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Get more out of your startup reading

How many startup-related articles do you read every day? If you're anything like me (i.e. addicted to Hacker News and other startup news sources), this ranges from 1 or 2 on slow days to more than half a dozen, maybe even a dozen.

How many can you remember reading? If you're like me a few months ago, not so many. There's the odd article that stands out, and, with some effort, sometimes you can recall what the point was. While you're reading it, it feels like you're learning useful stuff, but as soon as you close the article and move on to something else, it fades into the background noise and you forget any actionable information you had encountered.

Reading articles about startup advice should be good and productive for startup founders, but the reality is that most of the time people spend reading startup articles is much like productivity porn - something that you do to procrastinate instead of actually building your startup (or even, instead of even starting it).

There's a better way.

The benefit of taking notes

A couple of months ago, I started this site, swombat.com. Its purpose is to make use of all this time I spend reading startup articles, and turn it into something useful for others. There was a hidden benefit that I haven't realised until recently, though: I remember the good articles and their points much more clearly.

The reason for that is simple, and nothing new. When you quickly read an article (as you must if you're regularly perusing a source of news like HN), it doesn't leave much of an impression. You forget it quickly. On swombat.com, however, I try do several more things with the article:

  • I extract the key points;
  • I determine whether it's worth sharing with swombat.com readers;
  • I summarise the article so that readers will be able to decide whether they want to click through;
  • I try to relate it to previous articles that I've posted about;
  • I try to relate it to my own experiences and come up with an insightful comment where possible;
  • I write this down, make a post, and summarise it even more into a tweet.

Doing all these things forces me to really assimilate the article. Not only that, but I often glance over the articles I've previously posted to judge, a few days or weeks later, whether I posted the right kind of stuff. This reminds me of the key points from these articles and so I forget less of what I assimilated.

Involuntarily, I've created a note-taking system for startup advice articles, and the result is that I'm much better at remembering the points that were made in those articles.

You can do this too

Use whatever note-taking tool you're comfortable with. I prefer a simple notebook for this purpose, because a notebook allows you to look over your previous entries in a way that an electronic notes application does not. But the key point is this:

Whenever you read an article:

  • Extract the key points and write them in your notebook
  • Look over previous entries and try to relate it to previous articles you wrote about
  • Write down your opinion about this article
  • Try to summarise the most important point of article in one line
  • Do the above as if someone else was going to read your notes later

Doing this will force your brain to really assimilate the points of the article in a much more permanent manner. It should help you make much, much better use of all this startup wisdom out there.

An additional benefit of this is that when you will become much better at recognising empty, time-wasting articles. Those are the ones where you have nothing worth writing down by the time you get to the end. Avoid those, or at least treat them as what they are: pure entertainment.

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