What to Include in Your Commonplace Book

A commonplace book is a system for collecting key information in a way that’s centralized, personally curated, and continuously maintained.

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With a commonplace book—especially one that’s digitally stored and searchable—you never need to worry about losing an idea or forgetting a key piece of information.

Following is a checklist for what to include in your commonplace book. It’s just a set of possibilities, so feel free to adapt it.

Inbox

This is analogous to a physical inbox that you’d use to collect incoming paper-based documents for later processing. Use this section of your commonplace book to collect ideas that occur to you while you’re on the run or engaged in other tasks.

Set aside a regular time each week to review your inbox. Delete information that you don’t want to keep. Move the rest to an appropriate section of your commonplace book.

Reading journal

This is a classic function of a commonplace book and a good way to get started. Your reading journal can include lists of books that you’ve read, summaries of and reflections on those books, and lists of books that you plan to read in the future.

Quotations

Enter juicy words from any source—books, articles, blog posts, presentations, movies, greeting cards, and personal conversations. If you collect many quotations, then consider organizing them by topic. Also include a source for each quotation.

Project notes

I define this word as David Allen does in his Getting Things Done (GTD) method. A project is any desired outcome that requires more than one action on your part. Projects include outcomes that you’re committed to produce in any area of life—both at work and outside of work.

Having a complete list of all your current projects is a powerful way to reduce stress and get organized.

Next action lists

Here’s another concept from GTD. A next action is a physical, visible behavior that brings you one step closer to completing a project. Next action lists break huge projects down into small tasks that you can do immediately.

Unlike traditional to-do lists, a next action list is brief: It includes just one next action for each of your current projects.

For more details, see How to Create Lists that Motivate You to Take Action.

More lists!

Examples include a “waiting for list” (tasks that you’ve delegated to other people) and “someday maybe” list (a “bucket list” of things you might like to do in the future).

For more options, see 10 Useful Lists to Keep In Your Commonplace Book and JourneyNotes—More Lists to Enrich Your Commonplace Book.

Rolodex

This section of your commonplace book can include contact information for family members, friends, clients, colleagues, contractors, and vendors.

Outlines and notes for anything you’re creating

Store the seeds of books, articles, blog posts, reports, proposals, and presentations.

Other notes

Capture the key points from classes, meetings, workshops, presentations, podcasts, and videos.

Journal entries

Include the things you’d write in a daily diary or travel journal.

Links

Include online addresses for web sites, podcasts, videos, and pages that you’d like to read later or return to in the future.

Apps such as OneNote and nvALT also allow you to create links between individual notes. In effect, you can create your personal version of the World Wide Web.

Cross references

Include notes about where to find related information stored in other file formats, such as PDFs, Microsoft Office files, audio files, and video files.

Cuts

Check to see if you have material that you’ve already created and never used. Examples are notes, outlines, and any text or images that were deleted from final drafts of your past projects.

This deleted material is a potential gold mine. Look for information that you can use in the future. The seeds for your our next book, article, blog post, presentation, product, or service could be buried there.

Video and audio

With apps such as Evernote and OneNote, you can record interviews, meetings, and voice notes.

Artifacts

If you use a paper-based commonplace book—anything from a leather-bound journal to a Trapper-Keeper—you can add artifacts as well. Examples are greeting cards, clippings from periodicals, printed photos, pressed flowers, and anything else you can squeeze in there.

And more

For additional ideas, see:

Though these posts are written for Evernote users, the suggestions can apply to any app.

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