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Do you know of any systems such as mind maps or flash cards for taking notes while reading technical/programming textbooks?

For example, after reading two chapters of a dense textbook and taking a 1 week break, how can I get back into the flow of the material I was studying before the break.

The solution I'm pondering is to write a summary of every subsection of the chapters being read but I don't know if this is an efficient solution.

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Do you know when you stop reading that you are going to be taking a 1 week break? (The answer to that might get your better advice) – Jeanne Boyarsky Aug 17 '13 at 15:40
Mostly yes, but the break could be a day or more to be specific. – Spiritual Intuition Aug 17 '13 at 20:50
Draw yourself block diagrams and record audio. – Prabhanjan Naib Sep 16 '13 at 19:04

While I don't have day+ breaks when reading, I do have them when writing/blogging/coding/etc. I find something that helps is to leave myself some context as to what was going on. I think this could help you with reading.

You don't need a summary of each chapter; you need a way to get back in quickly. I'm thinking when you feel you are about to take a break of more than a day or two, write yourself a paragraph. (For a shorter gap than that, I don't think you will lose flow.)

For example, "Python is an interpreted language. I learned how to create arrays and write loops. I wasn't that comfortable with for comprehensions so it would be helpful to re-read that before going on to the next part."

They key aspects of my paragraph are that:

  1. It is short (if it is too long, you might as well be re-reading the end of chapter summaries from the book)
  2. It reminds you of enough things that you've learned to get back in that mindset.
  3. It gives you a very specific thing to start with. Not "chapter 3" but something to review. Even if you understood everything, try to re-read a page or two to get you back in flow before getting to something new.
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very good points. I also made this experience (with a very long project, where it may take weeks or months since the last time working on it) that writing some kind of short "working diary" is extremely helpful for restarting quickly. However I would also recommend to make notes about the content (as this is at least for me the only way to memorize - I forget really quickly, if I have only read something without taking notes. Same is true for meetings). – MostlyHarmless Aug 18 '13 at 10:09
Agreed. I'm not proposing the paragraph replace normal note taking. I'm merely suggesting not reading all the notes when resuming. I think they are better as a reference. – Jeanne Boyarsky Aug 18 '13 at 13:53
I have a variation on this when programming. At the end of the day I mail myself 'where I left off' + 'What to do next'. That mail is in my inbox the next morning. – Jan Doggen Sep 10 '13 at 8:08
Blogging is a really great idea. Writing your understanding increases chances to remember for long. (I can quote some research studies on this). And if you blog or just put up a small write-up on your site is quite helpful and cool. It will take up only a little effort and you'll have great benefits - Remember longer + Documented + Help others + Have an informative webpage. :-) – R11G Oct 7 '13 at 13:36

I recommend making a visual map of the key concepts in the text while you read it. This is not only good for understanding the material in the first place, but it will also quickly remind you of the concepts involved and the structure/relationships between them.


One free mapping software that I like is Xmind.

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This is of paramount importance, since you can make your own mental associations to the information you find. – Keldon Alleyne Aug 19 '13 at 15:32

I can't take credit for this idea but I read it on lifehacker a while ago and liked the idea so much I adopted it for all of my books (especially technical books). I can't find the original post but here is the slightly modified system I've adopted. Thanks Julian!

When you start a new book:

  • Take a piece of paper and write the Book title, author and date you started reading the book on the top left corner.
  • Fold it in 4 squares and leave your new heading facing out on one of the sides.
  • As you read the book use the piece of paper as your bookmark. As you go through the book I break up chapters with headings (for easy reference) and you can either quote the book or just write snippets.
  • Make sure you write the page number the quote/idea/topic can be found.
  • I face the active side of the paper toward the page I'm on to help me remember, but you don't have to do that. As I fill up each quarter of the page I just open the paper to the next available section. I write on the "bookmark" in logical order I would usually write on a piece of paper (with one exception below) but it's just folded up.
  • I keep a section reserved on the back and on the bottom of the paper for book corrections I find. I usually write in the book what the correction/misspelling should be and write the page number on my notes paper.
  • When you're done with the book you write the date you finished on the paper and you can either keep the paper inside the book cover (my current method), store it in a notebook of other finished books, or take a picture and perform some OCR on the notes for further searching/archiving.

The reason(s) I find this so effective is because I not only get a cheap bookmark but I can easily reference things I want to if I need to pick up the book years later. It also keeps notes out of the margins if I want to lend the book to someone or sell it. I have only read a couple of books this way but I can also find it very handy to be able to draw diagrams on my notes which most software tools don't allow. When I'm done with a book I re-type all my notes into a personal wiki for easy searching and save a picture of the notes on the same wiki page. The re-typing process also helps me remember things I may have forgot from the beginning of the book and engrave the important things in memory.

I tried keeping a notebook only for reading but I always found the book notes would be broken by other notes that would distract me and make it hard to look up information I needed. It also made it close to impossible to read multiple books at once. The single page method lets me keep all the notes for a book together and if I need more space I just get another piece of paper.

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Thanks, just updated the link in the answer and also added that to my bookmarks. :) – rothgar Aug 20 '13 at 14:48
which software are you using for the personal wiki? Are you then breaking the notes about one book into "atomic" pieces, or how do you organise the notes from reading in this wiki? – MostlyHarmless Aug 27 '13 at 7:39
I use dokuwiki for my personal wiki simply because it's flat files which are easy to backup and move. My reading notes are in my general notes section (I have a section for reading -> books). After that I keep all the notes per book on a single page so it's easy to read through a summary of the whole book without clicking on any links. – rothgar Aug 27 '13 at 21:45

The best trick I learned with technical books is a glossary.

A lot of interruptions and losing 'flow' is because someone doesn't understand a term. This is especially important in mathematical formulas. If you don't remember what a sigma is, you certainly won't understand what it means when combined with a bunch of other squiggly symbols.

Write down important, yet vague terms that repeat itself several times, which take you more than a second to understand. Things like "fundamental frequency", "exponential", or "transponder", which can occur a lot in a chapter.

Next to those definitions, write down the page which first explains the term. If it's in another book, write down the book and the page, or at least something that sufficiently describes it.

It's nicer to do this in Notepad or Evernote or something, which requires only a quick search to reference.

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Highlighting. I used to be so opposed to marking in any book that I took notes as I read. Every single time I took a note I had to figure out where I was before I stopped -- then I had to to get back into the flow. It turns out that getting back into the flow is difficult for me.

So, now I read with the aim of pushing myself quickly and highlighting important parts and details I don't want to get immersed in. If I am doing well that day I might make a table of contents of my highlighted sections afterwards -- page number and minimal notes. If I am doing REALLY well I finish the book then reread the highlighted sections and take notes from that.

My learning style might differ from yours. But I get more mileage from getting an over view first even if shallow. I think notes and mindmaps would result in a deeper level of retention on a single pass but I don't think I personally would ever finish anything that way.

Although I prefer print, if I am reading something digital (even PDF) I cut and paste to a basic text document and keep moving. Do the editing when you are done with the session.

In both cases a review of the highlights or notes are needed to regain the context I had before the break.

For what it's worth, I use context-maps rather than mind-maps, but only after I have a good overview and I am ready to pull it all together.

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