I can’t take notes while reading

I have a hard time combining reading with taking notes. Reading is a focused activity in itself while taking notes requires a different state of mind. How can you notes and maintain focus while reading?

Cal Newport points in Deep Work, not only is doing the work the path to sucess in the 21st century, it is meaningful, satisfying, and fulfilling. Reading to learn with purpose is one of those joyous activities that increases appetite for a full life. Cal identifies this pleasurable state as flow, described famously by Csikszentmihalyi, arguing that Deep Work is not only valuable and rare, it is also meaningful. Flow is that state of “optimal experience” where time dissolves in the face of completely focused, single minded immersion in doing.

Reading often is a state of flow, making switching to writing notes a problem. Flow is not simply about enjoyment and challenge, it involves continuity. It’s interesting that one of the highest rated experiences is actually driving a car. Sadly, pathological gambling is also a state of deep immersion leading to gamblers fainting at the slot machines, failing to eat or drink. Perhaps Csikszentmihalyi was being a bit too much of a positivist when he wrote so glowingly about entering the mental state of flow. But reading is an easily accessable route to a positive, valuable flow state.

Becoming good at entering a state of flow makes it easier to do Deep Work at the highest level for signicant periods of time. Practicing entering that state of mental performance makes it easier and easier to sit down at a desk and do the work. That work will be of higher quality when the barrier between inside and outside models dissolves- mental energy is not needed to support all kinds of extraneous hypotheticals when the mind is in the world, not in the head. This is an extended or expanded consciousness. When driving a car or, better, a motocycle, down an interesting rural two-lane, the internal mental state becomes the perfect mirror of the process of moving down the road.

I struggle with maintaining the state of flow in taking notes when reading, so have reached something of an accomodation over the years. I was helped a few years ago by the wonderous and appropriatedly titled How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren who actually break down the process.

“Reading a book analytically is chewing and digesting it”

Once you realize that reading is an activity- or really a group of related activities, then reading can fit into the overall plan of doing the work. On the one hand, there’s the great advice to always be reading by having books at hand and deep pipeline of reading ready to go. But on the other hand, one needs to capture knowledge deliberately.

I’ve found it works best for me to read deeply over a chapter or section of text and avoid taking notes unless the thought that’s occurred to me is so signficant and pressing that I’m compelled to get a notebook and paper to avoid the possible loss of the idea. Making notes while reading is distracting. I’ll read to get the book’s content first, then later review and create notes in conversation with the author. That’s a different, more active frame of mind, the chewing and digesting. Of course some books are spit out and not worth the work.

This kind of note taking is very different from taking notes during a lecture or meeting where the talk pulls you back and wont wait for long interruption of writing. Lectures and meetings proceed more slowly than thought most of the time and there’s plenty of time for notes in the pauses and other mental spaces.

Reading has to become work at some point; thoughts need to processed into notes and the notes have to be further processed into summaries and analyses. Something I happen to have been doing here, writing this post. Thanks for your help.

1 Comment

  1. Hello,

    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:


    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

Leave a Comment