Bonus Lesson 2: How To Become A Master Reader
With Categorization Systems

Hey there, it’s Nik again, with another bonus lesson about reading for you!

After Nat’s lesson, you now know how to get what you read to stick in your brain, and that’s important. Retention is only one side of the coin though, but if you combine it with categorization, that’s a real supercharger for your reading.

Systemize both of these, and you’ll be constantly learning new things, remembering them, and drawing your own conclusions on top of those – like a true learning machine.

That’s why today, I’m really glad Tony Stubblebine has agreed to talk about categorization. He’s the founder and CEO of, a tech company that’s pushing the boundaries of human potential by offering digital coaching.

They’ve helped change both personal and workplace habits of over 1 million people for the better and continue to do so, partly through their Better Humans publication on Medium, which reaches over 80,000 people.

Currently, he’s doing a daily writing experiment, which you can follow here.

Full disclosure: I was among the first 200 coaches on the platform and am a big supporter 🙂

In this lesson, Tony will show you a few categorization systems that actually make you smarter, including how to come up with your own.

The stage is yours, Tony!


Most People are Mediocre Readers

Obviously, I don’t mean you are mediocre. I don’t know anything about you. But…

I do know what it means to practice well, and I know that’s not how I’ve approached reading.

A core concept in training is called deliberate practice. This refers to how intelligently you practice, not just how long you practice.

Failure to practice intelligently leads to what’s called an “experienced non-expert.”

That’s the worst put down that you can hear in human performance. Not only have you arrived at atrocious mediocrity, but you’ve also wasted a lot of time getting there.

Maybe I’m an outlier, but here’s how I practiced reading. For almost 30 years, I’ve read in the same way. I scan the words with my eyes, and then I let my brain do whatever it wants with those words.

My reading practice is a literal example for “experienced non-expert.”

That method earned me a very high percentile score on standardized tests. But that’s just a reflection of how mediocre the standard is. The damning part of the method is that I’m no better now than I was when I took the SAT 20 years ago.

Rather than the comparing myself to the cultural standard, I want to compare myself to the outer bounds of human potential. And more importantly, I want to share how to get there.

The missing piece, and the whole focus of a great reader, is how you classify and process information so that you can use it again later.

The Power of Classification Systems

The words trivia and trivial shared the same root well before cell phones. But now trivia is even more trivial — just look it up on your phone. Memorizing facts in a book is not going to make you a master reader.

However, getting faster and better at classifying key concepts will.

Most situations you find yourself in have patterns for what sort of information is important and how that information is presented.

These systems are mental models that give you the power to do more with the information you already have. This is what we mean by intelligence. Given the same information, what connections can you make? Given the same time spent reading, how much smarter are you?

Let me demonstrate by laying out a few systems.

Classification System #1: Question/Evidence/Conclusion

This system comes from Cal Newport, who has done excellent writing on how to hack academics so that you can get straight A’s with the minimum of effort.

The method was originally for taking notes on a lecture, but you could port this directly over to taking notes while reading.

Adopt the Question/Evidence/Conclusion format. The concept is simple: instead of transcribing exactly what the professor says, capture the big ideas. To do so, reduce your notes to a series of questions paired with conclusions. Between each question and conclusion should be a collection of evidence that connects the two.

In this scheme, the question is the setup for the big idea being presented by the professor, the conclusion is his conclusion to the question (it’s probably not a definitive answer), and the evidence are the arguments he used to get from the question to the conclusion. — Cal Newport of Study Hacks

Notice that this is a classification system. Everything a professor says could be classified as posing a question, an answer to that question, proof for that answer, or worthless and not worth remembering.

I wish that I had taken notes in school like this.

For example, I’ve been in several history classes that posed the question, “Why did World War I start?” Unfortunately, all I remember is a fact: Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. But I still can’t tell you why that led to the war and I definitely can’t use that to draw a comparison to modern times.

Cal’s QEC system is very school specific. But at a minimum, you should take away the underlying lesson that reading systems are based on classification. If you know that, then you can build your own system.

Classification System #2: The Morse Code Method

This system also comes from Cal Newport. In case you’re wondering, he did nail his academics, get straight A’s and is now a tenured professor.

The Morse Code Method boils down to looking for exactly two things when you read: ideas and support for those ideas.

If you were highlighting important passages in a book, you would mark the ideas with a dot and the supporting info with a dash. That’s why it’s called The Morse Code method.

For example, above I proposed the idea that, “Most situations you find yourself in have patterns for what sort of information is important and how that information is presented.” You’d mark that with a dot.

Cal’s Q/E/C was an example to support the idea. You’d mark that with a dash.

The lazy version of this method works almost as well and is more appropriate for Kindle reading. Just make a mental note as you read. That’s a dot. That’s a dash.

Rather than speed up your reading, you should slow down until you’re able to spot ideas. This will do so much more for the power of your reading.

How to Build Your Own Classification System

Cal’s systems are targeted to students. Once you’re out of school, there starts to be a lot more categories of reading. Some common ones are:

  • Email: personal and work.

  • News: from TMZ to the New York Times.

  • Career development: from news in your field to skill development.

The point of having a system is so that you can turn reading comprehension into a filing exercise.

As you practice your systems, you’ll automatically categorize each reading according to your system.

And getting faster at classification is actually the form of speed reading you should be shooting for.

Here’s how to write your own system. I’ll use my work email as an example.

  1. Pick a common type of reading that you do. I chose email because I read it every day and I assume you do as well.

  2. Identify a goal for your system. For email, I’m very action oriented. I want to process each email as quickly as possible. If an email is worth thinking over, perhaps because it’s part of a bigger project, I’ll already have scheduled separate time for that project.

  3. Classify the types of information in this type of reading. Primarily, I get meeting requests, project status updates of various types, emails from potential partners, and emails from users.

  4. Decide what to do with each type of information. In email, I’m either going to respond or not respond. If I’m going to respond, I need to decide how. If I’m not going to respond, my choices are to archive it, forward it to a person who’s better equipped to respond, or send a form rejection email (which I consider to be a non-response).

Here’s what my classification system is while I read email. Green boxes are where I end up taking an action and red are where I end up not taking a significant action. (I wrote this decision tree before my company changed names from Lift to Coach, hence it still says Lift in a few spots).

This is a pretty complicated example. It’s possible, and desirable, that your identification and classification system is simpler.

For example, in the Morse Code Method, you’re looking for only one type of information initially: ideas. Once you find an idea, that triggers you to look for supporting arguments. It’s a classification tree with just two items.

On the other hand, the classification system I use for email makes a lot of sense to me. So, don’t worry if you have a lot of steps in yours. I guarantee you’ll learn it quickly.

Building your own Classification System

To summarize, you can now either start using the Q/E/C or Morse Code system to classify your reading, or build your own with these four steps:

  1. Pick a common type of reading you do.

  2. Define a goal your system should help you accomplish.

  3. Classify the different types of information in this type of reading.

  4. Decide how to process each type when you come across it.


That’s it! Now you can not only remember what you read for much longer, but also classify all of the information in your reading, and thus walk away with many more learnings!

Come up with a system and give it a try the next time you open a book – I’d love to know what you come up with, so don’t be afraid to hit reply and share your ideas with me.

Rooting for your reading,

PS: Share this 7 lesson email course with a friend now and I’ll send you a hand-curated collection of 22 free books, both fiction and non-fiction, some of which you can’t get anywhere else for free!