About the cover image


Preface

We who suffer from learning anxiety suffer in silence, without realizing it. We know where to get information, but we do not feel capable of using it effectively. We feel powerless, stupid, and out of place. What is wrong with us? Why are we so broken?

We don’t hear many people talk about learning anxiety, and I believe therein lies the issue. Mental healing requires acknowledgement, and acknowledgement requires knowledge of the problem. The anxious learner is less likely to learn about their condition, because the idea of learning feels unsafe to them in the first place. It is a sadly ironic condition.

I have suffered from learning anxiety for the majority of my life and I was oblivious to it. Being anxious about learning made me afraid of failure, which in turn hindered my natural development. Luckily, I have made significant strides in my journey towards healing this condition when I turned 28. Now in my thirties, I confidently say that overcoming my learning anxiety gave me a second chance at life. I believe it is my duty to share my story and what I learned from it, in the hope that this text reaches someone in need (you?).

If there’s only one thing I’d want you to remember from this text, it’s that anyone can experience learning anxiety and solving it requires a system of your own creation that will make learning a joyful experience to you. In this text, I will tell you my story: how I discovered I had learning anxiety, what impact it had on my life, and the techniques I developed to work through it. If you experience learning anxiety, my hope is that this text will make you realize that you are not alone and that there is a way out. You can get through any obstacle that stands in your way, and you can even have fun while doing it. All it takes is the willingness to fail and learn from our mistakes. And, perhaps, the urge to read a book or two. Or 84 .

I hope this text will bring value to your life.

P.S. Don’t feel bad if you don’t finish reading this text in its entirety. Maybe I didn’t make it engaging enough, or too rambly. You have full permission to blame the author if you lose interest. 🙂 If I may ask a small favor in exchange, just post a comment at the bottom of this page to let me know how far you made it, so that I have an idea of which section needs improving. Thank you for your help!


Thanks

Thanks to Alexandre Désilets-Benoit for giving me my X.

Thanks to Mathieu Frenette for teaching me the fold.

Thanks to Gene Kim for writing the books that gave me my Aha! moment.

Thanks to Gabrielle for teaching me that reading a book twice is inefficient. ❤️

Thanks to Matt Morris for making a video that became the foundation of my learning system.

And thank you for giving this text a chance.


Introduction: Discovering I had learning anxiety

There are two kinds of anxiety associated with learning: “learning anxiety” and “survival anxiety.” Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that it will be too difficult, that we will look stupid in the attempt, or that we will have to part from old habits that have worked for us in the past. Learning something new can cast us as the deviant in the groups we belong to. It can threaten our self-esteem and, in extreme cases, even our identity.

You can’t talk people out of their learning anxieties; they’re the basis for resistance to change. And given the intensity of those fears, none of us would ever try something new unless we experienced the second form of anxiety, survival anxiety—the horrible realization that in order to make it, you’re going to have to change. Like prisoners of war, potential learners experience so much hopelessness through survival anxiety that eventually they become open to the possibility of learning. But even this dejection is not necessarily enough. Individuals can remain in a state of despair permanently.

How can leaders help their followers maximize their learning while minimizing their pain?

(Diane Coutu, The Anxiety of Learning )

I wasn’t always aware of how bad my learning anxiety was, and I’m convinced that most people who suffer that condition don’t realize it either.

I knew I felt bad about my performance at work. I had felt that for a long time, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. It’s not that I wasn’t trying hard enough: in fact, I felt I was trying so hard that I was getting close to burning out. However, I also felt like I wasn’t accomplishing as much as I should have, considering the amount of energy I was pouring daily in my work. From the outside, it might have looked like this:

‘‘Just get off your bike for a second!’’

A series of events eventually put me in survival mode, where I had two possible outcomes:

  • learn to adapt…
  • … or learn to let go.

This led me to read a certain DevOps handbook, which led me to write down these words:

A photo of my notes: ‘‘In the team, we want to help overcome learning anxiety.’’

Well, here it is. This is the moment when my mind clicked and realized I had learning anxiety. Before writing it down and seeing it with my own eyes for the first time — “learning anxiety” — this is a concept that felt somewhat alien to me. On one hand, it made sense and described accurately how I felt. On the other hand, how could I claim to have learning anxiety if I had a Masters in Physics? Clearly, I had above average learning abilities, right? I felt like I had no excuse to feel the way I was feeling.

But it was true. Regardless of my past achievements, I simply had plain old learning anxiety.

I certainly knew how I felt when it came to learning: to put it mildly, I felt my learning performance was below all those around me.

What I feel is ironic is that I had to overcome learning anxiety to realize this was precisely the problem holding me back from learning. In other words, as I was writing “learning anxiety (<- I have that!)", I hadn’t realized that, precisely at that moment, I was beginning to heal. Very meta…

Let’s start untangling this mental knot by going back in time.

Chapter 1: The anxiety begins

In 2017, fresh out of University and ready to tackle the world, I started working for a newly-formed startup then-called Proximity HCI (now known as Contxtful ). I had just finished my Masters thesis in particle Physics and was ready to jump into the software world (this is something I already discussed on this blog in 2019 ).

I was hired as a machine learning scientist, and chipped away at tasks for many months, but clearly things weren’t working out. With machine learning, I was simply “not on my X”, as we say in French, meaning I wasn’t in the right context to excel. As I naturally started working towards handling the IT of the company and discovering automated deployment pipelines, my then-manager (and trusted friend!) Alexandre Desilets-Benoit said something that would change my life.

“You know what? I think DevOps would be a good fit for you."

For someone with a self-diagnosed impostor syndrome, receiving this kind of information is a mixed bag. On one hand, it finally provides an explanation to why you are having such a difficult time accomplishing the tasks you were given. This is a big plus. “Of course, it all makes sense now! I’m bad at machine learning because, deep down, I’m a DevOps! Yes, change my title now, please! This will fix all my problems”, I would say to myself. On the other hand, it places you in front of an undodgeable question: “What the heck is DevOps, anyway?"

You can then imagine why, depending on the day, my impostor syndrome simply got out of control. I was a Physicist who changed career paths after my Masters degree (because I felt I was bad at research) to become an ML scientist, only to realize I was even worse at that job, so much so that my boss recommended another career change, this time into a field I knew absolutely nothing about. I was rightfully terrified.

Not wanting to waste any time, I feverishly started Googling the most basic things, like “How to DevOps?” and “What is DevOps?”. To give you an idea of the steepness of the learning curve I was faced with, check out this great video from TechWorld with Nina and count how many times something along the lines of “you need to learn / know / understand” is said:

(I counted over 30 occurrences.)

Every search result required me to do at least three other searches to understand what basic sentences meant. For a while, it felt like I was surrounded by buzzwords, with no one telling me anything. Oh how I wished Jimmy Neutron’s “book gum ” was real!

This process lasted years, and it was unpleasant. I felt useless. I felt ashamed. I wished I could go back in time and learn about agile, CI/CD, and other DevOps requirements during my studies instead of having filled my brain with equations of motion that I had no use for. In short, at 27 years old, I already felt like I had missed the boat, and with each passing day felt more like giving up.

The only thing pushing me forward was the fact that my colleagues depended on my work, as amateurish as it was. I could entertain the idea of going down in a big ball of fire, but I didn’t want my colleagues to suffer the fall with me. I wanted them to thrive and excel at their rightfully chosen tasks. Ironically, I now believe this is precisely the kind of mindset that drives the DevOps philosophy: Do everything you can to maximize the value your peers can deliver. However, I was simply too discouraged at the time to realize this…

In 2019, as I was going on vacation, I stumbled upon a book called The Phoenix Project , which seemed really popular in the DevOps space as an entry point into the subject matter. Being written as a novel, I thought: “Ah! This is perfect material to read on the beach, without any pressure to learn. This is going to be great fun.”

Buy, buy, buy! That’s the easy part.

Turns out, it was great fun indeed! There are many reasons for this, I believe. Firstly, the book is, of course, very well written. It wouldn’t sell over 500,000 copies if it wasn’t. Secondly, and more importantly, the fact that I was open to the material and didn’t feel pressured to understand everything right away made a key difference. Finally, and this is key, I enjoyed this book because I read it in its entirety, and this is something I will come back to in this post.

In a single week, I had finished reading my first DevOps book. Woohoo! I felt like I was ready to conquer the world. My mind was now filled with ideas I was excited to try. The Phoenix Project subtly advertised for another book from the same author, The DevOps Handbook , which supposedly contained everything you needed to know to propel your business forward like the protagonist of The Phoenix Project. I felt ready for it. Bring it on!

Chapter 2: The DevOps Handbook

I ordered my copy of The DevOps Handbook in 2019. I finished it on August 6, 2022. For those keeping count, that means three years of lead time. What happened?

Simply put, after a few chapters, I began to feel intimidated. This didn’t feel like the Phoenix Project. It was a real book, one that required actual effort to read through.

Every new information felt like it took the spot of another one in my head, similar to a sort of musical chair of knowledge. For example, I had trouble remembering what the Three Ways of DevOps stood for, even though they were central parts of both the Phoenix Project and the handbook. It felt like I was drowning in information. If the Phoenix Project managed to organically sneak in a reasonable amount of information within the context of the story, the DevOps Handbook proved to be too much for me. There seemed to be no time for relaxation: The handbook simply lined the knowledge nuggets one after the other relentlessly.

Very early on, I could feel my reading velocity diminish as I was reading my physical copy. I started reading the digital version on my Kobo to see if that could help (I was very big on e-readers at the time, see I Love E-readers ), but I got the same result; Initial progress was quick, and then everything ground to a halt.

Reluctantly, I shelved the handbook both physically and digitally, feeling ashamed and defeated. I felt even more like an impostor: the fact I couldn’t get through the DevOps Handbook served as evidence to that.

This pattern of excitement for learning leading to bitter abandon was, as you might have guessed, not limited to the DevOps Handbook. Throughout most of my time at Contxtful, I was given the opportunity to learn, and by my own account, failed at it more than I succeeded. Eventually, the feeling of being unable to reach my full potential with Contxtful (and potentially hurting the company as a result) led me to quit my job and join nesto , in the hope that there lied the key that would unlock this potential.

I just didn’t expect that key to be the threat of getting the old boot!

Chapter 3: Good fold, Bad fold

In mid-June 2022, three months after joining the nesto DevOps team, I received unfortunate news: I was getting a probation extension. I wasn’t quite cutting it in the workplace. I had trouble learning the new tools and processes required to become a productive teammate. New concepts and important details eluded me. I had two months to course-correct, otherwise I could kiss my job goodbye.

This is what put me into survival mode.

I had never been put in that kind of situation before, where a manager told me I was not pulling my own weight. I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity to show the world what I could do when given proper motivation.

So I got to work, big time. My focus in mid-June was higher than ever, thanks to survival instincts that kicked into high gear. One of my first personal goals was to get through the DevOps Handbook before the end of my extended probation, partly to prove to myself that I could accomplish something for once.

And I am happy to report that I did (🎉), thanks in no small part to a neat little trick that I am about to show you:

DONE!

Can you spot it? The little detail that allowed me to read the book?

Look at the spine. Do you notice how curved it is? Isn’t that simply wonderful? It reminds me of a well-loved punching bag.

I guess I must explain. See, I have developed a very recent fondness for curved spines (at least, on books). I used to think having a book with a curved spine meant you weren’t taking care of your stuff. I equated curved spines to negligence. Today, I realize there are good folds, and there are bad folds. A bad fold is the kind of fold I described above: actual damage. The picture above is an example of a good fold: it is evidence left by someone who really put their energy into extracting everything there was to learn from a specific book, page after page. It’s a subtle difference, but it means a lot!

For example, if someone was standing in a gym next to their punching bag, you would probably understand that whatever damage the bag exhibits went directly into making that person stronger. If you had to win a fight, you’d probably pick the boxer who has a seemingly unused punching bag in their gym.

Now look at the books in your library (if you have some). What does this say about your learning habits?

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spar with the person who practiced with the bag on the left.

It was my then manager (and mentor!) Mathieu Frenette who showed me a “tool” that I would be using for the rest of my life. It is a way of holding books that reminds us that our goal is to learn. I call it the book suplex, but I also give it other fun names like the inverse fold, or the broken spine grab. Here is what it looks like:

Suplex that book, even if it’s a hardcover!

Some people might cringe when seeing this. Are you one of those? 😉

Yet, those who know, know. For me, this opened Pandora’s box. Now, you might be asking: What difference does it make to hold a book bent over backwards?

  • It’s more comfortable for long periods of time
  • It’s less distracting (because you see only one page at a time)
  • It leaves a mark (books are punching bags!)

A book is just a bunch of pages with ink on them. It is a book’s content that is valuable, i.e. what sticks in your brain after you are done with it. The extraction process might leave marks, but that is secondary. Books are a mere tactile visual support. We have to stop “respecting” our books. A suplexed book is not impacted at all in its capacity to teach us something. Yet, as obvious as this might sound, it is a truth that eluded me for many years.

Flashback

About 10 years ago, I was a relatively money-poor grad student. I was relatively short on cash and keeping my old course manuals was not something I could afford to do. Thus, I took great care of my manuals, seldom highlighting or writing in them, in order to boost their eventual sale price.

Unfortunately, this strategy was sub-optimal. For an extra $40 per book sold, I was taking the risk of having a lesser learning experience. Without realizing it, I always saw my books as someone else’s items that I was borrowing, or some item that might become desirable in the future, like Pokémon trading cards. This was so wrong. As a student, I was depriving myself of potentially useful learning tools in fear of wasting resources (money). I was like a boxer who was afraid to damage his punching bag. Maybe I had this mindset since I was used to owning collectible items (see how and why I got rid of my video game collection ). Whatever the reason, I’m glad I made it this far in life despite this backwards mindset, because I don’t plan on doing this ever again.

(End flashback)

So there you have it. Now you know why I believe a folded book is beautiful. It means someone probably gave the book the time and energy it deserved. And, indirectly, if this “damaged” book is freely available on a bookshelf near you, it means that person understood the book enough to part with it, and thought it was worth sharing with others.

Is it really a coincidence that a curved book spine looks like a smile? 😃

Chapter 4: Creating a system of learning

So, I knew how to hold a book. Big whoop. This didn’t change the fact that after reading 10 pages, I couldn’t contain all the information I was reading. If 10 pages of info coming in my brain meant 10 pages of info coming out, that does not count as learning. That is the equivalent of passively listening to radio while driving. All your mind really records are the ads.

This time, something was different though. Folding my paperback opened Pandora’s box. Now that I was unafraid to hurt the resell value of my book, a world of possibilities became accessible.

Many attempts were made before stumbling upon my learning system. We learn by doing. At first, I tried to take notes in the book using a pen. While it felt great to do in the moment, it didn’t have any lasting effect. I then tried to do the same thing with a yellow highlighter, as I had heard in primary school that the color yellow makes it easier to remember things. That was baloney. The problem in both cases is that having to flip through tens of pages just to view my notes was inconvenient. While it felt good to interact with the words on the pages, it didn’t help me remember anything! It was at that moment that my partner Gabrielle said something very wise:

You should never have to read a book or textbook more than once. If you take good notes, once you finish a book, you can consider yourself done with it.

She was so right about that. This gave me a new motivation: whatever system I’d use for learning, it would be a system that doesn’t depend on maintaining access to the source material. In fact, after she told me this, I realized the best course of action was to give the book away once I am done reading it. It is the simplest, cleanest and safest criteria to ensure my learning system could sustain it.

I didn’t have to search very long after that insight to have my eureka moment. Armed with the rule of giving my book once I’m done reading it, I started searching for ideas online that would cement my learning system. This video from Matt Morris titled How to Read a Book for Maximum Learning hit the spot.

What I want you to remember from this chapter is that my learning system didn’t just fall on me from the heavens. I failed a bunch of times before stumbling upon a process that worked! I asked my partner for help and suggestions when I realized I was out of ideas. I searched on YouTube for insight. I was at my most vulnerable then, because I was basically admitting that I needed help. I had overcome the learning anxiety on the topic of learning itself. It might not look like much, just asking someone or a search engine for help, but this is huge! It requires tremendous courage to try new things, fall on your face, and ask for help. I tip my hat to anyone who experiences learning anxiety and makes it this far in their own journey. This is the stuff psychological breakthroughs are made of.

I can’t say if your learning system will look like mine. But however your brain learns, you’ll have to fail before you get good. So remember that each humbling failure is a step closer to mastery, and rejoice that you are making real progress.

Chapter 5: My current learning system

Here’s how the sausage is made, in three easy steps. You will need:

  • Notebook to write
  • Pen
  • Highlighter
  • Ruler

Make sure that each of these items are objects that you personally enjoy using. I’ll nerd out in a later section about the hardware I use , but for now just focus on making sure that whatever gear you end up choosing makes you want to read/write more, not less!

Step 1: Read and highlight the golden nuggets

Crack open the book with a highlighter in hand and highlight whatever golden nuggets of information you find interesting. Whenever I highlight something, I don’t care if this is something the author expected me to memorize or not, resonate with or not. Often times I even take pride in highlighting a little detail that feels irrelevant in the scope of the whole book but that I connect with. Do not be scared by this freedom: follow your heart.

As you read, don’t bother trying to remember everything. When I turn a page, I feel completely OK not remembering what I just read about. Read your book like you’re watching a TV show or listening to a podcast. Highlight as you go, and know that we will come back to collect all these little knowledge nuggets later. 😉

Highlighting = identifying the gold nuggets.

Step 2: Write down your highlights

When you’re done with the book (or whenever you feel like it, really!), get your notebook out. We will now go back to the beginning of the book and flip page by page looking for any nugget you identified earlier.

Why take the time to write by hand all of these nuggets? I’m glad you asked.

Firstly, this will make it much easier for you to focus on the useful content of the book whenever you want to revisit its ideas later. Think about it: your notes will be all the good stuff. No distractions. Pure gold, selected by you!

Secondly, and in my opinion most importantly, writing a nugget forces it to get into your brain, even if only briefly. Indeed, any sentence that goes into your notebook was seen by your eye, decoded by your brain, and crafted by your hand and arm’s muscles. For your memory, this process is much richer than just reading words, which only involves the eye and the brain. By writing your highlights, you are immersing yourself in the book. It’s a hard experience to describe, as it is both incredibly simple and profoundly powerful. I think you’ll have to give it a shot to really get it.

Thirdly, as I wrote earlier in Chapter 4 , you want to do everything you can not to depend on having access to the book once you’re done with it. The goal of producing complete notes is to allow you to unshackle from the book and claim this knowledge as your own.

In this process of going through the book a second time to collect your nuggets, feel free to not even look at the pages without highlights. I mean, why would you? You already read them and clearly haven’t identified anything of value there. Trust your instinct: move on! It feels good when you can skip over a bunch of pages empty of nuggets.

Writing notes = capturing knowledge nuggets

As you can see in the picture above, I don’t really bother rephrasing the quotes from the book. The only time I’ll rephrase something is if I can make it shorter, or if I find the original sentence hard to understand. Your mileage may vary, though. Some people tell me you have to reword quotes you get from a book. To each their own!

Personally, I love this step of writing highlights on paper. I often do this while listening to music, or while watching a video in the background. It’s very relaxing. Just go at your own pace and stop when you’ve had your fill.

Step 3: Write about your opinion of the book

This might seem like overkill to most, but I wouldn’t even think of skipping this step. Once I’m done with a book, I want to formulate my own opinion about what I just read in the form of a review. This is what cements it in my brain.

Since I use my website as a platform for reviewing the books I read, sometimes I get stage fright. “What will people think of me if I write this and that in my review?” In a way, reviewing books also forces me to face my fear of rejection.

In my reviews, I give myself the freedom to be as detailed or as brief as I want. In a way, I treat a review like an artist would treat a canvas: whatever ends up there is simply a reflection of how I felt. Sure, I try to put a minimum of effort in my reviews, but I also try not to overdo it.

Finally, I use my review as a final opportunity to write my favorite highlights from the book one more time. Sometimes I just go overboard and write all my highlights into the review (see my review of Comportment Organisationnel , it’s a doozy!). Doing this allows me to easily use the Ctrl-F combo on my keyboard to find relevant quotes. At this point, whatever floats your boat is what you need, really.

Here is an example of the latest English review I wrote . Feel free to copy my format if you want, or create your own. In the end, what matters is that you create a pattern of work that forces your brain to think about these ideas and have them make sense for you. You get bonus points if you make this review public: not only are you sharing your knowledge, but you also encourage people to participate in your journey and share knowledge with you.

The format you use to review your books doesn’t matter. It can be a website like me, a page in your notebook, a Word document, an email, a spreadsheet, etc. As long as you use your words to write about the subject you read about, you will do fine. The easiest it is for you to access that information once you’re done, the better.

That’s it, really! However, since I am very passionate about this subject, I can’t resist sharing some additional tricks. Head over to the Appendix for more precise tricks.

Chapter 6: Conclusion

I find this image below very telling. My learning system allowed me to compress a 421-page book down to its essential learning nuggets, which take only 50 pages in my A5-sized journal. This means I will get as much information from reading these 50 pages than from reading 421 pages.

50 pages of pure nuggets!

Instead of taking days to review that information, it will take me 1 hour. This feels almost like cheating, except it isn’t! I worked hard for this outcome, and now I get to savour it. Better yet, since all the crucial information is compact and written by me and for me, the ideas assemble in my head much quicker than if I was just reading the book all over again.

Books are not something to be afraid of. Not anymore. I realized I now get to decide which book I read. As a professional, I am the master of my own learning. As the DevOps Handbook rightfully puts it on page 320 of its second edition:

The only sustainable competitive advantage is [your] ability to learn faster than the competition.

– Peter Senge

Textbooks have a purpose outside the classroom, even if that means you won’t have a professor dragging you through it. Not all textbooks feature exercises and homework; some can be quite fun, relaxing, enlightening to read, without creating headaches or feeling like puzzles. A book you chose almost certainly contains parts of the answer to the question that made you choose it.

Imagine how you will feel when your book shows you a new way to think about a specific problem you couldn’t quite put your finger on. Suddenly, a new connection occurs in your brain. Now, all you can see is the answer. Everything simply makes sense! Personally, this is among the most powerful and freeing experiences I have felt yet. It truly is a transcending moment that cannot be overstated.

We are all lifelong learners. If you want to learn about something, you can do it. What allows some people to learn faster than others is that they have created and optimized a learning system that is suited for their way of learning. When I realized that the core mission of DevOps, which eluded me for years, is to create a system that automates organizational learning, I felt the pinch of irony since this realization had required me to create my own system of learning. Now that this is done, I feel more empowered than ever and ready to take this challenge head-on.

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression: I am definitely not immune to learning anxiety, even after reading 84 books and writing all about my experience. Nobody gets used to feeling dumb , and unfortunately the more you learn, the more you realize how little you actually know about everything. The good news is that I now feel equipped to tackle this journey. I’ll never be done learning, and true learning is always an uncomfortable, if not painful process. Nevertheless, my learning system allowed me to come across pieces of wisdom that radically changed my relationships and my life for the better. I cannot even begin to express the sheer magnitude that the ability to read non-fiction books had on my life. Yet, I am overcoming learning anxiety. I am not done, and probably never will be. I am learning that pain can be leveraged. I am starting to believe that the only real failure is not to learn from failure. I am beginning to see fear as a compass that guides us toward the path that will make us grow.

If you personally suffer with learning anxiety and made it this far in this blog post, I am in awe of you. The last mile is always the least crowded , and you are among the courageous few that made it to the end. Seriously, lift your favorite arm and give yourself a pat on the back from me. I am confident that you are already on the right path: the real journey begins here, if you accept it. I hope the ideas I have outlined above will inspire you to give them a try or, better yet, to find your own system and rediscover the simple, sacred joy of learning. If this changes your life even half as much as it changed mine, you’re in for the ride of a lifetime, my friend.

We truly can do anything we set our mind to. That is what learning is all about.

Appendix: Additional tips

In this section, I will tell you about some tricks I picked up over years of learning from books. If you have other interesting tricks you would like to share, please let me know in the comments below! 🙏

Tip 1: Grab your book before grabbing your phone

The best way to progress through a book is not to allocate long periods of time for reading, but rather to keep your book handy at all times and to open it briefly whenever you’re between tasks.

Basically, any time you feel like picking up your phone to browse, pick your book first, and see if you can squeeze a quick paragraph or two (or more, if you get into it!). You’ll be amazed by the results. Change your phone’s wallpaper to remind you to read if you need to. It’s worth it.

Caveat: This does require you to keep your book within reach and visible as often as possible. Plan ahead!

Tip 2: Start by reading a single book at a time

As you start learning, you get excited when you see all the possibilities within your grasp. Never forget, “Stop starting, start finishing”.

Words to live by.

Choose your book well, and don’t start another one before you finished your current one. Use this as motivation to get through your current book, if needed!

Personally, shelving a book without finishing it only leaves me more confused. It gives me some pieces of the puzzle, but since I lack pieces I will never see that puzzle to completion. Bite the bullet, and finish the books you start, unless they are novels that fail to grab your attention.

You might want to wait until you are in the final pages of a book before ordering your next one. You don’t want to make commitments that you might not be able to complete! I strongly advise to order only a single book at a time, especially at the start of your learning journey - don’t get carried away!

Tip 3: Track your progress by folding the corners

This is a big part of my system.

I vaguely remember coming across an online debate about using bookmarks vs. folding corners. In the past, I would have been in the bookmark camp, but I’m now clearly a folded corners guy.

Each page has two corners and I use this to my full advantage. The top corner indicates my reading progress, and the bottom corner indicates my note-taking progress. And no risk of having your bookmark fall out of the book!

I can’t overstate how useful this is. It gives the feeling that no moment spent reading or taking notes is wasted. Whenever something else needs my attention, I simply fold the corner, fully aware that whenever I’ll come back to the book, I will know exactly what I was up to. Simply put, it reduces my cognitive load to a minimum.

I also like the fact that this transforms the act of learning into two distinct activities:

  • reading
  • writing

If I’m in the mood for reading, I read. If I’m in the mood for writing, I write. I feel like I am free to choose what activity is right for what time. And, most importantly, whatever I end up choosing, I am constantly learning.

Tip 4: Use the body of your highlighter as a visual aid

When I picture someone reading, I often see them using their finger to track their progress, like this:

However, this method of tracking progress never felt right to me. There are many reasons why:

  • My finger is too big to accurately point to specific words on a page
  • To reach the full width of the page with my finger, I have to move my entire arm back and forth as I read, or move the arm holding the book. It wastes energy.
  • I don’t particularly appreciate the friction of the page on the tip of my index, especially over extended periods of time.

The method I now use to guide my eyes as I read is to use the full body of my highlighter. Since my system is based on Matt Morris' learning strategy, I always have a highlighter in my hands when I read, so this puts it to good use.

This has many benefits:

  • Unlike the tip of your finger, the body of the highlighter is flat. It makes it obvious what line you are currently looking at.
  • You can let your eyes glide along the body of the eye-lighter. It feels less jittery than following the movement of a finger, which can only point to one word at a time.
  • The body of the highlighter is:
    • long enough to allow me to reach the full width of a page within having to move my wrist, let alone my arm.
    • vivid in color, which makes it quite eye-catching.
    • wide enough to hide the sentences below what I am reading, which ensures I am not reading “in diagonal”.

Tip 5: Identify elements of an enumeration in the text

I noticed that some authors like to create enumerations in prose instead of in a list form. In order to help my future note-taking self, I use my pen to circle where each element of an enumeration begins in a paragraph. It makes the information much easier to parse later on. It also signals that this information would be more visually striking if written as a list:

  • First, …
  • Second, …
  • Finally, …

Tip 6: Use your book’s margins to write ideas

If reading a certain paragraph triggers a light bulb in your mind or makes you pause and wonder about a specific question, I recommend that you write that thought in the margins next to the paragraph that inspired it. That way, when writing your notes, you will be able to revisit your own good ideas and decide how to expand upon it.

Don’t let a good idea go to waste!

Tip 7: Number your notebook’s pages

If your notebook doesn’t have page numbers already (most don’t), I strongly recommend that you number your pages yourself. This is invaluable to allow you to reference your notes later on. This is a quality of life upgrade that is too obvious to live without.

If you have to number your notebook’s pages, take this opportunity to use a different ink (e.g. red) than what you would use for your note taking. Things will look much clearer when you reach the bottom right corner of odd-numbered pages. 😉

Tip 8: If you notebook doesn’t have margins, make some!

For most of my life, I assumed the margin was meant for graders to review your work and comment on their corrections. Well, news flash: the margin is for everybody!

It’s a shame that most quality notebooks that I know of don’t have margins. Use this to your advantage: make your margins as wide or as thin as you need.

In my notes, sometimes I write questions or things that will need further updates. The margins is the perfect place to put such updates. Of course, not all of your notes will require a margin note, but that’s a good thing: it leaves you with more room for the notes that truly need commenting later on.

Tip 9: Write the source of your knowledge nuggets

Notice in the photo above that most “knowledge nuggets” are paired with a reference to the source material. This helps finding context or correcting notes in the rare cases where your notes are unclear and you must refer to the book. Trust me, it can save you a lot of time, and also makes sharing that nugget in the future even easier (e.g. “As the DevOps Handbook says on page 49, improvement of daily work is even more important than daily work!").

Side effects may include people calling you a bookworm.

This is very nerdy, but also very cool and useful. See an example in the image below:

See that strange (F)/bcm? The circled F is a shorthand for https://felx.cc. If you visit https://felx.cc/bcm, you’ll be taken to this link instead: https://photos.google.com/share/AF1QipNkyXbkGnqpbp38J_f57sodGkG801H4lzJiwqTcInRbMmU38EKrqHbP28fZ9afKpw?key=WVB3UWdrUHNxS3duR0loTXY4ZEU5d084X29iSGp3, which is a photo I took of a page in a book for convenience. Thus, https://felx.cc/bcm is my short URL: it is convenient to type on any device, and can redirect me to a much more unwieldy URL.

Thus, a URL shortener is a service that allows you to create a small link that can redirect to a link of any length. This is invaluable: it allows me to save important, complicated links directly alongside my reading notes, where I know they will be most useful.

If you are interested in trying a URL shortening service, many services already offer free tiers:

However, if you’re a computer nerd and would like to possess your own URL shortening service (like I do with https://felx.cc/, that is fully owned by me!), I recommend you check out a video I made on how to get started with VanityURL .

Tip 11: Give your book away

This is the fun part. When you finished reading a book and collecting all its nuggets in your journal, you are free to share it with the world. In fact, I think it’s better to bring the book out of your home and find it a new library where it will be happy. In my case, since my employer sometimes provides me a personal wellness account that funds my book purchases, I think it’s a no-brainer to bring these books back to the office, where I know they will benefit my colleagues.

Writing the Slack message announcing the newly available book in the library is the victory lap.

For the DevOps Handbook, since this book meant a lot for me during my personal development, I added a little note on the title page. Who knows, maybe this little encouragement will make a difference for the next person who will start this book!

Tip 12: Share your notes online

I developed the habit to scan my notes once they are complete for a given book and putting them on my Google Drive. This has many advantages:

  • It creates a true cloud-supported backup, meaning that I would most likely have to delete the files myself to lose them.
  • It allows me to browse my notes even when I don’t have my physical books with me. This is critical as I tend to accumulate more and more notebooks.
  • It shows people my actual work. This is an important part of the trust-earning process. People won’t believe you put in the work until they see proof that makes it safe for them to believe you.

If you are looking for a flatbed scanner, the one I am currently using is the Canon LiDE 400 and I am totally satisfied with it. Recommended!

After scanning my notes, I write a new post with all my favorite quotes from my note. I call those ⭐ Star Quotes ⭐. I then proceed to write a short review for the book. Having to summarize my understanding of the book and writing about my appreciation of it is what really cements it in my brain. A bonus side effect of that is that it creates a nice virtual bookshelf that I can use to retrieve my notes and even share them with interested parties.

My virtual bookshelf

Tip 13: Remember: Reading a book twice is inefficient

I’ve hinted at it before, but I’ll say it clearly once more: If you are reading a book a second time, what does this say about the first time you read it? Life if too short to read a book in its entirety twice. Instead, rely on your notes to quickly get the essence of the book. That’s your reward for putting in this work: you can get the same info as reading the full book in a fraction of the time.

Tip 14: Additional tips on hardware

Alright, we are now getting into the nitty-gritty. For most of us, making a purchase is the fun, exciting part. My dopamine-hungry brain loves it when I buy stuff.

So, what hardware do I recommend, precisely?

Notebook

First off, this is probably basic common-sense, but I’ll make it explicit, just in case: Don’t use a spiral-bound Hilroy notebook or, worse, a stitched exercise book. These won’t do much good here if pages keep tearing and falling out of your journal after a few years.

The bound journal I’ve been using is the TRU RED Medium Flexible Cover Dotted Journal from Staples.

Note: Some people enjoy spiral-bound notebooks because they allow to easily fold back the notebook and stay opened flat on a table. If you do invest in a spiral-notebook, at least make sure it is high quality.

Also, I strongly recommend to use a grid or dotted journal. This allows better horizontal alignment of information for writing lists. It makes my messy handwriting look less messy. Personally, I am now very fond of dotted journals, because they provide the benefits of a grid without being as visually distracting.

Pens and highlighters

Take the time to really search for a pen that makes writing a joyful experience for you.

If you’re looking for recommendations, mine are:

Why?

  • They are cheap, easy to find and reliable
  • The Bic Cristal does not smear (I’m left handed)
  • The highlighter has lots of ink and lasts a long time
So, am I a good pen seller? ;)

Ruler

This allows you to make nice lines, for tables or underlines. Any cheap 15 cm ruler will do. It makes your journal more pleasing to read, which is important. After all, the whole point of keeping a journal is so you can comfortably refer to your knowledge.

The best storage place I found for my ruler is directly in my notebook. The notebook I recommend above has an elastic band that ensures your ruler would never slip and fall once shut.