How I Use My Kindle To Learn

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Aliis Sinisalu on Unsplash

November 27th, 2020 Update: I’ve written a new post with my updated process and how I use Notion to store my notes in a much more integrated way. If you’re interested, check it out!

In the past few years, Kindles have gradually exploded on the reader/writer scene. Slowly, more and more people are buying Kindles to read, to save physical space and in some cases save money.

My brother got me a Kindle last Christmas, giving us an opportunity to share PDFs and digital books easily. I’ve always been a fan of paperbooks, but the Kindle was a great way for me to get older, lesser known books that I was interested in reading but couldn’t seem to find in stores (and often at a cheaper price, and without the hassle of having something shipped to me, saving a lot of travel time). But I had a bit of a concern: how do I take notes and remember what I learn, if it’s a digital file? Education is super important to me, as is retaining what I learn and turning it into something actionable. Taking notes on the Kindle is a bit of an uphill battle, not to mention needing to go back through the highlights to find what stood out to you. Kindle’s user interface isn’t the best, which makes the process twice as difficult.

However, using Kindle actively to educate yourself and utilize the lessons you learn in what you read is doable, and it requires a few simple steps and some sly thinking. You can set up your own system that gets ideas from your Kindle to your phone, tablet, or computer, and into your head so you can apply whatever you need to your life.

Below are the steps I take when reading on my Kindle to pick out what you want to learn, how to capture it, and how to turn them into notes you can tap into in the future.

Step #1: Make Sure Your Books are “Highlightable”

I’m putting this step first because I ran into this issue after reading an entire book and making highlights, only to find out it wouldn’t show up in the Amazon Cloud (or whatever the technical term is). In another case, a PDF I uploaded to my Kindle came out too small, and the text didn’t translate so it was the equivalent of looking at pictures of text instead of actual text. If you’re buying books straight off Amazon, this most likely won’t be an issue for you. But if you’re downloading PDFs and books online and putting them on your Kindle, you’ll want to double check and make sure that you can make highlights as you go. I’m not too sure about the technical side of things, but an easy way of doing this is changing the format of your files to MOBI, which is the e-book format for Kindle (this differs from the Kobo, which as epub).

You can find a bunch of sites that translate the files for you. Pick whatever one you like, just make sure that you can highlight text on the Kindle afterwards. If you can’t, you’ll need to search the web for a MOBI version of the file.

A while back I came across the Gutenburg Project, which is an initiative to share with the public free books in digital formats. The site hosts thousands of different books, all available for download. If you’re looking for some books, check this site first to see what is and isn’t available! Many new books aren’t on Gutenberg yet, however a large amount of the classic books and older books are there for you to download. The website has MOBI versions available for many of them, which means the text will translate and you can take highlights and notes easily!

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Danny on Unsplash

Step #2: Determine Potential Takeaways

Before I read a book on my Kindle, I determine potential subjects of interest I can learn from my readings. This helps me keep my focus throughout the reading, and focus in on sections where a potential major lesson can be derived, or a line I can use in some capacity (be it a future blog post or project). You don’t need to think deeply about this part — deciding briefly what you’d like to get out of the experience can help you focus and make your reading more active. I find this part to be important when reading on a Kindle (or any digital file) as reading on a screen seems to add an extra barrier to engaging with your content. Reading on paper seems to make it easier to really wrestle with what you’re reading, and offer some opportunities to physical write down your thoughts and highlight certain phases. With Kindle, that is tougher to do: so having some flexible goals before you read helps connect your mind with the content.

Potential takeaways can change as you read, and aren’t used to filter OUT any information, mostly filter in. If you see something that jumps out at you that is unrelated to what you’re looking for, highlight it and make a note! You’ll organize everything when you’re done, and i’ll explain how to do that in the final steps.

For example: I got Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington for about $2 off of Amazon a while back. I bought because I don’t have as strong of an understanding about the implications of slavery on a personal level, so I wanted to read the story of a former slave and their life to better understand how terrible slavery is. Also, I’m fascinated by the role of heroes and characters in society and how they impact those that are exposed to them. So, I’m reading Up From Slavery with that lens. Another example is How to Study by George Fillmore Swain, which is a compilation of study techniques and suggestions for students. This is a much older book (published in 1917) I got from the Gutenberg Project and is much more “here’s suggestions” rather than experimental research. It also has some odd opinions, such as implications of levels of intelligence, no mention of women in education, etc. When I read it, I had the lens of “what suggestions have I seen in other works that have appeared here” to add some variety of perspective, and I filtered any opinions I felt weren’t the most supportive out.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash. Setting goals for your reading can be extremely helpful.

Step #3: Highlight & Notes

This is the fun part. Now that you have gotten some resources and determined what you’re looking for, start reading! As you go along, highlight any sentence that stands out to you. If you’d like, leave a quick note with the highlight (keep it to one sentence since the keyboard on Kindles SUCK). As you progress throughout the book, you’ll start compiling a list of highlights and notes, mainly in the form of quotes. You may, as you’re reading, start noticing patterns in the authors thoughts: a core concept that seems to permeate each section, a recurring theme, an opinion that gets compounded over time. Those are especially important to leave a note to yourself on, and noticing patterns will aid you in the final step after you export.

The final step will show what some of the exported highlights will look like. To highlight, press down on a word and drag the tag across till you’re covering the entire quote.

Protip with this: If a quote extends over two pages, it might be tough to highlight it all, as continuing to highlight while switching pages doesn’t seem to work well on the Kindle. If you do find yourself in this scenario, just shrink or enlarge the text (you can do this by “pinching” the screen with your thumb & index finger, or spreading them out on the touch screen). Once the font size is changed, you can highlight easily!

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Vikas Pawar on Unsplash

Step #4: Exporting

Now is the less fun part. After you’re finished a book, you can export your highlights and notes to another area that is easier to work with. Unfortunately, exporting can be an uphill battle, and a complicated process (ESPECIALLY if you’re downloading books of Gutenberg). Thankfully there are different options for you.

Here’s what I do: for any books purchased through Amazon, notes should be updated on the Amazon Cloud (you can get there through read.amazon.ca, or .com). In the notes section on the website, you can find a list of highlights from each book you’ve read. You can choose to export these, or you can copy-paste the list of highlights and notes into another document. This is what I do with Google Docs: I’ll make a new doc for the notes, and I’ll copy-paste them into it. This means extra text I’ll need to sift through and delete, but that’s alright, since I’m already sifting through the highlights and notes anyways.

If you’re using books you’ve gotten from the Gutenberg Project or elsewhere, they most likely won’t show up in the cloud. Thankfully, there’s a few programs you can use to export any highlights saved on your Kindle account. There’s a bunch of different options for you online: I use Kindle Mate. It pretty much did the same thing as the cloud: gave a list of the highlights and notes, which I copy-pasted into a document. Unfortunately page numbers aren’t included, but if they aren’t absolutely necessary you can get along without them (or you can figure out how to export them with the page numbers, which you can probably do since you’re smarter than me).

So that’s step number four. Now that we have our highlights, we can move onto our final step, and our most important one!

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash. After exporting you’ll have a ton of notes to work with.

Step #5: Re-Organize & Create An Action Plan

It’s one thing to make highlights and notes, and it’s another to organize what you’ve picked up into something that is easy to process and allows you to derive key applicable lessons from it. Organizing notes isn’t an easy process, especially if you’re working off an author that has already succinctly organized their thoughts into neat chapters and subchapters. But, re-organizing your highlights and notes is an important step in owning what you’ve learned and making it apply to your life.

However you want to re-organize your hightlights is up to you. Here’s what I do: as I go down the list of highlights and notes, I put a potential theme/subject above the highlight. When I find more highlights that fit within a certain theme, I’ll move them under other quotes that fit that theme, making a grouping of quotes that all touch on the same point. I’ll re-name themes, delete them and move the quotes to other sections, combine them or split them. I’m shuffling around my highlights so they’re portioned in a way that makes sense to me, and allows me to pull any quotes that touch on a subject.

This is why I mentioned the importance of deciding potential takeaways from your reads: with guiding questions, you can split your highlights into chunks much easier.

As you re-organize your thoughts, you can add extended notes to each highlight, summaries, questions to yourself, and ultimately, ways of applying what you’ve learned. What you’ll finish with is a polished set of notes that is organized by theme instead of randomly fragmented, which allows you to easily refer back to them.

Image for post
Image for post
These are three different sets of notes. On the left is Thomas Frank’s 1o Steps To Earning Better Grades, and the other two are Gustav Le Bon’s The Psychology of the Crowd: you’ll notice that the middle notes are just a massive list, while the outer ones are organized by theme, making it easier to pick a subject and read up on it.

To Conclude…

And there you have it! This is how I use my Kindle to learn. However you use it is up to you, but I wanted to share this as a way to keep whatever resonates with you in one location for future use. Whether you’re an author looking for inspiration, an entrepreneur looking for new skills, or someone just looking to improve their own life in the smallest of ways, remembering what you learn is important. I hope this guide helps you along the way.

Carpe diem, kids.

If there was something about this blog you really liked, leave a comment and let me know!

Written by

Poli Sci grad, Comms Strategist, great at remembering names and terrible at pronouncing them. I write on political psych, practical philosophy, and random stuff

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store