In brief

Are you getting enough value from the time and money invested in the self development books you’re reading? Reading is a great personal development activity but unless you put your reading into action – it’s “shelf development” not self development!  You have to go beyond the reading to make it relevant and actionable.  In summary, you need to:

  • Set clear learning objectives
  • Learn in ways which suit your preferred learning styles
  • Consolidate your learning in a learning log with actions you can track.  

This is how you maximise the return on the money and time you are investing in your personal development and make real progress towards your goals. 

Read on for the detail and a big idea that will help us all go beyond the book. 


I have been reading and accumulating self-development books since my early twenties.  It started with a little book called “Never Confuse a Memo with Reality” and before long, via Covey, Canfield and Robbins, I have amassed quite a collection of goal setting, performance, career development and business books; originally in hard copy but now (thank goodness) the more space-efficient Kindle variety.  In fact on my Kindle right now I was startled to see around 160 books mostly in these areas. I was very surprised to see no less than six(!) books on minimalism. I have clearly missed the point there!

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go” – Dr Seuss

Well Dr Seuss, I don’t think I’ve gone to anywhere near as many places as my reading implies.  With all that quality reading, I should be bigger than Tony Robbins, as a coach not in stature, by now. With six books on minimalism I should have far fewer possessions (and books on minimalism) too.  What went wrong?  The answer is that until recently I’d been investing in “shelf development”.  Sure, I read a lot but am I really learning and developing as a result?  So many books where I struggled to recall why I’d read them, the key messages and whether or not I’d done anything with them…so I guess I hadn’t.  

Jim Rohn said; “it isn’t what the book costs; it’s what it will cost you if you don’t read it”.  But in my view it costs double if you read it and don’t do anything with it! 

5 tips to help you read more effectively

Before I describe the steps I’ve taken to stop this happening again, here’s a few ideas on how to approach your reading so your self-development library doe more than gather dust:

  • Set clear learning objectives.
  • Avoid “I know this already” syndrome.
  • Read with the intention of applying the knowledge.
  • Choose your medium carefully.
  • Have a consistent reading habit.

Set clear learning objectives

Reading with a goal will help you to get more out of a book.  What do you want to learn?  What are you looking for ideas on? Reading with a clear purpose means you are more likely to find insights and seeking ways to apply the book as you go along.   I am not saying you can’t read for pleasure but if you buy a book to solve a problem or help you improve, read it with that in mind. 

Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings so that you shall come easily by what others have laboured hard for.” –Socrates

As you read, you might like to read with the intention of teaching others and thereby benefiting from the protégé effect.  If you have to relay the information to someone else, you will work harder to understand the material.  Learning as if you were going to have teach it or pretending to teach it (which takes me back to Uni where I used to revise by giving lectures to my stuffed animals and a Morrisey poster) can be just as effective.  It provides more motivation to learn and  importantly, the motivation to understand how you learn best so you can improve your learning skills and teach more effectively. 

Avoid the “I know this already” syndrome

If you read around a subject enough, you are bound to come across similar ideas and concepts.  When you do, there is a danger of skimming past what you’ve read before in search of something new.  If an idea keeps appearing in various books and in various guises, there might be something in it and if you do know this already, why are you still reading about it?  There’s a massive difference between knowing something intellectually and doing something with that knowledge.

You have to apply the knowledge

So the act of reading clearly isn’t enough. As you read, ask yourself how you could use the material in your life/business. What does this mean for me?  If necessary, put the book down for a while and reflect.  Don’t race on with the intention of coming back to a nugget later (highlighting it for good measure of course) because you won’t.  You’ll forget, and you’ll end up buying another book on the same subject when you realise you are no further forward (Amazon suggestions are so “helpful” in this regard!). 

For example, I am currently re-reading James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” and second time around it is having an impact.  This is because I am reading it with the specific intention of making changes in my daily routine and as I read something helpful I am applying it straight away.  First time around I had heard some of the stuff before (know this already syndrome!) and I was reading it for interest (no specific learning objective!). So I agree with Roald Dahl but only with caveats when he says; 

 “If you are going to get anywhere in life you have to read a lot of books” – Roald Dahl

Reading alone isn’t necessarily enough for me!  

Choose your medium carefully

Digital or printed books?  The written word or audio books?  It pays to know what works best for you and how you learn.  Studies have shown that comprehension is significantly better with the printed word than a digital format.  What’s your preference?  I find digital formats less engaging and it is too easy to skim and go to the next page.  I’m pretty sure that it’s my Kindle books I have most trouble recalling in detail.  Short, simple reads are fine on screen but for meatier texts and those I’m likely to turn to regularly, I buy in hard copy.  It is easier to flick backwards for reminders and physically underlining key words (pencil only) or adding sticky notes makes concepts stick that bit better.  Hard copy slows my reading speed down whereas on the Kindle I can sometimes find myself on autopilot.  So choose how you read with care. 

It is also worth asking yourself if a book is the answer.  We all learn in different ways.  If you honour your preferences, your reading is more likely to stick.  If I was a visual learner then YouTube or video courses might be more effective than a book or could make great introductions to a topic but as hearing is my preferred sense for learning, and I love podcasts, I am now considering coming very late to the Audible party.  So, when considering your development needs, a book of any format might not be the best way to go and video lectures, audio books and podcasts could be more effective alternatives. 

“No two persons ever read the same book.” – Edmund Wilson

A slight tangent but as we all learn differently and bring our own experiences to a book, it can be really powerful to have a book buddy and compare your findings.  Not only will you be motivated to really understand the content, your buddy will help you make more sense of the book, pick up points you may have missed or dismissed or identify other practical applications.

A consistent reading habit is key

Working through one book at a time; reading a little every day, works better for me than diving in, getting so far and stopping for a while or worse, picking up another book I am keen to get started on.  This happens to me a lot. In both cases, a book gets neglected.  I will forget where I got to and what it was all about but I’m not going to start again because it won’t be so interesting second time around will it? Aim to read consistently and often.

Making learning stick.  Some action steps

So now you have some tips for getting more out of your reading.  Here are the practical steps I took to organise my reading and to avoid recreating my library of shelf development:

  1. I categorised my development needs and areas I wanted to explore.
  2. I then listed all my learning material and options available according to those categories.
  3. I then planned my self-development with reference to my business plan, current clients and, in the case of fun, what I most fancied doing first. I created some loose themes.
  4. I then created a learning log to capture my learning from each activity/book and the action steps.
  5. I set a rule that means I can’t mark a book as read until I have written up my notes.

You can read about each of this steps below or skip to the conclusion.   

Step 1. Categorising my development needs

I created categories for my development.  These included; fun learning on a range of subjects as the history of music and philosophy (for interest and pleasure only), business development such as sales and marketing, use of social media etc and my professional skills and knowledge; coaching techniques and theories on values, career direction, performance etc.  This helped me to organise all the material I had and relate it back my business plan and my clients.  Can you categorise your learning and interests?  Could you align your plans to your work objectives and KPIs?  Are you pursuing subjects where it would pay for you to be more structured? 

Step 2. Listing all my material according to the categories

I listed all the books I had, including all my Kindle books (that’s how I know how many books are on there) plus the online courses I wanted to do, the routine professional magazines I get, etc. according to my categories along with a date column to mark when I had read or completed them.  These lists are in a Notion database which I can extract for my NLP accreditation purposes.  Books I know I have read and can remember something about are on the list so that I read them again with clear objectives in mind.  Having listed all the material I have to hand it is clear that I really don’t need to buy another book this year…

Step 3. Create a development plan

Such a corporatey thing to do but I have created a personal development plan.  This is aligned to my business goals and the needs of current clients.  It covers the year in loose themes.   The development plan is on a whiteboard but could go in Notion too.  Having a plan means I know what to read next and why – back to those learning objectives!.  It takes the randomness out of my reading choices and with deadlines, I make sure I read every day – that consistency point again. 

Step 4. The learning log

The final and most important step is the creation of a learning log.  For each course, co-coaching session I do, book I read etc. I complete the learning log.  In fact, I can’t tick it as complete in Notion until the log is filled in.  This tests my recollection and gives me something to refer to.  This is what the powerpoint version of mine looked like.

The most important aspects of the log are the three rows at the bottom; how I will use this, next steps and updates.  These force me to think about what I am going to with this learning and to document my experiences of putting it into practice.  Mine is formatted in the same way as my personal development and business plans and sits alongside it.  However, the format isn’t the point.  You could journal it or keep notes in your phone so long as you take the time to record your learning and actions. Statistics show that handwriting notes is more effective than typing them.  I do both.  I jot notes as I read then attempt to interpret my scrawl as I type them in my log. I note the time taken as part of the CPD for my coaching accreditation and now I use Notion, I can set reminders for my action points and sort my reading material when looking for references or resources for clients.

Finally, a conclusion and a big idea

I hope this long read was helpful if only to remind you to have a look at your library before you order yet another book and to make what you read next stick.  But I promised you something more, a big idea, and it is this.  A book club and so much more I invite you to join me in a book club which helps us all to go “beyond the books” by also being a mastermind group centred around the books we read for our personal or business development. 

The book club mastermind is just an idea at this stage.  First we agree whether to all read the same personal development or business book, or use the protégé effect to teach the group on our current reading.  We then share our thoughts on the book(s) and discuss how/if we can apply the learning.  This is where the mastermind bit comes in.  For those who say they can’t apply the book, there will be some challenge.  For those who commit to action, the group will hold them accountable (in a nice way) and we will all learn from their experiences.  In the process, group members will get clear on their goals and get the motivation, support and challenge to help achieve them.  It is a rough idea at this stage but I would like your thoughts.  Message me or add a comment if you’re interested in joining such a group and we can take it from there. 

Thanks for reading and enjoy curling up with your next book.