A Busy Entrepreneur's 3-Step Guide to Reading Business Books

You don't have all the time in the world, so get organized before, during and after you turn those pages.

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By Andrew Cohen • Apr 4, 2015 Originally published Apr 4, 2015

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

If you regularly read entrepreneurial blogs and Twitter feeds, I'd be willing to bet that barely a day goes by that you don't see some list of "The 50 must-read books for entrepreneurs." This is on top of all the Amazon, StumbleUpon and Goodreads recommendations along with other suggestions that you receive on a daily basis.

Such a stream of reading material can get pretty overwhelming for us time-starved founders! With the hundreds of book recommendations that regularly cross our desks, how should we prioritize what books we should read?

Related: 5 Powerful Books That Changed the Direction of My Life

I've developed my own system to help solve this problem. Effective entrepreneurial book reading, in my opinion, is a combination of three factors: on-demand book sourcing, diligent list-keeping and actionable reading.

1. Source your books on an as-needed basis.

Simply hearing that a book is "great for entrepreneurs" does not necessarily mean that it would be great for you -- at least not right now. After all, every industry, product, founder, company and stage is different, so why should you accept a blanket book recommendation from some generic blogger? You will get much more benefit by seeking business books based on specific challenges that you are facing in the short or medium term.

For example, if you have an early-stage startup in the early product development phase, you may need to read books about agile product design iteration. If you are starting to hire employees for the first time, or are having issues with team dynamics, then you should probably read management books. Or maybe you need to raise money from investors, improve your sales process, establish a digital marketing strategy or make your team more metrics driven.

Improving your ability to identify your own weaknesses will allow you to seek more targeted and actionable reading material for your particular needs.

You should also keep in mind that you may not even need to read a full book in the first place. Depending on your existing skills, the area of skills needed and the amount of time you have, you might be able to gain sufficient knowledge from the interwebs, from the Amazon reviews and/or from a business book summary service such as Get Abstract.

Whatever entrepreneurial literature you read, just make sure you are reading it on an on-demand, as-needed basis, not simply because the cool kids seem to be reading it. Your management time and mental bandwidth are the scarcest resource at your company.

Related: How Reading Books Reduces Stress and Makes You Smarter at the Same Time

2. Keep good lists of books to read

All entrepreneurs hear frequent book recommendations from their friends and from the bloggers that they read. The trick is learning what to do when the recommendations pile up faster than you can read the books.

In the cases where you don't have time to read a book immediately (and/or where you aren't quite "ready" for the type of advice that the book entails), it is extremely helpful to keep a backlogged "Books to Read" list somewhere. In fact, the ability to manage many such lists is one of the most important and underrated entrepreneurial skills.

I've seen founders keep books-to-read lists in Evernote, Dropbox, Any.do and in the native iPhone "Notes" app (which is where I keep mine). Wherever you keep your list, it's particularly helpful to record the name of the person who recommended it to you (if it was indeed a person), so you can remember whom to thank once you do get around to reading it. This tactic has given me great excuses to catch up with old friends when I finally read their recommended business books or novels many years after the fact.

3. Read books effectively and actionably.

Once you've decided that you're going to dive into a particular book, you should use your reading time as efficiently and productively as possible. Having good speed-reading skills always helps, but you should also ensure that you are internalizing and acting upon all your key takeaways. Your method of note taking likely depends on the format of book that you are reading and/or your style of organization.

If you're like me, you scribble notes in the margins (or add notes in iBooks), and then when you finish the book, you flip through the pages and transfer your notes into a digital format or to-do list that you can address later. Other people like to immediately add key takeaways to their to-do lists and/or fire off quick emails to team members each time they encounter an epiphany while reading.

The important thing is that you lock in any new lessons before the book ends up back on your shelf and out of your mind. Discussing your action items with your team -- and even re-reading the Amazon reviews after you've finished the book -- can help solidify your new knowledge by putting it into perspective.

Taken together, these active reading practices can ensure that your valuable reading hours yield the maximum benefit for your business and for your own professional development.

Related: 50 Books That Transformed My Business and My Life

Andrew Cohen

Founder & CEO, Brainscape; Instructor, TechStars and General Assembly

Andrew Cohen is the founder of Brainscape, a web and mobile education platform that helps people study more efficiently. Brainscape originally grew out of a personal project that Cohen created to help him improve his Spanish, while working in Panama for the World Bank. It later inspired him to seek a master's degree in instructional technology from Columbia University and transform his pet project into a fundable startup that can help people study any subject. Brainscape has since raised several million dollars from top venture capitalists.

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