The 6 Fundamentals of a Robust Commonplace

commonplace

Building a commonplace is one of the most useful things I’ve done in the past 5 years.

It took a while until I had a structure that was easy to use in all areas of my life, but ever since, it’s been very convenient. Because I can use it for all my work projects, studies, writing, and podcasts.

In this article I will show you how I do that.

And, how you can do the same.

I first got the inspiration to build a commonplace out of some book I was reading. This was years ago. I think it might have been “The Shallows”. There was a quote by Seneca that gave me the idea. You can find everything I’ve written about commonplacing on this page.

Do you want to build a powerful commonplace system that you can use for the main areas of your life, but you’re not sure how to get started?

Here’s how you lay the foundation.

We will begin with the most important things for setting up a commonplace system that scales in value and usefulness over the long-term.

Here’s what we’ll be covering:

  1. Choose a Medium: Physical or Digital
  2. Divide Your Life in Areas
  3. Create Instant Associations with Overview Documents
  4. Create a “Review File” for Your Profession
  5. Make Ideation Effortless and Scale-Up Your Research
  6. Improve Your Learning Process (Archive & Find)

(1) Choose a Medium: Physical or Digital

I recommend you go digital.

For now: Evernote and OneNote are the two most popular programs.

If you have a smartphone, I recommend you use their corresponding apps.

I use Evernote. It has a great tagging system, which is extremely useful for compiling ideas and research on a topic over the long-term. Therefore: I recommend Evernote.

OneNote is simpler and probably better if you’re not a professional creative (writer, designer, researcher, investor), as it’s easier to use and has a built-in structure that makes it easy to overview.

You can see these two examples.

(1) OneNote: Easier for Automatic Overview

Notice how you have a nested structure: Left, middle, right.

commonplace

(2) Evernote: Better for Collecting Things

I started with OneNote (first 2 years), then I migrated to Evernote.

Here is an overview of my working doc for finishing TUCS:

commonplace

In TUCS, I use examples from my Evernote Commonplace system.

However, you can use similar methods and work-arounds in other software.

The underlying idea (the thought behind a system) matters more than the medium you use to implement it.

Moving on….


(2) Divide Your Life into Areas

This is how you start your commonplace system: You select the top areas of your life that you spend the most time on. Then you create a structure to make it easier to add info and continue working on it more easily.

For most people, it will be something like this:

  • Work
  • Finances
  • Family

Or:

  • Studies
  • Health
  • Website

That’s step 1.

Step 2 is subdividing those areas into smaller areas that make up the whole. This is a great mental habit, as it teaches compartmentalization; the building block for scale.

“Solve et Coagula,” the alchemists called it.

For example:

  • Work
    • Projects
    • To learn
    • Get a raise
  • Finances
    • Income
    • Expenses
    • Investments
  • Family
    • Education
    • Personal records + insurance
    • Extracurricular (sports, clubs, scholarships)
  • Studies
    • Books
    • Podcasts
    • To read/learn
  • Health
    • Exercise schedules
    • Diet (foods to keep)
    • Experiments to do
  • Website
    • Content
    • Contact (Reach out to)
    • Copy/study/case study

By working with these subdivisions, you will teach your mind—trigger a Great Synthesis—to come up with an even better way to think about these things.

Action Points:

As you read this, you should’ve gotten some ideas for how you can divide your life into a few main areas.

These will be the most important areas of your life where you can pile up thoughts and ideas to make it scale over time.

Now:

Take a 5-min break and sketch out your top 3 most important areas.

Then see how these—like trees—branch out to smaller areas.

* * *

After you’ve done that—we’ll take it to the next level…


(3) How to Create Instant Associations Using Overview Documents

The Overview Document Template is the equivalent of having a dedicated work desk for some specific activity; with paper piles organized neatly where you want them so that you can get right to work without having to waste time or mental energy wondering where you put something last time.

This is a wonderful system for planning, preparing, or managing a project.

It also comes in handy when your work is made up of many different steps or processes that are hard to learn by heart or keep entirely in your head.

I don’t know about you, but this covers most of the work I do in my commonplace.

So:

You Should Use the Overview Document Template

 For Every Significant and Meaningful Area of

Your Life That Warrants Documentation

Consider it your first-stop, “catch-all” for any major area. Like the homepage of your browser or the table of contents inside of a book.

The purpose is to save time and reduce distraction (just like you’d want to bookmark a webpage you keep coming back to rather than searching for it every time).

How Do You Make an Overview Document?

When you put time into a project or an activity, your brain has a tendency to filter out the stuff that doesn’t get used or does not produce results, so, if you’re already experienced with something (like your work), then you probably already know which things matter and would make sense to put in an Overview Document.

If it’s a new project where you’re not sure, ask yourself:

  • How can I subdivide this into smaller processes?
  • What are the few things that matter?
  • Which things do I usually start out with when I’m working at ____?

Let’s go over another way you can use Overview Documents.

Simplifying the Complex

Knowledge Work is by nature complex.

Your Job is to make it simpler.

How?

By breaking the work down in smaller pieces, allowing you to deal with it step-by-step, one thing at a time, instead of trying to keep many things in your head.

Say you’re a non-working student or a manual laborer, then…. This is practically useless advice.

But, say you’re a Data Analyst, Investor, Project Manager, Market Researcher, or Purchasing Agent, then this will be very useful if you’re not already doing it. It could easily save you 10 hours per week; probably more if used creatively.

Get started like this:

  • Think of recurring (complex) work tasks you do.
  • Outline the different steps you typically do.
  • Invent a process you can use each time.
  • If it’s a long process with many parts create an overview doc for it.

Unless it’s reeeally long list of tasks you have to do, by following these 4 steps and using the overview doc few times, you might find yourself doing the task semi-intuitively. If so, you no longer need the document.

Key Takeaway:

Don’t try to keep it all in your head when you’re dealing with many tasks, complex knowledge work, and large projects. It rarely works, and even when it does work it’s still an unproductive approach.

Better to save that brain power for being creative or making important decisions that require serious reflection. I have made this mistake many times enough to not want to let it happen again.

Action Points:

Ask yourself: “Which one area would it make sense for me to create an Overview Document for right now?”

You don’t need to make one for everything in your life. Just the stuff that’s complex and requires a work process—that you keep coming back to.

Two common examples are similar-type projects and frameworks for making important decisions for your career, business, or finances. Like changing jobs or buying a house.


(4) Create a “Review File” for Your Profession

We should all be studying the best people in our industry—and outside it.

If you’re smart and motivated, you can draw on inspiration from multiple areas outside your own.

The generalized version would look like this:

  • The best work (or failures) of your peers.
  • Images, artwork or other aspects of their work.
  • Statistics of your industry.

This is something ANYONE can do but almost NO ONE does.

I don’t know why.

It’s such an easy thing to do—plus it’s fun. Because:

It Turns Your Inner Collector from Foe to Friend

and Lets You Harness Your Otherwise Primitive

Hoarding Instinct into a Potent Force of Productivity

The question is: What information should you collect?

My suggestion is to collect information that:

  1. Will help you excel faster at your craft.
  2. You can draw inspiration from in your work.
  3. Can scale over time.

It takes a little time to figure out exactly what information you want to collect. But it really makes a difference over time. And it’s fun!

Once you think about it a bit and get it on lock, you can then rely on intuition.

This is what I do and I go around having interesting ideas almost all the time.

For example, if it happened to be the case that I wanted to become a Movie-Making Mastermind, maybe I would think that this is an original frame:

commonplace

Action Points:

  • First know what to look for. What are the few main elements of success in your profession? The fundamentals that you need to study how the masters do it.
  • Look into it more closely—find successful case studies and just keep going over them until you feel like you’ve learned everything there is to learn from them.
  • Collect stuff that inspires you; stuff that makes you go “WOW!” that’s cool, I wish I made that. I wish I had that idea. Or the opposite: “Worst shit I ever saw!”, “What the fuck is he doing!?”

(5) How to Make Ideation Effortless and Scale-Up Your Research Efforts

commonplace

How to Turn Long-Term Projects

Into Manageable Pieces and

Cut out the Crappy, Boring Parts!

Most people dread long-term projects for their slowness and lack of consistent progress. As you may know, the brain needs fast-paced feedback to stay motivated. More so for some people than others, and so…

…when these people stop feeling that initial burst of motivation, they either quit or they leave the project to be completed at some undefined point in the future (which typically means never).

But what if there was some way to make it so that most—or even all—of the project could be done in one or just a few periods of intense work?

Such a Way Exists—and it Has to Do With

“Hijacking” Your Brain’s Pattern Recognition

You divide a project up in as many separate pieces as possible.

Then you create corresponding sections/categories/documents in your commonplace for this.

Then you trust your pattern recognition to collect all the information, tools, tasks, contact info (or whatever your project entails) needed for its completion.

—Voilá. You’re done.

Depending on the scope of your projects, this might take a few weeks or months, but once you’ve collected that stuff, there will be no need for interruptions or stops in the project, allowing you to work more focused and finish it faster.

Here Are the Action Points:

  1. Think out all the separate parts you can subdivide your project into.
  2. Create these categories inside your commonplace, inside an “Overview Document”. Then shortcut it.
  3. Set-and-forget. Trust your brain’s pattern recognition to find the info.
  4. Go about your life. Take notes, pictures, write down ideas whenever they come to you about the project.
  5. You now have enough material to finish the project in fewer sittings.

Now I simplified it, but the magic lies in making that initial division and sticking to it. Then the rest falls into place.

 I Use the Same Methods

For All My Research Too

It follows a similar logic. It starts with curiosity—the thing you’re insanely interested in—and then you just collect everything that fits into it.

Simply teach yourself to save all your thoughts, ideas, and observations about this thing and save it to the category. Fast forward a year or two, and you have everything needed to complete a project or product.

This is how I have two Ready-to-Be-Written books on the go.

These were made from thoughts, ideas, and observations that I’ve “passively” collected over the last 3 years. I haven’t done any other work on them except storing my ideas as I was getting them, and putting them into a hierarchy.

For now, I love using Evernote’s Tagging mechanism for this. I have multiple interests that are adding up nicely. I love seeing them develop over time.

So–if you have long-standing interests, start collecting your thoughts and ideas in a structured manner.

It REALLY adds up over time. Before you know it, your curiosity will have amounted to something that can be sold, shared, or used.


(6) Creative Work on Steroids: A Simple System for Collecting, Sorting, and Finalizing Your Ideas

“How does it feel?
To count dollar bills,
that I found off…skills.”
Slaughterhouse

commonplace

If you like to have ideas and create stuff—like songs, poems, articles, stories, podcasts, videos and such—then you’ll love this…

What you do is this: You separate your creative work.

Say you’re a rapper. So you write lots of songs. Then you might have a compartment called “Songs” and then you have subcategories for different types of songs you make.

For example: 32 Bars, 16 Bars, 8 Bars (by length) and then a duplicate category called “Collaboration” for all the feature songs or mix tapes you appear on for marketing.

By doing that you’d have an ample storage of material ready to go.

You can easily see how a similar method could be used for a DJ or a Producer, who makes and mixes beats. Just change up the subcategories for music styles: “Hiphop”, “RnB”, “Jazz”, etc. and it would work just as well.

But …can you also see how it could be used as a general formula for all creative work?

This is How I Do All My Research,

Learning, and Creative Work

My main separation for these things is between (1) raw ideas and (2) ideas in progress that I’ve done some sort of revision on.

This is SUCH AN EASY division of thought, but it’s very helpful.

This simple system allows me to go around, be inspired, have ideas, and then file them into their corresponding category in a neat way.

Like this, for articles and written material:

commonplace

Or, like that for podcast-related material:

commonplace

Again, it adds up over time.

–And then I use it when I’m ready to get to work.

Action Points:

  • Decide on a main category for your creative work.
  • What different types of creative work do you do? Make those subcategories (use my separation between “Ideas” and “in progress” if you cannot find a better one).
  • If useful, separate your own stuff and the material you do for others.

Summary: The Fundamentals for

Creating the Ultimate Commonplace

commonplace

Creating a commonplace is one of the best long-term investments you can make. It takes a little time to set up the basics, but then you should be able to use it for the rest of your life. And it should grow in value over time.

  • Divide your life up into a few categories. Make these your commonplace sections, then subdivide them.
  • Keep it as simple as possible. Otherwise you may lose motivation to use/play with your commonplace. If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Decide on a consistent method for how you will name and categorize the information you save, so that it becomes easy to retrieve and use the information you have stored when you want to access it later.
  • Mull over what a Review File for your industry would look like. What different aspects of your craft can you collect for inspiration or practice? Figure it out, and then create it in your commonplace.
  • Make a list of at least 3 things/types of information to collect that will scale over time. (Like book summaries, checklists, quotes, client work, daily lessons, and so on…)

▶This is an abbreviation from Part 1 of The Ultimate Commonplace System.

Comments

  1. This may be the most useful information I’ve read in my entire life. Thank you so much!

  2. This is positively one of the nerdiest things I have come across and I mean that most respectfully (bows hat!)

    Extreme methods taken to simple but useful things

  3. The more my Commonplace grows the more I come to realise that if I died its leaving a legacy of advice for future generations and also a personal account of who I am and how I think. One key comment you make is the importance of condensing the information.

  4. I started reading your blog years ago and do you know how copied you have got?

  5. What are the 2 new books about and when do you think they will be out? Will they be similar to BOOH? Or this one. Or something new

  6. Hawthorne Texas says:

    Thanks for continuing to share your best lessons. That also goes for the advice to look up Milton Friedman. So thanks again for that.

    Now that you have spent so much time on learning new things and exploring alternative avenues, what is your take on it after having arrived?

    Have a good week.

  7. Erik Johansson says:

    Building a commonplace is a must if you are an infinite learner and you want to find or use your ideas later in life like Martin Sandquist.
    Before I learned these methods I would have ideas all the time and many would go to waste because I forgot them.
    Ludvig is focused on Evernote but I don’t use that myself.The two takeaways I got from tucs were to really THINK THROUGH all the things I routinely work on or think about, and to build systems or checklists or work procedures and keep them close at hand when I do time – consuming stuff at home or at work.

    TLDR:
    Organize your life and thoughts and creativity around the things you spend most of your time on instead of reinventing the wheel every time, as most of us do.

  8. Mr Snake says:

    This is hard to do when you start but then it makes you a more structured thinker. I now do something similar for all my work projects, and I separate my consulting work from my own projects and my hobbies and my boring but useful info to keep.
    Some people will find more use for TUCS than others. As Ludvig says it is best for those who are professional knowledge workers and creatives but everyone who is mentally motivated should learn this. It’s surprising that its not covered in School or on-the-job training.

    • Most likely because it’s uncommon and esoteric.

      • It’s too hard. You are doing a good thing here but it’s just too hard. Only a few people will bother because it requires a shitload of thinking.

      • It is not too hard. It is small short term effort for long term gain in respect of time. Time investment now to re-coup the rewards for the rest of your life. Your right though only the people who want to work for the rewards will bother.

  9. Agatha Newport says:

    What’s wrong with doing it physical? Why are you so biased towards using technology. Technology only damages your brain and life quality. I think you should really think twice before so recklessly recommending others to use technology without a warning of the long term damages

  10. Hi Ludvig,
    Your advice on creative work is great! What I like is the way of rewarding your creativity and then you get more of both because it is easy and because you make it more fun. I can see how this would make me more creative over time. I used the similar approach as you describe in BOOH for learning to exercise regularly.

    All the best,
    Jen

  11. Thank you for sharing this advice. I got many new ideas from it. I first built my commonplace after your first article on it in Onenote years ago and it has been very useful on a daily basis for the things I learn, my work, books and articles I read and for my ideas. I don’t have a smart phone but if I did I could see how it would be good.

    My recommendation to someone who is getting started is to put a lot of thought and trial and error into the main categories you want to keep over the long-term.

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