At this point, I’ve been studying various subjects outside of school for over four years.
Over that time, I’ve made a hell of a lot of mistakes and wasted a hell of a lot of time.
Taking too many notes, setting unreasonable reading targets — these are just some of the ways I’ve screwed up.
In this article I’ll share 7 of my biggest mistakes, and what I learned from them, so that you can save yourself from frustration and more efficiently advance towards your self education goals.
Taking Too Many Notes
I’ve found that when it comes to taking notes, less is almost always more.
When I first started notetaking, I had it in my head that I ended to capture every piece of information that was worth remembering.
But in doing so, I remembered nothing.
The pages of notes were so long and scary that I never wanted to go back to them to review them.
Look at my notes on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty:
Would you want to sift through those? I sure don’t.
Today, I take a much more practical and minimalistic approach to notetaking for the non-fiction books I read. I set rules that I have to follow.
For each chapter I limit myself to 2 quotes, 2 takeaways, 1 2-3 sentence summary of the chapter, and 1 interesting thought I have while reading it. That’s it.
Here’s an example of some of my more recent notes, on The Birth of Classical Europe, a history book (T stands for takeaway):
This method isn’t overwhelming like the other one.
And I find myself much more likely to review the notes and memorize the things I’ve deemed important.
Plus, when asked for my key takeaways from the book, I have a much easier time remembering the notes I took.
If I really want to remember what I’ve read, I’ll also write 1-2 discussion questions that I can use later as mechanisms to initiate retrieval practice. You can read about this question-based note-taking strategy here.
Setting Unreasonable Self-Study Goals
Like with the saying “less is more”, it took me a while and a lot of trial and error to internalize the rule that slow and steady does actually win the race.
About 3 years ago, when I first strted creating self-education plans for myself, the reading lists were always insane.
These lists were true testaments to my inflated sense of my reading abilities and discipline, and to my underestimation of the time it takes to read classic works.
I expected myself to do things like read 10 of the classic works of political philosophy in three months, when Democracy in America alone could satisfy three months of heavy reading.
When I set these unreasonable goals, I almost always failed. Then I felt defeated and angry at myself for being too undisciplined.
What I was doing was setting myself up for failure then beaitng myself up for failing — just one of the many silly ways humans abuse themselves.
A creeping background knowledge that you won’t be able to achieve your goal is also super demotivating. It at times caused my to ignore my books.
Since then, I’ve started to take the time to actually map out how long a reading list will take me.
I find the page counts, estimate my page per hour rate for each book, decide how many hours per day I can actually devote to this, and then make a 3-month reading plan that I can actually achieve.
Doing this allows me to stay motivated, because I know that my goal, while still hard to reach, is actually achievable. It’s all about striking the balance between challenging and doable.
Also, note that as your study discipline and reading abilities improve you’ll be able to set higher and higher goals for yourself.
Failing to Plan my Studies
I’ve found that studying a subject without a plan (or a self education roadmap) can be just as demotivating as following a plan that’s impossible to stick to.
When you create a plan with an end-goal, you devote thought to selecting each book you’re going to read, course you’re going to take.
That way, when you go to read that book or sit through that online lecture, you know it’s for a good reason.
You know it’s going to help get you somewhere you want to go. It wasn’t just placed on your schedule haphazardly.
Past you took the time to evaluate it as a study resource that would fit into the grand self-education scheme.
As a rule of thumb, it’s best to devote 10% of the time you’re going to spend studying a subject to planning how to effectively study it.
I got that number from Scott Young’s book Ultralearning, which I highly recommend if you want to master the art of learning new skills.
He’s the guy who self-studied the entire MIT undergraduate computer science curriculum using MIT OpenCourseWare. He called it the MIT challenge.
Another tip I got from his book and applied to my studies is gathering the study materials before you start.
The last thing you want is to have to wait a week for a book to arrive when you’re ready and it’s the next step in the logically sequential plan you made. As you wait, your momentum might slow down.
Reading Every Book in the Same way
I used to read history books like works of philosophy, reading slowly, giving every single word its due, and never skipping a thing, never picking up the pace into skim mode.
I believe this is the main reason why I failed to finish so many history books. I was reading them wrong.
It wasn’t until I came across this article by history professor Zachary Schrag that I learned of my mistake.
He gave me permission — as a writer, I needed it — to skim, at times reading only the topic sentence of a paragraph to check if the rest of the paragraph is going to be interesting to me.
Since it’s pretty easy to interest me, and the books I read are good, I usually read the paragraph, but now I have the option not to. This speeds things up.
“Because a good book (and your instructors wouldn”t assign a book they didn”t think worthwhile) will contain dozens of topic sentences that will provoke you to read the whole paragraph. The topic sentences have the same function as headlines in a newspaper. They give you a brief glimpse of the paper”s contents, so you can decide which areas demand more detailed exploration. In other words, read quickly through the parts you believe; read slowly through the arguments of which you are not convinced.”— Zachary Schrag, How to Read a History Book
History isn’t the only subject I’ve read using another subject’s reading strategies.
When i first started reading great works of philosophy, I read them like modern, popular non-fiction books, expecting to read a page per minute.
But that’s not how one should read philosophy. You’ll get lost and won’t get much benefit from the reading.
On the other hand, the act of slowing down and engaging with the writer will sharpen your intellect and inspire thought. You’ll also better understand the content.
And doing a second reading in which you analyze and evaluate the main arguments will make help you decide what you agree with/ disagree with, and why.
For more on how to read and understand philosophy and other dense works of nonfiction, I highly recommend reading How to Read a Book: The Classical Guide to Intelligent Reading.
Alongside giving great practical advice on how to analyze and digest hard books, it’s also a funny oneto gift to a friend, especially one who doesn’t do much reading.
Another self-education book that’s helped me learn the different reading techniques for different genres is The Well Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had.
She covers how to read history/politics, autobiography, literature, poems, and plays. It’s one of my favorites and great for anyone who wants to nerd out on the practice of self-education.
Reading too Many Books at Once
I’ve learned over the years that making progress is motivating for me.
When I read 50 pages and am therefore a fifth of the way closer to finishing the book, I’m motivated to do it again tomorrow.
That progress of 50 pages feels like almost nothing when if it’s spread over four to five books at once — something I’ve done at times due to my rabbit-like curiosity.
At one point I was reading five books simultaneously:
- The Eye of the WOrld (fantasy)
- The Communist Manifesto
- David Copperfield
- The Worldy Philosophers (history of economic thought)
- The One World Schoolhouse (a plan to fix modern grade-school education)
I kept finding myself scrolling on YouTube instead of reading, and the slow perceivable progress was without a doubt the reason.
Now, I limit myself to 2 full-length books at a time — one fiction and one non-fiction.
This way, at any given time I can still choose between two books based on my mood. But I still make serious progress every day if I stick to my 60 page goal.
Sometimes, if I can’t help myself, I’ll include a third book, but it has to be short and easy to read, something I can finish off in a few days.
Spending Too Little Time Reviewing
This one I still fall prey to regularly. As an autodidact, it can be hard to hold yourself accountable to review what you’ve learned, especially if you don’t have a test coming up.
Memorizing sometimes takes second seat to consumption, but it should be the other way around.
Retaining information is one of the main reasons why we’re reading books and watching lectures in the first place.
So it’s silly not to take action to keep what we learn in our heads for the long haul.
Below I’ll explain a few ways I’m trying to implement more review into my study schedule.
First, I now take time each week (sometimes I’m bad and miss it) to review the novel I read last week.
I go through the book and look at my notes and write a little review about it in this book journal:
As you can see, I give myself a few questions to get me thinking about the book. Sometimes I won’t even use them because I’ll have a lot to say.
Sometimes I’ll answer each one. It depends on my relationship to the book and how studious vs erratic I’m feeling at the moment.
Second, I also try to do more active retrieval practice at the end of a non-fiction reading session.
40 minutes of studying to 5 minutes trying to remember the main points (with your notes closed) of what you learned seems to be a good ratio.
Trying to Read Perfectly
The writer who only writes when they feel at their very best will never complete anything of substance.
In much the same way, the reader who reads only when they feel alert, excited, and smart will have a hard time sticking to any reading plan.
When I first learned about the art of reading in Adler’s How to Read a Book, I started to think of reading non-fiction, rightfully so, as a tough skill.
The problem was that I started to believe that if I read a book without executing a perfect performance then the reading itself would be a waste of time.
I started to develop a perfectionist attitude about the whole thing — which I outline in my article on reading perfectionism — and, as a result, I did less reading. Resistance won out more often.
Now, I go into a reading session with the attitude that I’ll do the best that I can.
Even if I’m feeling especially slow that day, I’ll tell myself that I’ll at least pick something up in my reading, or that during the session things will click into gear.
In essence, I’ve smashed to pieces that horribly demotivating belief that reading must be done perfectly or not done at all.
A general theme throughout my journey in self education is slow progress in my learning ability and self-study skills.
For example, when I first started, I often failed to stick to my daily reading plans. Now I’m much more consistent. I’ve also improved at remembering what I read. Things are more likely to stick.
Like with any skill, the more you study and learn the better you get at it, provided that you’re focused and challenging yourself on each occasion.
To learn how to become a successful self-learner, I highly recommend reading my guide on how to become an autodidact, where you’ll find the 7-step process for teaching yourself a subject or skill outside of school.