The Thinker’s Journal: How to Keep a Commonplace Book

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We are constantly reading. We read articles, books, emails, social media posts, white papers, informative guides, research, and more. There’s not a day that goes by where we don’t learn something new or find something interesting and worthwhile.

But where does all this content go? Do we keep storage in our brains for all this information? Build up an endless list of bookmarks in our web browser that we forget about later? How can we keep this content around until we are ready to use or apply it?

The commonplace book is your answer. Dubbed the thinker’s journal, the commonplace book is a personal collection and timeline of your individual learning journey. It’s a compilation of everything knowledge — the information, ideas, observations, thoughts, quotes, and interesting things you discover on a daily basis. Whatever you find that strikes you, you write in your commonplace book.

What do you need?

You need a physical medium to collect your information. That can be a notebook (my preference), a collection of sheets of paper, a notepad, index cards (Ryan Holiday’s preference), or any other physical medium you want.

I like a notebook because I can carry it with me and it’s easy to use. You might want something different. All you need is a physical thing to write on and a writing utensil.

Why do you need it?

We can’t rely on our brains to remember everything exactly as it is. We can’t rely on our web browser to keep up with our endless tabs without slowing down. When we go back to the piece, how can we remember why we saved it or what exactly we got from the piece?

The commonplace book is how we can physically write down the information to retain. It’s how you can write ideas and observations from multiple sources into one centralized location. This is more than just gathering facts; this is where you build on it and find wisdom. Use that knowledge as a reference to ponder and share with others. Find inspiration in old ideas by intertwining your wisdom as well.

How do you keep one?

The thinker’s journal is where you store everything you come across that sparks something in you. Don’t just list out the facts; expand on your thoughts. Take it to the next level. Write out the quote and explain why you included it in your commonplace book.

The idea is not to ramble, but to pinpoint thought provoking observations. Dig in to the piece, claw through the feelings, and find the knowledge that you can learn from.

Depending on your medium, you can organize it by category or by nothing at all. It is up to the commonplace author to determine the best system for organizing or collecting information. If you want categories, make them broad. If you want jumble, own it. Just make sure you can read or decipher your system when you review your content.

When do you use it?

Always. You write new things when they strike you. Make observations on content. Question your surroundings. Collect quotes and passages that move you. Fill the pages with the inspiration and knowledge all around you.

Then you go back through all of it. Constantly revisit the things that inspired you yesterday, last month, or two years ago. Find new ideas, expand on things you’ve learned more about, and collect new ideas no matter how small they might seem at the time. Review everything and find new sources of inspiration.

One of my goals in 2020 was to create a commonplace book. So far, I’ve included prompts, thought provoking quotes, passages from books, and applicable tips for all my writing projects. I’m looking forward to building on it throughout the year, and will probably come back and share my thoughts on keeping one.

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