I recently came across the practice of commonplacing - aka, the construction and maintenance of a commonplace book . It was truly one of ...
My idea had been that of a personal encyclopedia - a resource not only containing generally useful personal information (like a list of all the types of filters used by various appliances in my house along with where to buy replacements), but also meaningful quotations, lists of pens to (someday) buy, logs of my blood pressure readings, a list of anime films I want to watch, general observations and thoughts I have during trips I take, etc. The information would be arranged into lists, groups, and so on to facilitate finding the info when I need it later.
Turns out that’s exactly what a commonplace book is. It also turns out that the idea is centuries if not millennia, old, and that it has long been recognized as a mark of a person who seeks to lead a reflective, examined life.
So, yay for me! But also: seriously? Seeing as I’ve wandered the interwebs seemingly forever looking for cool productivity hacks, how the hell did I miss this? It nagged me for years that this notion I’d had seemed so useful to me, yet seemed utterly non-existent out there. Sure, perhaps I’d discovered something new - yet, I know enough to know the odds of discovering something both new and useful are vanishingly small.
Anyways, reinvigorated by the discovery that my personal encyclopedia actually made sense, I’ve set about being more rigorous about my CPB (because “commonplace book” and “personal encyclopedia” are just too long, because PE is too generic, and because I love TLAs). There seems to be a general consensus out there that CPBs are best kept on paper rather than digitally, but I cannot find a convincing argument for it. In the same way that, like it or not, task management on paper is a horrendous make-work project compared to using online tools, so too it seems that most of the work around keeping a CPB is actually about maintaining a well-organized, usable set of paper documents. Going digital with a CPB really frees you from the meta-level organizational bits and lets you focus on the content - which is really what it’s all about anyways.
Don’t get me wrong, I love paper and writing on it. I always have a paper notebook handy. I regularly write in my journal with a fountain pen, and it’s awesome. I have so many notebooks - most still in their packaging - that I’ll never run out of them; but that doesn't stop me from buying more. And I have often felt nearly overwhelming cravings to use those books for my CPB.
On the other hand, digital methods have distinct advantages over paper ones. Most importantly, it’s much easier to organize your CPB if it’s digital. You can’t tell ahead of time whether your CPB categories, lists, sections, etc. are well-constructed. The structure of your CPB will emerge, and even morph, over time. On paper, you’ll eventually end up doing lots of copying, shuffling, etc. All that stuff is sooooo much easier to do digitally. Secondly, digital CPBs are incredibly easy to search compared to paper alternatives. Thirdly, it’s (usually) a lot easier to capture original works digitally that you’d otherwise have to print/glue/attach to a piece of paper. All you have to do is ensure a reasonable backup is made regularly, and you’re good.
Furthermore, I disagree with some of the claims made in favour of paper CPBs. My biggest complaint with, say, the approach taken by Ryan Holiday (linked above) is that keeping a CPB has to be difficult. This is the old chestnut that nothing worth doing is easy. And in a way, that’s true. But there’s a difference between putting the effort into carefully curating and annotating your CPB versus wasting an afternoon with scissors and a glue stick. The best tools are the ones that minimize meta-level work. If you really care about meta-level work - if you derive actual pleasure from transcribing notes from one book to another, cutting and glueing images into a paper book, and so on - then it’s not really meta.
For those keeping score at home, you may be wondering, given how I’ve extolled the virtues of commonplacing, how I actually keep my CPB. Here’s the tl;dr version (longer versions will follow eventually):
- I always carry a paper notebook for those cases where something just has to get noted in circumstances where no digital form will do at that moment. I transcribe from paper to digital on a regular basis.
- I use Evernote as a key tool to preserve and organize my CPB contents. I have a tag, @CPB, that distinguishes my commonplace content from everything else. I use a tag because some of my CPB content is private, whereas other stuff is public; using a tag lets me make the public/private distinction while also allowing really fast searching.
- I also use Diigo, which is a social bookmarking system. Diigo has some very nice features for commonplacing. You can add commentary and tags to a source, but you can also highlight individual quotes or sections of a source and add annotations just to that passage. The annotations can be public or private. This saves me from having to take a copy or screenshot of the source. Obviously, one risks losing stuff — what if you bookmark a web page that vanishes? That’s an open problem.
And that pretty much covers it. I'll write more about my CPB, including linking to the public bits of it, but I'll leave that for another day.