Link Feast: Commonplace Books and PIM

My posts about keeping a commonplace book for personal information management (PIM) have led me to other people who are publishing valuable information on these topics.


Tiago Forte is currently my “go-to” source on note-taking as a tool for thinking and workflows for productivity. Tiago is steeped in the relevant research and distills it into useful instructions. His posts offer the most sophisticated treatment of these topics that I’ve seen. Check out his blog, starting with:

Ryan Holiday advocates commonplacing and has published several pieces about his process:

Christian Tietze and Sascha Fast blog about The Zettelkasten Method. Zettelkasten is German for “slip box,” a commonplace book consisting of notes on index cards. In addition, Christian and Sascha published a new book in German on this topic. I’m waiting for an English translation.

Evernote, the note-taking app, has inspired many posts about commonplacing. See the Evernote blog, especially posts by Taylor Pipes. Also sample Michael Hyatt’s posts about Evernote. Note that most of the core principles in these posts apply to any note-taking system, including paper-based tools and other note-taking apps such as OneNote (my favorite).

Taking note—A blog on the nature of note-taking is also worthwhile. There’s lots here about the history of commonplacing, along with some deliciously nerdy cognitive psychology. Enjoy.


James Altucher on Becoming an Idea Machine

altucher-sitting-sidebar1James Altucher is an investor, entrepreneur, and author of many books,  including Choose Yourself and The Choose Yourself Guide to Wealth. What fascinates me about James is his personal narrative, which fuels a thriving online presence. It centers on his relationship to ideas—specifically, the power of becoming an idea machine.

“Ideas are the real currency of the universe,” James writes. “Money is the shadow of that.”

It’s easy to let our self-concept ride on shallow metrics—money, possessions, fame, good looks, and “likes” on social media. For James, the only metric that matters is ideas:

…I know if I have good ideas for myself and for others then I can face any situation. I can handle any rejection. I can handle any negative change in my circumstances. Everything in life has cycles with low points and high points. The idea muscle can get stronger during low points and can make wishes come true in the high points.

Ideas are so important to James that he’s built a daily practice around them. Writing by hand on waiter’s pads, he brainstorms at least 10 ideas a day. He says that building your “idea muscle” in this way is just as important as building fitness through physical exercise:

Write down ten ideas. About anything. It doesn’t matter if they are business ideas, book ideas, ideas for surprising your spouse in bed, ideas for what you should do if you are arrested for shoplifting, ideas for how to make a better tennis racquet, anything you want. The key is that it has to be ten or more. You don’t ever have to look at these ideas again. The purpose is not to come up with a good idea. The purpose is to have thousands of ideas over time.

Your daily collection of 10 or more ideas is one of many useful lists to keep in your commonplace book. Following are suggestions from James about getting value from this exercise.

Create ideas for solving other people’s problems

James is blunt on this point: “Nobody cares about your problems.” They’re concerned about their problems: How to get a job. How to get more clients or customers. How to earn more money, lose weight, or get a date.

Figuring out ways for other people to get what they want is a powerful way to flex your idea muscle. The goal is to “have a vision that helps other people make their own visions manifest.”

Create ideas to supply what’s missing from the world

What’s something that you’d like to have and doesn’t exist yet? This question has led to many world-changing inventions, from the light bulb to the personal computer and iPhone. There’s a chance that what’s useful to you will be useful to other people as well.

Pitch ideas without being a pain in the ass.

Don’t invite people to get coffee so that you can share your ideas. People are busy. They already have coffee.

Instead, just send them ideas. If those ideas light a fire for the recipients, they’ll follow up in time.

Don’t ask for money up front

The best way to pitch ideas is not to ask people to pay you to implement them. That’s “amateur hour” and an instant turn-off, says James.

Instead, give ideas a way for free. This is how you get noticed and get your foot in the door. And that can lead to a well-paying gig later.

Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas

It hardly ever happens. And if it does, it’s a sign that your idea truly helped someone.

“The more you help,” says James, “the more you are connected to something much bigger than you are.” This connection is how you find meaning in life and create value in the world.

Pitch “do-able” ideas

“I’m not going to send Elon Musk suggesting he make an elevator to Mars instead of a spaceship,” James writes.

At the same time, ignore people who say that ideas are a dime a dozen or execution is everything. Instead, write down ideas for how to execute your ideas.

For example, create a two-column chart. In the left column, write down 10 ideas for businesses to start. In the right column, write down the very next action you would take to start each business.

Aim for risk, humor, and honesty

Remember that great ideas are often labeled “crazy” in the beginning. Pursue them anyway.

As you share ideas, reveal things about yourself that make other people laugh and relate to you as an imperfect human being.

If you’re looking for an example, you won’t find a better one than James Altucher.

Also see:

James Altucher on Writing, Publishing and Becoming an Idea Machine

James Altucher on Making Money by Writing Books

The Ultimate Guide for Becoming an Idea Machine

How to be THE LUCKIEST GUY ON THE PLANET in 4 Easy Steps

10 Ideas to Make Money With Your 10 Ideas a Day

FAQ on How to Become an Idea Machine

Three Trends for the Next 50 Years


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.