The Power of the 10% Read

Remember, 10% Is Better than 0%

Image: Nicole Wolf/Unsplash

“I wish I knew about this 10 years ago!”

I exclaimed this after I started organizing my notes and writing with them. And I only did that because after I read parts of How to Take Smart Notes. The book had been on my shelf for years; I’d even moved a couple of times with it. Yet I only picked it up after I resolved to spend 20 minutes reading it; I couldn’t put it down until two hours later.

The main subject of the book is a man named Niklas Luhmann, who wrote 60 books and published a two-volume grand theory, The Society of Society, on time. He did all this, as you can probably guess, with the help of his note-taking system.

I don’t know what Niklas ate for breakfast, or how he solved specific note-taking problems (like adding a card between 1 and 1a), but I started my note-taking system right after reading just a portion of that book. I also completely see a better way of doing it; a system that can be both analog and digital, and how to make time to maintain it. If a contemporary disciple of Niklas Luhmann had a look at my slipbox, they’d probably:

  • Turn me into a meme and laugh themselves silly
  • Cringe so hard they give me access to their thousand-dollar courses so they never have to see it again
  • Make a note to add to their thread about the deteriorating nature of notes… 

Hell, maybe all three. (Some note takers have big personalities!) But without having been willing to read parts of the book, and apply a lesson imperfectly, I’d never have learned or experienced any of this. So I propose a method to reading now, moving forward:

The 10% Read

The 10% Read idea is useful to everyone, but probably most useful to people who aren’t already reading 25 pages per day, and want to get value out of books: 

Read 10% of a non-fiction book, and apply one lesson from it.

The point of the 10% Read is to give yourself permission to speed-read through a book. Get acquainted with its best ideas, through looking at the table of contents, the index, and just randomly flipping through it. Accept a superficial understanding of an idea, and acknowledge it’s just the start. 

Take action on what you learned. If you’ve read 10% of Deep Work, start blocking chunks of time in your calendar. If you read Radical Acceptance, pay attention to your self-talk. Put reminders of these applications and ideas in your phone notes, your wallpapers, and your journals.

The 10% Read is meant to lower the barrier of reading a book so aggressively that you can’t help but show up. Then, apply just one lesson to apply to your life in some way. 

Most of us are taught to read cover to cover, and you may think it’s not worth your time to read just part of a book. But the truth is, even just getting one of a book’s best ideas are better than leaving it on your shelf and getting none of them. (And more importantly, not every book is worth your time to read in full!)

Ideas are worthless to you as mere words on a page. They’re only useful after you understand and apply them somehow.

The Power of Taking Away Just One Idea

It’s so tempting to say, “If I’m not going to remember this whole book, I might as well not read it. Why bother?” 

Curtis Jackson writes in Hustle Harder, Hustle Smarter:

“After you finish this book, you might only take a few of the principles with you. Even just one. That’s fine. That was the case when I read Robert’s 48 Laws of Power. Ask me today what that book was about and all I can really tell you is, ‘As the student, never outshine the master.’

“There were forty-seven other laws in that book, but that’s the one that stayed lodged in my brain. And because it’s never left me, I’ve been able to apply it so many times over the years. I’ve literally made millions by remembering to follow that principle.”

Similarly, when Joss Whedon admits to never finishing the Getting Things Done book, he still says that he applies the principles constantly. He says, “‘Next actions’ is one of the most important things that you can say in any endeavor.” 

Both of these people took away one important thing from their books, applied it, and used the techniques to great success. 

Each Application can Change Your Life

Imagine if Curtis had decided not to read The 48 Laws of Power until he had a proper note-taking system in place. Or Joss decided because he couldn’t finish Getting Things Done, that it wasn’t worth reading. Sure, they might’ve succeeded nonetheless, but they each would be missing an incredibly valuable tool in their belts. (After all, Curtis directly attributes earning millions to his adherence of the principle.)

Oftentimes, you just need one opportunity to exploit, or an idea to connect two dots. The more dots you expose yourself to, the greater the connections you can make, and the more value you can get from a book. 

Don’t leave a book closed because you don’t have time to finish it. Open it, skim it, and get what you can out of it.

Of course, even in Curtis’s and Joss’s cases, you could say that they might be even more successful if they read or retained the whole book. That’s why it’s worth considering the next evolution after you’ve mastered and gotten value out of the 10% Read.

From 10%, to 100%

Without the 10% Read, How to Take Smart Notes would still be on my shelf, and I’d still be without a note-taking system. I wouldn’t have gotten any value out of it. But after my read, I know that there’s much more value that I can get out of it.

 The 10% Read is all about starting at 10%. It’s not about staying there. And it certainly isn’t conflating 10% with 100%. It’s very clear I haven’t grokked some of the important ideas and philosophies yet. As Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, wrote, “Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.”.

Understanding and applying 10% of a book might not be as powerful as understanding and applying 100%. I’ve now learned that How to Take Smart Notes is worth my time; I’m applying it every day, and I know how to improve it. Reading 10% of the book and applying the note-taking system already improved my writing process drastically. I can’t wait to read, and apply, the rest of it.