How to Keep a Digital Commonplace

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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.

PS:

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!


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Comments

  1. Hiya, nice quote from Seneca. Very appropriate indeed.

    I’m just wondering, didya get it from the quotes section in your commonplace? ;)

    Btw Ive also kept a commonplace book for some time…. Naybe half a year..

    • ((Oops.. pressed enter too early. Sorry about that!))

      My commonplace book is in a physical format and i like to draw so i do that quite a lot. I was actually inspired by Da Vincis method.. seeing as how you listed him I assume you are already familiar with it? Otherwise I can send you a link.

      I have found that I memorize/learn best when I draw (often models or mindmaps)… After taking a brief look at the picture of your digital commonplace I think the main difference between my method and yours is that your book is larger and more varied – you must spend a heck of a lot of time to get thousands of pages after only one year!?

      The othrr difference i think is that mine is only focused on work-related stuff.

      Anyway nice read. See ya

      • Hey Andy!

        No I did actually not get that quite from my commonplace, I remembered it from listening to the audiobook of “The Shallows”.

        Yes, I have indeed seen Da Vincis commonplace. It’s pretty cool!

        Yes I write a bit in it. I can’ really say how much though because I have no specific goal, but whenever I am at the computer I write in it sporadically and if I find something of interest I immediately copy that information into my commonplace in an appropriate category.

        Thanks for telling about your strategy, I think that if you want to draw and come up with mindmaps/models it is much better to keep a physical commonplace book. But I do that all day long in school so I don’t really feel like doing it on my leisure :)

  2. Hello Ludvig,

    First of all, I really like the chronology of your subject’s development. We have learnt so much from the people of ancient times, so it’s interesting to see how we’ve used and improved upon their methods of gathering knowledge and retaining it.

    Second, I never knew that these “locus communis” played such an important role in the lives of these innovators. I didn’t even know it HAD a name, let alone a dignified stature in the process of learning for so many mavericks!

    I started my first commonplace when I was 13 or 14 years old. There was a philosophy show on the Franco-German TV channel “Arte”. They discussed varied subjects and their applications in many domains (Art, Literature, even Physics and Math!). So week after week, I realized that I could only recall a fragment of what I saw. And that’s how it started. I took notes from the show, then researched whatever intrigued me and wrote it down. Then I began compiling thoughts from books, websites, people, videos (online lectures)… you name it! And this summer, I even started a thorough to-do list to keep me constantly aware of what goals I want to achieve.

    Finally, I really appreciate this post, it’s quite encouraging! The subjects you deal with leave me seldom uninterested. So thanks for another great post Ludvig!

    • A commonplace at 13-14 years of age. Quite impressive.

      I started mine only a year ago or so. But it has really added up in the short amount of time I’ve had it. I think it will make a huge difference in the years to come.

      Thanks for the kind words!

      • Thanks, but I wouldn’t say “impressive”, cause at the beginning the notes were really primitive, and it took a looot of time to attain a worthwhile scale.

        And you’re welcome!

      • I would still say that it is impressive given your age. It must have still added up a lot over the years, right?

        I’m thinking about starting one of these commonplace books. How much time do you spend writing in every day or week? A specific amount of time or??

        I’m really unsure of whether to do a physical or digital one as well..

        Which one do you use George?

      • It sure did Ron! Now it contains snippets from books and articles, personal “realizations” or conclusions, factoids, long explanatory passages (I really like to delve into certain topics), photos etc. from very diverse domains. And it’s quite useful if you review them later; you’d be really surprised to see that in spite of all your current knowledge, there are still some truly crucial and interesting things that might have escaped from your memory. Recuperating them is a true pleasure!

        To be honest, I don’t go by specific amounts of time, although I make it a habit of mine to learn at least one new thing everyday. (No matter how short: sometimes I just write down a couple of rare words I’ve found (like “tmesis” or “acersecomic” ) or an interesting equation (like Tupper’s pseudo-self-referential equation)).

        And finally, although I do collect some notes digitally, I still prefer writing everything down. It’s more personal, and you get to closely follow the evolution of your commonplace (as you might sometimes need to correct, connect annotate, or expand some of your entries). Then again, it’s your choice, and as long as you gather them, you’re doing it right.

      • Ah I see… I think I will start doing it digitally because if I use Windows Onenote or Evernote I can connect it with my phone as well.. And I use that a lot when I sit on the bus and the train.

        What you are saying makes sense – as long as I gather entries I’m doing it correctly.

        Had to look up “tmesis” and “acersecomic” – good idea.. do you keep a category for new words or just write it down as a typical entry – like a journal:

        “dear journal, today i learned two new words…”

        :P

      • I usually leave some space to accumulate a large number of words, but it’s a typical entry, none of the “dear journal” formulations. Hehe :P

        Anyway, I’m glad you’re starting a commonplace! You’ll see soon enough how great it is to keep one. :)

        Stay witty ;) :P

      • Thanks for answering!

        I’m glad as well. I’ve got some time on my hands now so I figured I’d set up the system, kind of like a long-term investment, you know?

        I’m the wittiest!!

      • Anytime, glad to help :D

        Hehehe, the wittiest indeed !

  3. Wow. Excellent advice.. I can’t believe I haven’t thought about this before. I’m getting on the ‘commonplace train’ as well..

    We should start some secret club and share our results in a year ;)

    • Thanks man!

      Yeah perhaps. But kind of hard to share those results seeing as how most of what you learn gets internalized and isn’t really possible to show, except for maybe how much you have written and how much information you compiled.

      Didn’t mean to sound pessimistic, I really hope you go ahead and start, you probably already have!

      Let me know how it goes.

      • Hey again.

        Yes I have started!
        I’ve been keeping a commonplace for a while now and trying different ways of doing it (notebook vs computer). Not sure which one is my favorite.

        But in either case it has got me to “think” more I believe. I’ve not noticed that much of a difference in terms of being smart/intelligent but i do enjoy it and will continue.

  4. Seems like a good idea to start doing actually.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. Great idea.

    I’ve been doing this for a week now and I’m definitely getting a lot more organized.

    I’m using Evernote. How come you don’t like it btw?

  6. Awesome post dude. I’ve been doing this for years without knowing there was an official name for it.

    Although I do most of my journaling now in a Google Doc, I still find that pen and paper has a much stronger impact.

    The best benefit I’ve found from keeping a commonplace is that it allows you to truly see how much you’ve progressed over time which acts as fuel to keep you moving forward.

    • Yeah it’s such a powerful tool. Probably the biggest one I picked up in the last year in terms of speeding up the learning process and saving time.

      Having a whiteboard comes on second place perhaps.

      The reason I’d take OneNote/EverNote over google docs is because it’s much faster and easily navigated.

      You’re right about the progression. I’ve thought of it many times myself, though I don’t have the time (take the time) to look through my older entries that often.

  7. I can see how this would be helpful in learning things. It would make it much easier to categorize/segment/compartmentalize differerent things that I study.

    I even have OneNote on my computer, I just didn’t know what it was for. Funny thing!

    • Yes. That’s a large part in why I do it as well.

      Not only does it help improve learning by making associations easier, but also it’s really easy to segment stuff – as you say – and find it later.

  8. Good post. I’ve kept a diary since I turned 18, and it is GREAT. Really helps you clear your thoughts about your life, what you’re doing and where you wanna go. Also, its good fun to look back and laugh about all the crazy experiences you’ve had in the past years.

    • It really sheds some perspective on it. We’re always so immersed in what’s happening NOW that we tend to overlook the progress we’ve actually made.

      I really sucked a few years back. Now I’m decent.. I will be awesome.

      It’s analogous to the fish that’s immersed in water.

  9. Very interesting. I’d never heard of Commonplacing, but I already do a limited amount of it, keeping notes on paper that I later transfer to the appropriate file. For example if I find a good quote while reading (an actual book) I may write down the page number on the bookmark, and later I look it up again and add it to my quotations file. If I’m at home and have an idea related to my job, I email myself a note. You have inspired to pursue this principle on a broader basis in the future; thank you.

  10. Nicklas Kingo says:

    I love this concept.
    I’ve used the Notes app and now Evernote for this purpose for a while but I’ve never really put a name to it. Thank you Ludvig for sharing this concept.
    I’m sure it will help me store information in a more concise and useful way.

    Nicklas

    • Thank you Nicklas.

      It’s all about making it part of the daily routine and finding a quick way to categorize one’s thoughts and write notes where they belong so that they can easily be found and used later.

  11. Michal Stawicki says:

    You convinced me to start my own commonplace. I note and save things, but this process is highly disorganized – many apps, notepads, Excel sheets and so on.

  12. Now THIS is something I’ve been waiting to read for a while. I’m glad you stumbled on my blog so I could have the opportunity to check out yours Ludvig haha.

    My desktop was literally flooded with annotations, notes, ideas, word and excel-files and whatnot. I’ve had some notes written down in Evernote but that just doesn’t have the different layers you can create in OneNote. It’ll probably take a while to get used to (definitely mind-ffed me today on how I could re-structure my current system more effectively in OneNote) But it will be worth the effort so my speed of implementing new information will go up and I’ll have this big ass library of everything I’ll ever need to know.

    Anyway, I find it amazing to see that you really have your “shit together” on such a young age. Inspiring to see people who actually care where they’re going in their life instead of having it be decided by circumstances (like so many others). So thanks for connecting! Definitely going to stop by more in the future.

    I’ve also gone trough your recommended reading list. I found it strange you didn’t have any Anthony Robbins in there, not a fan of his work?

    Take care,

    • Hey Simon,

      You are very welcome!

      “(definitely mind-ffed me today on how I could re-structure my current system more effectively in OneNote) ”

      — I know the feeling. That’s how I felt at first too.

      “But it will be worth the effort so my speed of implementing new information will go up and I’ll have this big ass library of everything I’ll ever need to know.”

      –Exactly. That’s my rationale as well.

      “I’ve also gone trough your recommended reading list. I found it strange you didn’t have any Anthony Robbins in there, not a fan of his work?”

      –I’ve read 2-3 books from him. Awakening The Giant From Within being the most memorable. I like his stuff, but it was a long time ago, and I didn’t remember it while writing that article :)

  13. I look forward to the post on configuring this through Evernote.

  14. Ludvig,
    Reading this article has me more excited than ever to see your upcoming commonplace system. I discovered SGM over a year ago and I have been a huge fan of your work ever since. I appreciate all of the effort you put into your content (high quality content) and I am grateful to have discovered SGM when I did. I will be a reader for life. Strong work, brother.

  15. Thank you for this article, I found it very helpful. I was introduced to the idea of commonplacing very recently and have started my own commonplace book. I was wondering, should you update your commonplace every time you read it or should you leave it untouched because in time, certain things may start to seem redundant?

    • I don’t have an answer for that.
      The way I do it is that have I have systems I use often for certain ideas and activities or projects. Then I will occasionally update my interface based on experimenting with new systems or removing old ones that are no longer useful.

Trackbacks

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