Whether you’re reading for school, pleasure, self-improvement, or to expand your knowledge base, there are “right” ways and “wrong” ways to delve into your material. If you’ve ever found yourself drooling onto the pages of a book after having read the same paragraph 50 times, you may not have been reading in an effective, productive manner. Here are a few ways in which you can ensure that you absorb as much as you can from the items that you read.

1. Don’t Read Important Materials When You’re Tired

This applies to school assignments, training manuals, or the permission slip for your kid’s field trip to Dan’s Hungry Dingo and Alligator Playland. If you’re overly tired when you try to read something of substance, you won’t absorb a damned thing and you’ll end up with neurotic nightmares that are fraught with failure, reprimands, and worries. If you’re the type of person who is most alert first thing in the morning, then make a point of waking up 20-30 minutes early so you have some time to read before tackling the day. If you tend to be hyper-focused in the later afternoon or evening, set aside a block of time when you can be left alone so you can devote all your attention to the task at hand. This leads into the next tip:

2. Eliminate Distractions

When I was in college, I was once invited to a friend’s house so we could work on an assignment together. The girl I was working with had the radio on in the kitchen, the TV blaring in her bedroom (where we were trying to work), and she’d interrupt me every 5 minutes to ask my opinion about some outfit, or try to make plans for the following weekend.

Guess how much work we got done.

It sounds like common sense to eliminate as many distractions as possible when you’re trying to concentrate, but many people don’t realise that having sensory input from all directions is incredibly detrimental. To really be able to draw in everything you’re reading, go to a place where you know that you can focus well. For some, this might be a perfectly quiet room where they can sit in solitude and read for hours. Other people might do best when sitting at the back of a cafe, as the white noise helps them focus and the human company keeps them from going mad. Trust in what’s best for you, but ensure that your surroundings enhance the experience, instead of detracting from it.

3. Take Notes

If this isn’t too much of a distraction for you, keep a notebook handy and jot down key points as you come across them. Was there a particularly poignant expression that you want to remember? Write it down, along with the chapter and page number. If you’re studying history, jot down key names, dates, and events related to whatever you’re focused on. Is this a novel you’re reading for a book club? Write down your reactions to certain scenes or phrases so you can discuss them with your group later. If, when revisiting this material in future, you find that your recollection of detail is a bit foggy, looking over your notes can be of great help for jogging your memory.

Be sure to dedicate one notebook entirely to notes about your books, so you don’t have to flip through a 5-subject behemoth to find a few lines you’ve scrawled about something or other.

4. Only Read Books You’re Truly Interested In, If You Can

This may not be possible if you have a very strict curriculum to adhere to, or if you absolutely have to read some work-related materials that are vital for your continued employment, but if you’re given a few different options to choose from, read the first chapter of each and see which one you’re most drawn to. You’ll be able to retain a lot more information if the subject matter has captured your attention, and if you actually care enough to find out how it all ends.

Don’t read novels merely for the sake of impressing others. If you don’t truly love Dostoyevsky’s work, you will undoubtedly slip into a coma halfway through Crime and Punishment, and you won’t be able to discuss the book with any clarity should anyone question you about it later. There are many books on those “omg you totally have to read this before you die” lists that are only there because somebody wanted to be a pretentious jackass and no-one called them on it. If you never manage to get through James Joyce’s Ulysses, there’s certainly no need to be ashamed: I don’t think anyone ever has.

Life is too short to waste time reading books that don’t fuel your soul and make you happy, so if you’re reading for pleasure, make it a sincerely pleasurable pastime. On that note, we come to the final tip:

5. Re-Read Books Every So Often

This may sound strange, considering that after you’ve read a book you’re already familiar with the subject and/or know how it ends, but consider this: you’re not the same person you were yesterday, nor the same one you were last week, a year ago, or a decade ago. Every experience we have changes us—our perspective on the world, our understanding of different situations—and in turn, we will process information differently depending on where we are in our lives. When you’re in your 20s, you might re-read a book you loved when you were 16 and discover a wealth of insight that you had totally glossed over at that age. You may read a design book today and come away with a strong understanding of the subject, but if you revisit that book after a couple of years in a graphic design program, you might understand subtle references in the text that you didn’t catch on to before, or have a sudden epiphany after reading about a particular technique.

Books can be dear friends if you cherish them as such, so be sure to give them the attention they deserve, secure in the knowledge that in turn, they’ll give you a wealth of inspiration, knowledge, and growth.

What's more you can get from reading? 10 Benefits of Reading: Why You Should Read Every Day

Featured photo credit: a girl reading a book lying in meadow grass via Shutterstock

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