• Elizabeth Wells

How Do I Get More From The Books I Read?


You have a book you've been meaning to read, or reread because you don't remember as much as you would like. You came across this website and saw we offer lots of questions for just the book you've been wanting to read. That's great! Now what? Well the obvious answer is read the book and answer the questions right? Is there more to it than that? There doesn't have to be. But to make the most of your time and the resources we provide, let's talk about some of the strategies you can take to get the most from what you read.


Step 1: Determine why you want to read the book.

Reading is easy. The dopamine hit you get from finishing a book makes you feel good. But if you don't take away anything valuable from the book what was the point? The only way you can resolve this is to consciously determine what would make reading this book valuable to you. Here's some questions you can ask yourself:


1. Did you hear about this book from others?

Maybe picked up the book because all your colleagues have read it and you don't want to feel like you're slacking. Or maybe all your friends can't stop talking about it, and you're tired of feeling left out of conversations. Is everyone on Twitter - particularly if it someone you wish to emulate - talking about how much they recommend it?


Feeling social pressure is a common reason for wanting to do something. This can be good. It can influence us to read more and read things we maybe otherwise wouldn't. But there's a difference between reading a book to better our minds or our lives, and reading it only to be able to say we've read it. If you feel this may be you, it may be wise to find another source of motivation as well, so you don't find yourself skimming pages just to be done with it.


2. Are you trying to meet a reading goal?

Many people like to have a goal for how many books they read in a year. Like above, this may lead us to feel pressure, albeit in this case from ourselves. Again, this may lead us to only finish the book in order to say we finished the book. It doesn't take much effort to fly through a 300 page book in couple evenings, but what was the point if you don't remember anything important? While you may feel pretty high and mighty being able to tell your friends you read 100 books last year, it won't feel so great if they ask you about one or two in particular and you can't even remember what they're about. This used to be me! It is common in our fast-paced, to-do list culture, but it isn't serving us. If this is you, let's dive deeper and find you a reason to get more from books than what you are used to.


3. Is this a topic you are interested in?


Do you have a lot of experience or familiarity with the topic?


What other books have you read on similar topics?


Is it related to something you do for work, home, or as a hobby?


Or is it something you've never read about that piqued your interest? If so, why?


This may seem obvious but figuring out if you are interested in the topic, and in what context, is important for setting the tone before you read. And it goes along nicely with our next question.


4. What do you expect to learn from this book?

Once you've determined that this is a book you are interested in and want to gain value from, the next question to ask is what value? If you read the summary provided by the publisher, what strikes you as the main takeaway of the book? Is that something you wish to learn? Sometimes the title of a book can be misleading. Picking up a book because you like the cover art and the title sounds intriguing can lead to disappointment when the book isn't what you expected. You can do this one of two ways - determine why you were drawn to the book, then read a couple of reviews and the book summary. See if it will provide you with what you are looking for. Or alternatively, read the summary first and decide if it is something you see value in that you wish to learn more about. Either way, before you begin a new book I recommend having in writing what you are hoping to gain from this book.


5. Why is what you wish to learn important to you?

Now that you have the answers to all the previous questions, it's time to put them into your final "why".


Will this book help you improve a professional skill in some way?


What goal are you trying to meet in your life that this book will help you reach?


How will this book help you become closer to the person you want to be?


What are you struggling with right now that you hope this book will help with?


These are only a few of the questions that can lead you to your why. The main question is: how will this book play a role in improving my life in a way that is meaningful to me?


Write it down. This is the key to quality reading. Whenever you feel yourself start to slip back into old habits of skimming pages and reading for the sake of reading, look back at your why. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and begin again with your "why" mindset.


Step 2: Determine what reading goals are realistic for you.

How do you set reading goals? You've come to the right place.


Let's start with the Don't Dos:

Saying "I will finish this book by x date."

Whether you are a procrastinator, or you have a very busy life (or both) this will likely lead to last minute cramming or not finishing the book at all. You know I'm right. We've all done it. And remember, we want to get the most out of what we read, not just finish it and cross it off our to-do list.


Having a big monthly or yearly book goal.

If your goal is to read 4 books this year, that's great. I encourage everyone to read on a regular basis. If your goal is to read 4 books a month, sure you can do it, but what value is it providing you? With all that reading, are you finding the time to implement the strategies the author recommends? After your year is up, can you look back and see all the ways your life has changed for the better now that you have read 52 books? If you can't, your book goal is (way) too high.


Having a quantity goal.

We already discussed the ramifications of choosing a date goal (I will finish the book by x date). There is another sub-optimal goal: the quantity goal. The goal goes something like this: "I will read 100 pages a day." or "I will read 2 chapters a day." This type of goal is a miniature version of the "I will read x books a year" goal. Using a quantity goal, number of pages or chapters read, will always run the risk of undermining the quality of your reading. As soon as your mind starts thinking "...20 more pages... 18 more pages,..." you get in the mindset of "how quickly can I finish this and move onto something else?"


Setting unrealistic time goals.

Yes, it would be wonderful if you could read 4 hours every night in front of a warm fireplace with a cup of tea, a purring cat, and some calming instrumental jazz playing in the background, but our version of our future selves tends to be overly optimistic compared to our actual selves. Telling yourself you are going to read for longer than you actually have time for is setting yourself up for failure. And if you don't meet your goals, you will probably feel bad about yourself. And when you feel bad about yourself, you won't be in the mood to read a book about how to improve yourself.


Treating the discussion questions like homework.

No one likes homework. Well okay, maybe a couple of you do, but I'm talking to everyone else here. If you view the questions like a necessary evil then you won't enjoy them. Instead, you will just try to get them over and done with. You won't reap the benefits that come from completing them. These questions were made to help you, not cause you stress and misery. If you don't want to, don't answer every question. Ignore the vocab section. Use the questions as a jumping off point for journaling or discussions. Follow your heart. This should be an enjoyable activity that provides you value - not something you will be graded on.


How to set realistic reading goals:

How to set a realistic quantity goal.

Earlier, we talked about how quantity goals - number of pages or chapters read - can lead to lower quality reading and keep you from getting the most from your book. There is an exception to this rule though, a tiny goal (from the book Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg). What does a tiny quantity goal look like? You probably guessed it. "I will read one page." What is the purpose of this goal? To create a reading habit. Likely, if you follow through on your one page, you are going to read more, but you don't have to. This can be a great place to start for those who always want to read but somehow never find the time, or those who may not be reading due to anxiety, trepidation, overwhelm or other such emotions. If this is you, I strongly recommend checking out the book Tiny Habits for complete instructions on how to best set up these tiny habits.


How to set a time goal.

The time goal is the best type of goal for encouraging high-quality reading. Within the time goal there are no expectations for how much you need to read, nor how much you need to accomplish as long as you are actively working on reading and answering the discussion questions within your allotted time. The goal is to read and reflect for x amount of time. That's it. You can probably see how this goal would encourage you to get the most of your books. For example, a lot of authors include exercises at the end of each chapter. How often have you done these in the past? If you're like most people, rarely, if ever. With a time goal it's different. Let's say your time goal is one hour. You are now free to spend the entire hour doing those exercises - it is part of engaging in high-quality reading.


Tips for successfully using time goals:

  1. Schedule it. Every goal needs a plan. You can't will an extra free hour of time into existence for reading where there wasn't one before. What days will you read? When will you read? For how long? Where will you read? All of these things need to be determined ahead of time to allow you the highest chance of success. This can be as simple as looking at your schedule the night before and finding an hour that you will dedicate to reading, or setting out time at the beginning of the week. Do what works best for you, but always have a plan.

  2. Make changes as you go. Maybe you thought you could read for 1 hour a day, but you never seem to make it happen. Is 20 minutes a more realistic goal? Is 2 hours on a Sunday afternoon the only time you can commit to right now? Don't keep trying the same thing over and over if it isn't working. Change it up until you find something that works for you.

  3. Limit distractions. Turn your phone on Do No Disturb, give your kids the iPad, put in some ear plugs, lock yourself in the bathroom. Do what you have to do to keep yourself from getting distracted during your reading time. If this is not possible, maybe it's time to rethink the time or place you chose to read. Creating an environment with limited distractions will help you make the most of the time you set aside for reading, especially if you feel the time is shorter than you would like.

  4. Don't beat yourself up. You want reading to be a fun, rewarding experience, not something that consistently makes you feel bad about yourself. If you miss a day, a week or a month, let it go. If you accidentally spend 30 minutes scrolling through newsfeeds instead of reading, forgive yourself. And then try again tomorrow. Don't guilt trip yourself, don't punish yourself by promising to read twice as long tomorrow, and don't call yourself names. Just accept it, learn from it if you can (put your phone in the other room next time), and move on.

  5. Set a Tiny Goal. As mentioned earlier, tiny goals are very useful when you are first starting a new habit. You can start by saying I will read for 2 minutes. Set a timer, when that timer goes off you are free to keep reading or you are free to stop. If you find yourself avoiding your goal of reading, or somehow managing to never do it when you say you will, a tiny goal might be a good place for you to start.



Step 3: Making the most of the discussion questions and workbooks.

So far we've talked about delving into why you want to read the book in the first place. We've gone over how to set yourself up for success with realistic and attainable reading goals. Now we will move on to how to best use the discussion questions we provide.


We have all been there: we read a paragraph and then we read it again, then we read it again, and we still have no idea what it said. The same thing can happen while you are reading a book, without you even realizing it. Something in the text may trigger a memory and then all of a sudden you've read two pages without even realizing you weren't paying attention. Any number of distractions - noises, lights, people - may cause us to half focus on what we are reading while your limbic system takes over and starts paying attention to the potential "threats" around us that need responding to. This is not your fault, this is just how your brain works. Instead of fighting it, we need a new way to read.


What is active learning?

Active learning is when someone is mentally engaged in the learning process by doing meaningful learning activities. This doesn't mean sitting back and passively absorbing words, whether it be oral or written.


Does active learning work? One study states that students are 1.5 times more likely to fail in a course that does not use active learning strategies[1].


What's even better than active learning? Active learning with others. Studies show that courses structured to "promote collaborative and cooperative environments" improved student learning outcomes even further than active learning alone[2].


Discussion questions take you from being a passive learner to an active learner, and doing the questions with others boosts this even more.


How to best use the discussion questions in different settings:

There are many different situations in which you may find yourself where using discussion questions will help make the most out of your time spent reading. Here are the most common:

  1. On your own

  2. With a friend

  3. With your significant other or family

  4. For a book club

  5. With a work team

  6. As a teacher

Let's dive into each one and talk about some helpful tips for using discussion questions in these different situations


On Your Own

Sometimes we don't always have other people around who are interested in the same books we are, and that's okay. It certainly shouldn't stop us from reading on our own. Even when we are discussing the book with others, likely we will have needed to read it beforehand. Here are some "best practices" for reading on your own.

  1. Read the questions first. You can get a feel for what's coming up in the chapter and what topics you should keep an eye out for.

  2. Don't answer while you read. You will get the least value from the questions if you do it this way. It is easy to search for answers and not retain them once they're on the paper. Read the section first, then answer the questions.

  3. Answer what you remember first. After you read, go through the questions and fill in as many answers as you can without referring back to the chapter. The more often you do this, the more you will train your brain to retain what you have read.

  4. Go back and find the answers you missed. Pretty self-explanatory, yes? Fill in what you're missing.

  5. Write a summary. This can include a bullet list of key points, or a paragraph about the main concept - it's up to you. Making your brain come up with a very condensed version of what was discussed in the chapter makes you process all the information together in a new way than just reading alone. Which, of course, makes you much more likely to remember it later on.

  6. Answer the reflection questions. Reflection questions can feel like a waste of time, Why are they important? Your brain only remembers what it thinks is significant. If you don't explicitly write out why what you want to remember is significant, your brain won't see the point in remembering it. It has a lot to remember, after all, and it will prioritize accordingly. Reflection questions reinforce that you want to remember what you read.

  7. Return to the questions the next day. For optimal retention, you want to review the questions you answered either the next day or 2 at the most. This is when we facilitate moving the information into our long-term memory. I also recommend doing this at the very end of the book.


With a Friend

Having a reading buddy can be really helpful. It can make reading more fun, easily allows you to engage in the learning process, and a friend can be a great accountability partner. Here are some tips for reading with a friend.

  1. Follow the steps above for reading on your own first. The exception being if you are planning to read out loud with each other. Then you can do all those steps together.

  2. Set goals together. If one person can only read 10 minutes a day, then that's the pace you both will need to take. Make sure you are on the same page about your reading goals. (If you or your reading buddy wants to read more, no one says you can't read two books at once - one with a friend and one on your own.)

  3. Have a plan. Decide up to what point you will read and what questions you will answer at the next session ahead of time.

  4. Check-in regularly. Don't just meet up at the end of the book and expect to be able to go through the entire workbook in one sitting. Whether it's biweekly, weekly, monthly or something else, that's up to you.

  5. Talk about how you will implement what you've learned. Talking to someone about how and why you want to use the tools or information you have learned will help you not only figure out the best way to do it, but they can also help keep you on track and provide encouragement.


With Your Significant Other or Family

Maybe you're reading a book about improving your marriage or maybe you're reading a book about improving your office management skills. It doesn't have to be a book about your relationship to make your significant other or family a good reading partner or group. If it is an activity that you can enjoy together as a family, it's an activity worth doing. Here are some tips about using the discussion questions with your partner and family.

  1. Let everyone have input. Please don't force your kids to read a book they have no desire to read. This will make the experience terrible for everyone and turn them off from reading.

  2. Keep the material age appropriate. This seems rather obvious, but if you have a 4-year-old you probably aren't going to have a weekly discussion around the latest book on funnel marketing. These tips are aimed at families with older kids, particularly teenagers, but you know your kids best, so choose your books with that in mind.

  3. Respect each others' differences. No one sees things the same way. We can learn something from each other's different viewpoints. Make the discussion a safe space for your significant other and kids. If they are worried about sounding dumb or being wrong, they won't open up and you'll being doing a disservice to them and to yourself. Setting some ground rules can help with this.

  4. Schedule time to meet together. Between work, social commitments and afterschool activities, it's easy to let something that feels more urgent take the place of discussing what you read. Pick a time and stick with it. It doesn't matter what this time is, or how frequent it is, as long as it works for all of you.

  5. Talk about how you will implement what you learned. This will be true no matter who you are discussing the questions with. Talking to someone about how and why you want to use the tools or information you have learned will help you not only figure out the best way to do it, but they can also help keep you on track and provide encouragement.


For a Book Club

Learning in groups of 3 or more can prove challenging in some ways but also highly rewarding. Here are some tips for making the most of the discussion questions when reading recreationally in a group setting, such as a virtual or in-person book club.

  1. Have a plan. More so even than reading with a friend, when you are reading with a group it is imperative you start with a plan. I recommend creating a plan for the entire book, rather than just playing it by ear after each meeting. Having a set timeline and schedule will make coordination with many people much easier.

  2. Talk about your "why". Before you begin reading, schedule a time to get together to talk about what you want to learn from the book. Discussing this with others can sparks ideas, inspiration and motivation.

  3. Divvy up the responsibility. Whether one person facilitates an entire meeting, or each person is given a chapter or section, giving someone the role of running things will help things go smoothly and take the burden off of one person. The benefit is twofold - everyone is actively engaged, and the variety will provide different perspectives and insight.

  4. Set a timer. Depending on your group, setting a timer may help move things along when the group gets caught up in one section and you notice you often aren't getting through all the material you want in a meeting.

  5. Be flexible, but stay on purpose long-term. People's lives can change suddenly, they stop coming, other people want to start coming, your meeting gets derailed by someone who needs to talk about something going on in their life. It happens. Things never go exactly as planned when other people are involved. Never. So when this happens try not to stress out, just go with the flow and adapt best you can. If it becomes a weekly occurrence however, it may be a good time to have another discussion about goals and why you want to meet in the first place.


With a Work Team

Reading with your team at work can be hugely beneficial to the well-being, ability, and outcomes of each member and the team as a whole. However, it can come with a unique set of problems. Here are some tips for reading with a work team.

  1. Get on the same page. If you are reading with a work team, likely there is a reason someone thought it was a good idea. What is the purpose of reading this book specifically? What are your team goals? Do not start reading until you have all agreed upon this.

  2. Set a schedule. This may be easier or more challenging in a work environment, depending on what kind of work you do. Figuring out a regular time everyone can commit to is a must if you want to make the most reading together.

  3. Set expectations. You don't want your meeting to feel controlled or contrived, but likely the meeting times are going to be shorter than a regular book club, with less time for chit-chat. Decide as a team what each person is responsible for before the meeting, during the meeting, and after the meeting. Decide what will be discussed in the meeting and what will not.

  4. Review and adjust. After your first 3 or so meetings, take the next meeting to discuss how everyone is feeling about the meetings. What is going well? What needs to be improved? Using a "start doing, stop doing, do more of, do less of" diagram can be very helpful for this exercise. It may also be necessary to do follow-ups until your team is happy with the process and results.

  5. Be accountable and encouraging. You have all decided it is a good idea to read this book and that it will benefit the team as a whole and each of the members. Now it's time to see it in action. When you see your team member engaging in the new thing they have learned, being supportive and cheer them on. Change is hard. Having others to support you can be the difference in changing or falling back into familiar habits.


As a Teacher

Teaching requirements can vary widely depending on whether you are teaching adults or children, large classrooms or small groups, and between levels of experiences of students/participants. While these tips will not apply to all settings, here are a few tips to consider when using discussion questions as a teacher.

  1. Individual work is important, too. It is tempting to lecture straight through the material or dive right into discussions, but the way to have thoughtful, meaningful discussions, is by giving students time to first read and gather their thoughts on their own.

  2. Utilize small groups. Facilitating a discussion with 30 people (or more) can be a nightmare. Instead set up some small groups with a guided activity. Afterwards, if you think it would be helpful, send up a representative from each group to share what they discussed with the class.

  3. Shuffle. Have people engage with different people, especially if the class is all day long or lasts for multiple sessions. This allows students an opportunity to be exposed to different perspectives and voices.

  4. Don't try and get through everything. If you have 50 minutes, don't push your class to get through as much as possible. This takes away from the value of the questions and the ability to have an open platform for discussion. It becomes a trivial exercise in finding the answers then immediately forgetting them as soon as you walk out of the room.

  5. Encourage collaboration outside the classroom. Ask students to work in pairs to come up with ideas on how they will apply the information they learned. There are any number of creative ways to encourage students to practice what they've learned, try out a couple ideas and see what you like the best.


Some final thoughts.

If you have never read with discussion questions before this may be a challenge for you to start. It can be very helpful to have someone to read with to help you stay on track and not stray off into old reading habits. Be patient with yourself as you begin this new process. Reading will feel like it is taking sooo much longer - because it is! The difference is you will be remembering much more of what you read and will actually be able to make positive changes in your life. In this way you are making much better use of your time.


You will never be able to read every book. There will always be books you want to read and don't have the time for. Stop reading for quantity. Start reading for quality. Pick 3 books that you know will improve your life and let the others go for now. As you practice this new method you will naturally get better at retaining the information. When you start seeing the positive changes it brings about, it will stop feeling like extra work and you will truly enjoy reading more than you have before.


You got this!




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References:

  1. https://www.csun.edu/undergraduate-studies/faculty-development/active-learning-strategies

  2. https://www.engr.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/drive/1smSpn4AiHSh8z7a0MHDBwhb_JhcoLQmI/2004-Prince_AL.pdf