Three Simple Ways to Set Up Your Commonplace Book

A commonplace book is a collection of facts, anecdotes, quotations, spontaneous insights, and any other information that has potential use for you. I’ve posted about the many benefits of a commonplace book. So now I’ll switch from why to keep one to how to do it.



Your commonplace book might include thousands of notes. But it doesn’t have to be complicated to set up or hard to navigate. My guiding principle is to use the simplest possible structure that yields the best information. You can achieve that goal in any of the following ways.

  1. One Big Ass Document

This is how Steven Berlin Johnson set up his commonplace book, which he refers to as a “spark file” (boldface is mine):

…for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy—just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them.

Steven is describing how he collects information for his work. But you can use the same strategy to collect any kind of information. Just open up a document in your favorite text editor and write all your notes in it.

For more details, see this post on creating a Big Ass Text File.

  1. Two Big Ass Documents

If your Big Ass document gets too bulky, then consider splitting it in two.

Create one document that functions strictly as an inbox for capturing ideas on the run. This document needs no organization other than chronology (most recent note first).

Then create a second document with notes sorted into whatever categories are useful to you. I call this a reference document. It’s the digital equivalent of a filing cabinet filled with folders that hold sheets of paper. Each category functions as a “folder,” and the notes within those categories are the same information that you’d write on sheets of paper.

A two-document system makes for a simple workflow:

  • Once a week, review your inbox document.
  • Delete any notes that seem irrelevant.
  • Move the remaining notes into an appropriate category in your reference document.
  1. Three Big Ass Documents

Here’s another variation on Steven’s approach. Instead of restricting yourself to one or two big documents, create three:

  • An inbox
  • A reference document
  • A project document

I define project as David Allen does in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity—an outcome that you can achieve only by completing more than one task. Assign each project a name, such as finish first draft of novel or launch new website by December 1. Then use those project names as categories for your notes.

There are three advantages to creating a separate document for project information:

  • The project document is about things you’re actively working on. You’ll refer to it often, and it’s nice to have the crucial information all in one place.
  • Within your project document, you can flag next actions as defined by David Allen—physical, visible behaviors that lead to completing a project. These are the most important notes in your project document. Highlight next actions so they’re easy to spot, or place them at the top of your project document.
  • Keeping your project document free of reference information—which is more static and less crucial for your daily activities—makes the document smaller, easier to manage, and easier to search.

Again, your workflow consists of three main steps:

  • Once a week, review your inbox document.
  • Delete any notes that seem irrelevant.
  • Sort the remaining notes into an appropriate category in your reference document or project document.

More options

So far I’ve listed the three core kinds of “personal information collections” described in theories of personal information management—inbox, reference, and project. But of course you’re free to add any other collections that work for you.

You could also define your commonplace book in a wider sense as any medium for preserving ideas and planning projects. From this perspective, your commonplace book includes:

  • Your calendar
  • Your website and blog
  • Working drafts of articles, books, or presentations (including “zero drafts”)
  • Published articles and books and past presentations
  • Articles that you’ve clipped on paper or online to read later

Focus on function, not tools

For purposes of explanation, I’ve described inbox, project, and reference collections as documents. In reality, however, they are functions:

  • The function of your inbox is to capture incoming information that matters to you
  • The function of your project collection is to store “hot”  information—notes that you’ll refer to often as you complete your active projects.
  • The function of your reference collection is to store “cool” information—notes that you’ll refer to only when you want to look up something that’s not in your working memory.

To accomplish these three functions, you could use a variety of tools.

Index cards are simple. Write one task, quote, fact, anecdote, or other piece of information on each card. Then file cards by category (inbox, reference, or project). Don’t underestimate the power of this technology. Ryan Holiday uses it to write books. And Robert Pirsig organized 11,000 cards with these categories.

Sheets of paper sorted into folders can also work. Label one folder projects and the other one reference. Each folder can house handwritten notes, letters, and printouts of documents stored on your computer.

Paper notebooks are the medium of choice for many people. The Bullet Journal is popular. The Dash/Plus system is simpler and also cool. And of course there’s the humble spiral notebook with section dividers that you used to take notes in school.

Notes apps such as OneNote and Evernote are major players. See this list of examples and factors to consider when choosing among them.

One huge advantage of a notes app is that you can search your notes with key words—just as you use Google or another search engine to find things on the Internet.

OneNote, nvALT, and other apps also allow you to create hyperlinks between notes. The result is a mini-Web filled with the contents of your own mind.

In addition, you can copy and paste content from the Web into a notes app. Just be sure to include a source for everything that you copy.

Also remember that you can combine paper-based and digital tools. For an example, see Ben Casnocha’s system.

Again, simple is best. Opt for fewer tools and fewer steps in your workflow. Keep your idea machine lean, clean, and easy to run.


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