Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

I’ve probably bought 200 volumes in the genre, all promising to offer up the keys to eternal happiness, flawless skin, heaps of money or somesuch. On my desk this moment, I’ve got “The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right,” “The Generosity Network: New Transformational Tools for Successful Fund-raising” and “52 Ways to Live a Kick-Ass Life: BS-Free Wisdom to Ignite Your Inner Badass and Live the Life You Deserve.”

What can I say? I have eclectic taste.

While these books vary wildly in writing quality, usefulness and author authority, I read them each the same way–purposefully and with a sense of humor. With pen in hand, I scour the texts for practical pointers, moving quotes and powerful ideas that I can apply to get more of what I want out of life.Then I memorize, share and act on the good stuff– insights that can fuel my happiness, meaning, power.

I used to list productivity as the third of my big three personal pursuits, but power suits me better these days. I don’t want to be productive in the sense of cranking out more and more widgets each day. I want to be powerful in the sense of reaching whatever specific goals I set for myself. Reading how-to books helps me do it, and can help you too. In this spirit, I offer Three Ways To Boost Your How-To Know-How: BS-Free Wisdom to Ignite Your Inner Reader and Live the Life You Desire. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Step One: Manage Your Expectations

Online reader reviews of how-to books are some of the funniest you’ll find, full of over-the-top demands. My favorites are those that complain that everything in a book wasn’t applicable to the individual reader or that some of the book’s recommendations don’t work. That’s just the nature of the genre! Unless you’re the author, no book meant for a mass audience can address all of the particulars of your situation.

I manage my expectations of how-to books by carefully considering the book’s title, jacket description, introduction and author credentials before and after buying. I don’t expect life coaches and self-appointed consultants to support their arguments with the rigors of scholars and statisticians. Similarly, I don’t expect revolutionary strategies from a book that only promises tips. Reading between the lines, if you will, saves me a lot of frustration.

Taking the title to heart could have saved readers who took issue with the profanity used in “52 Ways” some handwringing. Any author who works “ass” into the title–TWICE–is very likely to spew colorful language from cover to cover. That’s just part of her shtick. Buyer beware.

Here’s a secret: The advice doesn’t even have to work for me to enjoy a how-to book. A low bar perhaps, but let’s not forget the pitfalls of user interpretation and error. How often do you actually do everything prescribed by a book, in the order and timing it recommends. Simply put, all a how-to book has to do to meet my expectations is to stay true to its stated intent, deepen my perspective on some aspect of my life (however small) and prompt me to take action.

Step Two: Engage with the Author

Now that you’ve got reasonable expectations of what a book can–and can’t–do for you, work with the author (as it were) to uncover what is relevant for you and your life and goals. Underscore, highlight and circle your way to practical application. Treat reading like an active engagement. Rather than waiting for wisdom to rain down on you, wade into the text and mine for what you need.

I scribble all over my how-to books. Paperbacks are bent out of shape, ink-laden and drenched in yellow highlighter by the time I’m finished with them. The more notes, the better. I put giant quotation marks around really succinct, compelling formulations of the books’ key ideas. I draw little light bulb icons followed by ideas I want to explore further when a book passage sparks tangential thoughts. I’m not even above scribbling makeshift emoji in the margins to signal how I feel about a passage, if it moves me to laugh out loud, sigh with disgust or other have another strong reaction.

Why just read a book when you could experience it?

Step Three: Take Action

Remember, nothing in life works unless you do. Put the “to” in “how-to” by actually doing some of what your books recommend.

The gimmes here are the questions that books ask of you. How-to books are full of questions to ponder. Do you want to remain stuck? What is something you want to do that is out of your comfort zone? What is the real reason you haven’t done it, if it’s really something you want?

Treat question marks like stop signs and actually look both ways (i.e., answer the question!) before proceeding. Pro tip: Keep a running list of questions in a document or notebook and then take the time to write out answers. Sure, it will take longer to “complete” the book, but anything less is just skimming, right?

Now if you’re really serious, do what I do and capture the how-to wisdom you’ve gleaned from books into lists, checklists and processes that you can refer back to in everyday life. Rather than just reading a book on boosting your memory through diet and vaguely hoping it will change your life, why not actually add the memory-boosting foods to your grocery list template and live the advice? Instead of skimming the chapter on setting the table for a productive next day at work, why not put a recurring appointment in your calendar along with a reminder of why the habit is so important?

We often think our lives and work are too complex to reduce to memory aids like these, but the truth is, they are too complex not too. We’ve reached a place where the volume of information we’re expected to consume and use is beyond our capacity to manage correctly or reliably without help. Checklists and other documentation (when we really use them) help correct for the inevitable failures of our human memory, attention and diligence.

How do I know? “The Checklist Manifesto” taught me.