The other day I was writing an article about healthy exercise practices when something clicked in my brain. I had recalled listening to a podcast with an acclaimed gym trainer in which he anecdotally recounted on how he kick-started his workout ventures.
It was a completely profound insight (as I recalled) and it would have fit my narrative like a piece of puzzle, only I couldn’t seem to summon that thought back into existence.
The worst part was knowing that there was no way I could’ve traced my listening history to locate that specific episode. It was too long ago. All I kept thinking about was wishing I had kept that soundbite in a database of some sort.
Since that incident, I’ve cultivated the habit of keeping a personal knowledge database — a central repository for thoughts, ideas, quotes, soundbites, excerpts, anecdotes, that I come across with on a daily basis.
A month later, I found out through a Rolf Potts podcast interview with Ryan Holiday that the late Thomas Jefferson had kept one as well. They called it the commonplace book and I immediately thought it resembled my own personal knowledge database.
Apparently, the practice of keeping commonplace books traced back to the ancient Greeks, with prominent figures such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca being its earliest adopters. Eventually, Aurelius’ commonplace book would become Meditations, a book that’s commonly deemed as the elemental manuscript to stoicism.
Inspired by the Greeks, Petrarch and Montaigne then cultured the practice during the Renaissance, followed by Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon during the 18th century, and up until today with modern authors such as Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene still very vocal with their commonplace book-keeping practices.
Why should you keep a commonplace book?
In short, so you never forget useful insights. By keeping a commonplace book, you are fundamentally immortalising all the useful information that you cross paths with either through deliberate consumption of content or through serendipitous day-to-day wisdom. All the ‘aha moments’, times when you just perfectly click with a piece of content, those are eternally preserved in your commonplace book.
One of the benefits I notice after I began nurturing my commonplace book was that I never again lost out on an important insight that I wanted to reference in my articles.
But the benefits extend beyond just writing and content creation, I carried the information that I keep in my commonplace book and essentially brought it along with me in my day-to-day — in the stories I tell, the advice I give, the recommendations I make to the people within my social circle.
Modern apps like Notion, Evernote, and Readwise makes populating and maintaining your commonplace book completely hassle-free and frictionless. But more on that later.
How do you keep a commonplace book?
Hopefully now I’ve gotten you quite motivated to start your own commonplace book. Really, there’s no downside to keeping one besides perhaps the small time investment in the beginning to set up your database. But it’s definitely ROI positive.
First of all, in order to optimise utility of your commonplace book, you’ll need to consume a wide range of content. As Ryan Holiday puts it, “Read about anything and everything and be open to seeing what you didn’t expect to be there — that’s how you’ll find the best stuff.”
The most useful things are usually found where you least expect them.
When you find something that clicks with you, highlight it. It’s extra convenient if you’re using a Kindle, otherwise mark down the page and transfer the highlighted passage into your commonplace book at the end of the day. You can re-write the excerpt, or you can simply type it down on your computer and print it on a piece of paper.
Provide a small section besides the passage for a bit of annotating. Appraise which part you resonate with the most, why did you find it particularly insightful, even criticise it if you need to. Ryan Holiday says it’s like conversing with the book and the author.
If it’s a podcast or a video, I suggest you use a virtual commonplace book (like I do) so you can easily insert the link and timestamp of the insight along with your annotations.
Once you get the hang of adding entries into your commonplace book, remember that it’s equally important not to overpopulate your book. Choose carefully. Curate information for your highly esteemed commonplace book, don’t let it flood with unnecessary information.
One way to do this is to only highlight wisdom, not facts. You’re trying to put the spotlight on the author here, not on something that’s accessible through a quick Google search.
Ryan Holiday prefers physical commonplace books, but personally I prefer organising mine in the cloud. Any note-taking app can really do the job, but there are some apps out there — both free and paid — that are optimised for this very job.
Notion is something that comes up a lot, and productivity gurus like Ali Abdaal and Thomas Frank are its devout preachers. It’s API allows users to embed whole articles by saving it via a Google Chrome extension. Very cool stuff.
Readwise is an excellent software that syncs all your Kindle highlights to a common database and have them sent regularly to your email inbox for recalls.
Evernote is another one that a lot of people talk about, it’s like your stock Notes app on steroids. Evernote users will understand what I mean. Plus its internal organising system is very intuitive, and it’s free.
Or use whatever you like.
Your system doesn’t have to be perfect. Hell it doesn’t even have to play by the rules. Bespoke it, decorate it, make it yours. If you care for fancy aesthetics, get yourself a nice Leuchtturm notebook. If you love folders and binders, then by all means, use that.
The most important thing to remember here is to start, and trust me, the effort with return in leaps and bounds.