See my previous post for an overview of the purpose and benefits of this tool. In this post, I’ll answer some questions about setting up and using your own commonplace book.
WHAT GOES IN A COMMONPLACE BOOK?
This is the key decision. And, it’s totally up to you. To begin, consider two basic options.
One is to use your commonplace book to catalog, summarize, and reflect on your reading. This is a classic application and a good way to get started. You can include:
- A list of books that you’ve read
- Your summaries of and comments on those books
- Your favorite quotes from those books
- A list of books that you plan to read in the future
The second option is include anything in your commonplace book that:
- You want to remember
- Is not better stored in another place (such as calendar, to-do list, or file cabinet)
With this option, your commonplace book can include:
- Quotations from any source—speeches, movies, blog posts, magazine and newspaper articles, and conversations
- Plans—long-term goals and “bucket list” items (things that you want to accomplish or experience before you die)
- Personal creations such as original poems, drawings, journal entries, and outlines and rough drafts of articles or presentations
- Artifacts—physical objects such as newspaper clippings and printed photos
- Daily diary entries and travel diaries
- Reference information such as recipes and checklists (items to pack when you travel, places that you want to travel, movies that you want to watch, and people that you want to stay in touch with, and the like)
- Anything else that’s on your mind
WHAT MEDIUM SHOULD I USE FOR MY COMMONPLACE BOOK?
This is tricky. Plan to experiment and eventually discover what works for you.
Your basic options are:
- Analog (paper and pen)
- Digital (software for your computer, tablet, or smartphone)
Of course, the classic medium for a commonplace book is analog—a paper-based notebook of some type. This can be anything from a cheap spiral-bound notebook to a pricey (and blank) hardcover book.
Some people prefer to use a three-ring notebook, which allows you to add, delete, and rearrange pages. Moleskine notebooks have a solid reputation in this space, as do Field Notes. If you have an office supplies fetish (like me), then check out the beautiful products from Levenger.
When it comes to digital tools, the sheer number of possibilities are dizzying. The major categories of options are:
- Journaling apps such as Day One and Moleskine’s iPhone app
- Note-taking apps such as Microsoft OneNote; Notes for the Mac, iPad, and iPhone; andEvernote.
- Blogging platforms such as WordPress, Blogger, Squarespace, and Tumblr
- Writing apps—anything from Microsoft Word or Pages to plain text editors such as TextEdit, TextPad, and iA Writer (a personal favorite).
Personal preferences play a huge role here. There’s a passionate group of people who swear by pen and paper. One of them is Ryan Holiday, who uses index cards. He enjoys the physical act of writing by hand.
Twyla Tharp—dancer and author of The Creative Habit takes it even further. When she starts to choreograph a piece, she grabs a big empty box. Then she fills it with handwritten notes, CDs, books, article clippings, and other physical objects that are relevant to her project.
There’s a middle ground here: using a digital medium but keeping it simple. For example, Leo Babauta from zenhabits makes a case for storing everything in plain text files. And I’ve written about the virtues of using one big-ass text file.
HOW DO I ORGANIZE A COMMONPLACE BOOK?
Again, there are many options. Personal preference rules. Please experiment until you find something that works.
Digital tools have an advantage here. These allow you to tag individual entries and search everything with key words. You don’t have to worry so much about setting up air-tight categories
Your choice of medium plays a role. Suppose that you’re writing on paper and storing sheets in a three-ring notebook. You could insert tabs for major categories, such as titles of book that you’re reading.
In his book Making Things Happen, Scott Belsky offers an idea that can help you organize your commonplace book: Everything in life is a project. Projects include books that you want to write, presentations that you want to create, and any other outcome that requires more than one action to accomplish. See his posts on the Action Method to learn more.
David Allen, author of Getting Things Done (GTD) defines projects in a similar way. The GTD method as a whole offers a useful set of categories for a commonplace book. (Learn more from these free GTD resources.)
One more option: Let the categories for your commonplace book emerge organically. As Ryan Holiday suggests: “Focus on finding good stuff and the themes will reveal themselves.”
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE?
Commonplace book, the Wikipedia entry
How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book” by Ryan Holiday
Project: Start a Commonplace Book by Jamie May
The Commonplace Book: Part 1 from DIY Planner
The Commonplace Book: Part 2 from DIY Planner
Commonplace Books from the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program