How to Keep a Digital Commonplace

How to keep a commonplace bookWhenever I am surfing online and I find something interesting I add it to my commonplace book. I add all sorts of things into different sections of my commonplace. It could be a quote or an elegant section of a website I’d like to study later.

I can then easily find this piece of information later when I eventually need to use it.

I use my commonplace to more easily create content, remember things, or learn new things quickly.

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Why should you keep a commonplace book?

Because by keeping a commonplace you will:

  • Learn things faster.
  • Cumulatively gather a ton of useful information that can be stored in one place and then easily retrieved when needed. It’s a highly scalable process.
  • Become much more creative by synthesizing and combining different sorts of information faster.

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Do you read?

If you read online, do you take actionable notes on the things you read?

And do you summarize the books that you read?

Are you also in the habit of keeping a journal?

Good.

The next step you need to take in order to massively boost the learning process and become more creative is to start keeping a commonplace book.

It is the natural evolution of what you have already been doing and it means stepping up  to the big leagues. Keeping a commonplace book is of the most productive habits that a person can have in the long-term.

We should follow, men say, the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in; these bees, as our Vergil says, “pack close the flowing honey, and swell their cells with nectar sweet”…. Certain others maintain that the materials which the bees have culled from the most delicate of blooming and flowering plants is transformed into this peculiar substance by a process of preserving and careful storing away, aided by what might be called fermentation, whereby separate elements are united into one substance.

We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us, in other words, our natural gifts, we should so blend those several flavours into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.

– Seneca the Younger –

What is a Commonplace?

Way back, possibly before the times of Ancient Greece,  some universities and groups of elite scholars would teach their students and disciples different methods of keeping a commonplace book.

A commonplace  book, which is the literal translation of locus communis, is where you store all the most important information and ideas that you come across everyday, particularly when you are reading.

It is the ultimate tool for self-education.

Let me give you a few examples of what you might want to compile in your commonplace book:

  • Drawing and brainstorming.
  • Copy notes or  quotes.
  • Write rhymes and music.
  • Write down all new words you look up in foreign languages,
  • Write your journal.

Store whatever information you want in it.

You can keep a collection of recipes, lists of birds you encounter in the forest, addresses and phone numbers for your friends, et cetera. I’m not saying to do this, I’m just saying the possibilities are endless.

In time you will compile huge amounts of information about various topics, and it becomes very interesting and useful to look through every once in a while.

Many freakishly smart people throughout history have been in the habit of keeping a commonplace book, and it is by no means a coincidence that they did this.

A few people who kept commonplaces include:

  • Leonardo Da Vinci
  • Michele de Montaigne
  • Aristotle
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Mark Twain
  • Marcus Tullius Cicero
  • Seneca the Younger
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • H.D Thoreau
  • John Locke
  • Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam AKA Erasmus
  • Martin Luther King

Why is the Commonplace so Important and What are the Benefits?

A commonplace is particularly  important to (professional) artists and creative people.

Of course, we are all artists to some degree, but I am specifically emphasizing people who need to consistently come up with new creative content.

Benefits of Commonplacing:

  • It is a great tool for becoming more motivated to learn things. It keeps you on the lookout for interesting things.
  • It helps you to assimilate information  more easily by keeping things in order through categorization. This saves you a ton of time in the long-term.
  • It helps you synthesize  the information you have assimilated on a variety of topics. This brings about new, creative, ideas through the unique combination of mixing the information from different areas of knowledge. This was how I got the inspiration to write my book Breaking out of Homeostasis.
  • It improves your creativity and works as a powerful exercise for giving clarity to your thought process.

How to Use the Commonplace

Start by considering what sort of things interest you the most — which topics do you want to learn more about?

Do you want to keep a record of all the cool cars you see every day?

Do you want to compile all the newest scientific information on quantum physics?

When you’ve decided on what you’d like to learn more about, start considering what the purpose of your writing is.

Doing this might take a while if you’re confused — but it’s important that you are clear about why you are doing it and that you understand the huge long-term benefits that this provides.

It may feel like a pain in the ass at first, if you aren’t used to writing, but it quickly becomes pleasurable. You begin associating it with positive emotions and realize how much smarter you’re getting.

Ok.

Now that you have come up with some interesting things to learn more about it is time for you to arrange these things into different categories so that whenever you see something that piques your interest you will be thinking:

      Oh this is interesting, it belongs in category X of my commonplace!

This is nice because it gives your brain an excuse to be on the lookout for stuff all the time by ‘flexing’ the part of your brain called the reticular activating system. This is how you learn things effortlessly.

My Method for Commonplacing

When I began keeping a commonplace book (early 2013) I started seeing a lot of improvement in memory function, creativity and my thought process.

The commonplace was an excuse to constantly be writing — and writing is awesome because it makes you smarter.

digital commonplaceI Keep a Digital Commonplace

I use Windows OneNote.  I really like that program, and it’s free if you are a Window’s user. You could also use Evernote or some other note-taking program.

Unfortunately OneNote is not compatible with my smartphone, which means that I usually transcribe stuff I write on my phone onto the digital commonplace.

It take slightly longer time, but it has its benefits; because it provides an extra repetition of the information.

The main reason why I like to keep a digital commonplace is because it is very easy to search in it whenever I want to retrieve some information I have already stored. I gather humongous piles of information my commonplace and when I die I hope to leave behind as much documentary as Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Chronofile.

Some of the Things I do in my Commonplace

My commonplace is growing massively. It consists of a few thousand pages so far after only one year.

Here are a few of my categories and what I usually do with them:

Books:

  • I keep all my notes from books, both physical and ebooks. I keep both copy-pasted text from the pdfs as well as my own personal notes.
  • Every book I finish I write down a short summary containing what I have learned from the book. I also write down quotes and things I enjoyed, or disliked, about that particular book.

Blog:

  • All my blog-related information.
  • Lists of people and organizations to pitch, contact, or network with.

Print screens or pictures:

  • Elegantly looking stuff that I want to emulate or learn something from.

Writing:

  • Various tips and feedback for improving my writing.
  • A large storage of  categorized quotes I found interesting that can then be quickly used whenever needed.
  • A large number of topics on a variety of subjects. These eventually become posts.

Public Speaking:

  • Ideas for speeches, videos of me talking, and things to improve.

Personal Stuff:

  • My journal. Writing anything and everything.
  • Philosophical inquiries and questions.
  • My goals in various areas of life.
  • A dream journal for lucid dreaming.
  • Important things to remember such as contact information or scheduled appointments.
  • To-do list.

Why You Need to Start Keeping a Commonplace

Keeping a commonplace book is an essential tool for learning, memorizing, and storing information. It’s very scalable and cumulative adds up if you do it every day.

By starting the habit of keeping a commonplace you will also improve your creativity. You will be able to synthesize information quicker — like the bee that gathers nectar from various sources and turns it into honey in the Seneca quote.

Whether you decide to keep a physical or digital commonplace is up to you.

I prefer to keep it digital because of how much time it saves me, but I also enjoy writing with a pencil because I believe its effect on memory is more potent.

In the end:

Keeping a commonplace gets more enjoyable the longer you do it.

If you are the type of person who enjoys comparing things, keeping track of things, and staying organized — you absolutely must learn how to keep a commonplace!


Read more:

All my free material on commonplacing.

*Build the Ultimate Commonplace*

A system for every important area in your life and a must for knowledge workers and professional creatives. Learn to:

  • Build a commonplace from scratch
  • Work from your phone (if your job deals with info & ideas)
  • Store everything you learn & never lose an idea
  • Create an archive that grows in value over time
  • Stop stuffing your head with trivialities
  • Organize your life & work to save +10 hours per week

 

 

Comments

  1. I’m so glad I ran into this post. Thank you, Ludvig. I’m one of those people who stores bits and pieces of inspiration in all kinds of places, from Google Docs to Notion and Notes. I recently started doing this with Roam Research but I rarely go back to the things I write down.

    It makes a lot of sense to go even further and distill the most important pieces and insights into a single book as you’ve described.

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