. If the title or the first few paragraphs don’t grab you, move on.
  • Feel free to skim, especially with books. Business books are mostly about extracting ideas, not savouring every word.
  • Books and blog posts both have value in different ways. Make specific time each day to read both.

Synthesising and using your new information

The purpose of this type of reading is to get new insights to help you in life and business. Those insights will come from two sources:

  • Directly applying ideas you read to your own life.
  • Combining ideas across different things you’ve read, along with your existing knowledge, to come up with something completely new.

To achieve these insights, you need to synthesise. Without processing what you’re reading more deeply, it’s just entertainment – a nice distraction and fun in its own right, but not what we’re aiming for. So here’s how to retain and synthesise what you read:

  1. Use Evernote to take notes. By combining its search with your own system of tags and notebooks, you can organise your notes in a meaningful way and always be able to find what you need. You can even install its browser extension so you can include your notes in Google search results.
  2. For books, make Kindle highlights as you go to remind you of the parts you found useful, then rewrite those notes in your own words. Rewriting will make your notes easier to understand when you go over them, and the act of writing them will force you to process the material more deeply. Even better, relate the concepts to examples in your own life as you go.
  3. Every time you read a great blog post, jot down the key points in Evernote, along with steps you could take to apply it to your business. If it’s something you can take action on straight away, add it to your to-do list.
  4. Set a time every week to read over your notes from the past. As your collection of notes grows you won’t be able to review all of them, so either pick a different category each time (the beauty of having them tagged in Evernote), or just go over something you haven’t looked at for a while.

What do you think?

Do you have any tips for finding, reading or making use of great content online? Let me know in the comments!

  • For me, it’s key to take crazy notes. Get a note pad and write down every idea. Then one day when you have to write or do freelance work, boom you bust on your notepad and there are your ideas.

    I also find it important to focus more on creating and less on consuming. It’s easy to get caught up with reading random stuff and never doing anything.

    • Absolutely – it’s the note-taking that converts reading into action, for me. If I just passively read something I’ll have forgotten 90% of it the next day.

  • Lewis

    Guys, this is a great post. I do a reasonable amount of reading, but for whatever reason it never occurred to me to take notes to refer back to.

    A couple of things I wanted to suggest:

    1) I used to start reading a book and then find it boring, or just not get into it and then stop reading all books as that the stuck one was making me think, I can’t read something else I’ve not finished that yet. Then Nick Hornby pointed out how common but crazy that is and now if I’m not into a book I don’t worry about it. I mention it because I find I was doing the same thing with my Read It Later list. I’d not feel like a couple of items near the top so I’d not read any. Now I realise that I’m adding stuff on there based on 100 characters on twitter. I don’t have to read ALL of it. I read a lot more now.

    2) There’s a pretty decent news aggregation site called Prismatic (getprismatic.com). You give it topics and sources and it makes a custom news feed for you. You can then use a browser plugin to send long but interesting looking articles to Pocket/Instapaper/Whatever. It’s definitely worth checking out.

    Thanks again and keep up the good work.

    Lewis

    • Hey Lewis, thanks so much for the comment and the great tips!

      It’s funny how many people – me included – feel the need to stick with a book even if they’re not enjoying it. Nassim Taleb says that putting aside books you’re not into is essential: “The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading.”

      I’ll be checking out Prismatic. I’ve never had much success with algorithmically selected news, but it’d be great if it did work.

      And yes, definitely start taking notes! It doesn’t take long and I’ve found that it makes a huge difference.