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  • Writer's pictureKen Kowach

What is a commonplace book? Simple 5-step how-to guide (see how I screwed it up)

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

In 2019, I personally discovered what keeping a commonplace book even meant. Up until then, I had no idea and had never even heard of it.

Well, when I first heard the term, I thought to myself, “this must be some form of journaling, no thanks.”

All my life, I have found the habit and idea of keeping a journal absolutely revolting, and pretty much impossible to adhere to on a regular basis. Well, if you feel a similar way, I’ve got good news for you. Keeping a commonplace book is nothing like keeping a journal.

In fact, I would be pretty hard-pressed to see real benefits of maintaining a journal, other than laughing at your younger self... which I have personally done. And don’t compare my blog to a journal. A journal is private. A blog is public.

But with commonplace books, the benefit is enormous. I'm already seeing a big difference starting to develop in my own life. So if you're interested, the water’s fine, let’s dive in.

"Imagine that another version of yourself with perfect memory could guide you day after day. That is what a commonplace book can do for you."

commonplace notebook with a pen

Bottom line up front

A commonplace, or commonplace book, is a book that contains all your thoughts, interests, quotes, or anything committed to long term remembrance. A commonplace book is not a journal, a grocery list, or work note compilations.

Read on to learn more about what a commonplace book is, what it isn't, why you definitely want to start and maintain your own, and how it'll help you. Learn about the 5 very simple steps to create your own commonplace book. Plus, read about how I screwed up my own commonplace book!


What is a commonplace book?

A commonplace book is a place to compile and organize knowledge, thoughts, or any information desired that you have stumbled upon in any way shape or form. It could come from something you heard from a friend, saw on the television, heard on a podcast, read in a book, etc. Typically, commonplace books are hand-written. Not so typically, commonplace books are in digital format, which is for losers.

In all seriousness though, you need to handwrite your commonplace book. I’ll explain why that is in a minute.

A commonplace book enables somebody to be able to capture their thoughts, memories, discovered knowledge and information, and store it long term. Even if we think we have an amazing memory, I promise you, it is short-lived. Take it from a professional forgetter. (I swear, I have early onset of dementia)

Really, you can fill a commonplace book with just about anything that you feel is worth remembering. That is going to be largely dependent on your individual preferences and personality. A commonplace is really a nebulous thing simply because the rules of which to structure and do it are largely up to the individual.


What a commonplace book is not

funny grocery shopping list with a red x

As I alluded to before, it is definitely not a journal. Journals are lame. For anybody reading this that keeps a journal, I’m sure you have your reasons, and please don’t take me too seriously. I take myself seriously enough and I try every day not to.

In my opinion, I think a journal is good for somebody discovering your journal years later, and publishing a story about you, as long as you were remarkable. Example, Anne Frank. Other than that, if somebody ever finds your journal when you are long gone, it might be cringe-worthy, awkward, and just plain silly.

Also, a commonplace book does not have a set structure, other than the basic referencing systems which I will discuss in a minute. Don't let anybody, including myself, dictate to you a structure for your own commonplace book. Not even me. Unless I'm telling you that it has no set structure. That's the only thing I'll dictate.

It isn't a place for your grocery list. It isn't a place for mundane daily routine things of any kind. Don't put work notes, honey-do lists, or anything like that. Write that stuff in your journal.


Why should I keep a commonplace book?

Here on my blog, a lot of what I talk about relates to money or an economic concept but I tie it to general well-being or self-improvement, or a larger purpose, rather than just money itself since money isn't everything.

With that said, it really won’t make you any money, not directly. I assure you though, keeping a commonplace book is crazy important. Sure, keeping a commonplace book won't make you more money per se, but I promise it'll make you into more of a person with more focused direction and purpose. What do focused direction and purpose lead to? Achieving goals, and your goals can certainly be whatever you want them to be.

Imagine a boat floating out in the middle of the ocean. If you needed to maintain a specific bearing, you would need a compass. Without one, it would be impossible to maintain anything more than just a general direction using the sun.

viking ship

Using this metaphor, if today you decided that you were going to aim for a specific point on a coastline, without a compass you would be hard-pressed to end up anywhere within a relatively close distance. I suppose you could always get lucky...

Now think of that in terms of the person you want to become or the level of wealth you want to achieve, or anything you have your eyes set on for your future. If you achieved those things that you want in your distant future, you would be lucky if you ended up there at best.

A commonplace book is like your personal compass. You write down the thoughts that you have, the bits of knowledge that are profound to you, scripture, quotes, books you liked, anything, and it becomes a guide, keeping you on course, especially if you have the attention span of a goldfish, like myself.

Another way to think about it is as an extension of yourself or your mind. We do it with our smartphones. We back up all of our photos to the cloud so that when we upgrade our phone way too soon (read about it, #7 on this list). That way, when we do have our new phone, all of our backed up images are re-downloaded to our new device.

What if you could do the same with your mind and consciousness, and it could be harnessed to be your life coach? Imagine that another version of yourself with perfect memory could guide you day after day. That is what a commonplace book can do for you.

Another reason to keep a commonplace book is simply because of the power of writing things down. When you write things that you want to remember down, it frees up your mental horsepower to be allocated to higher levels of thinking.


How do I start a commonplace book?

Before I get started, remember when I told you not to let anybody dictate how you're supposed to create your commonplace book? I still stand by that, along with my earlier injected humor. Just remember, if you want your commonplace to be functional, you should follow these few steps. You can vary, but you should at least have a system in place to be able to find your information. (Imagine if a dictionary was random order)

Step 1: Gather up these crucial supplies.

  • pen/pencil

  • notebook

  • brain housing group (BHG)

Pro tip: Write that list down if you can't remember it. (Handwritten preferred) 😎

Step 2: Number your pages

If you're like me and you're not boojie, you will most likely get a notebook without page numbers. This means you're going to want to write down some page numbers in your commonplace book. If you are boojie, don't worry about this step because you probably bought a boojie notepad for boojie people.

There really isn't a need to fill in all the pages. I recommend starting with writing the page numbers of the first 30-50 pages or so. As your commonplace book develops, you can continue to fill in the page numbers.

The reason you want to number your pages is because in the next step, you'll create your index. Without page numbers, it can be very difficult to create an index.

Step 3: Create your index

commonplace book table of contents

After you have numbered your pages, you will want to write out the commonplace book index. Start with some of the bigger subjects of information that you may foresee gathering. Here are some from my commonplace book just to get your BHG juices flowing:

  • Quotes

  • Goals

  • Random thoughts

  • Ventures/Side Hustle Ideas

  • Travel List

  • Points of contact

  • Favorite scripture

  • Books to read

You can get more granular if you want. If you are really into literature you can have sections more broken down for example.

  • Favorite quotes from poems

  • Favorite quotes from historical figures

  • Favorite quotes from blogs

  • Favorite quotes about finance

  • And on and on…

Just use your best judgment on the number of pages you will need between sections.

The last thing I will say about creating the index is this. I personally used page numbers, but you don't have to. You can use tabs if you want, or mark the side of the page with corresponding sections. I'm only recommending the way that I got it done.

Pro tip: If you made a boo-boo and run out of space in a particular section, you can just start another section later on in the book with extra space : You can just title the new section in your index “Goals continued” or “Goals #2”.

Step 4: Evolve your method

What I have discovered is that my commonplace book is evolving and I am tweaking it a little here and there. The basic format, with numbers and index, hasn't changed, but I tweak it a little now and then.

For example, because of something I had heard from Brian Tracy about how to write goals, I started writing goals in the past tense format, so that they read out in their completed form. Once I complete the goal, then I mark off the checkbox.

Step 5: Make it an obsession

Yes, this is a real step, for all the haters out there. 😑

Seriously, become obsessed with it. This is the most important step because if you aren't writing things down immediately or shortly thereafter, you are going to forget. Honestly, I couldn't help but become obsessed with keeping it on me. I look at it constantly, and I feel inadequate if I don't have it with me because if I have a thought or hear something from somebody or read something, it would be horrible if I forgot about that.

Also, it helps if you get a notebook with a feeling that you really like. I bought the notebook that I currently use and I love how the spine allows it to lay flat while I am writing in it. Also, the pages feel heavy, and the overall construction of the book is appealing. Also, it isn't boojie with page numbers pre-printed in it. That probably helps with wanting to keep it on me.


The Commonplace book mistake to avoid that I have made

Okay, let me tell you about how I screwed up my commonplace book by trying something new.

First of all, I tried to put a calendar section in it, basically making it a quasi-journal... tsk tsk.

I wrote out a daily calendar section, going out 90 days in order to plot down different benchmarks, achieving different goals that I wrote down in my “Goals” section.

In my defense I don't think there is anything wrong with that... but I started putting key events in the calendar, turning my beloved commonplace book into a bit of a planner. I still regret it. It is a chunk of my book that is awkward and does not belong... so don't do that.


Final Word

I'll leave you with this. Just remember that it is no secret that we, in our own existence, are only a snapshot in time. We exist in the present, which is a sliver of time that converts the future into the past. Because we only exist in this sliver of time, it is important to write down things that are important to us, places we want to go, things we want to achieve, become, or do.

If we do not commit to writing these things down, they are pretty much all but lost on us, simply because we do not possess the BHG capacity to stay on target for longer than a relatively short period of time.

One last comparison. For all you computer nerds out there. Compare a computer that uses RAM for temporary memory, and a hard drive for permanent memory. Why wouldn't we as humans do the same?


The Woke Hack

"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." -Benjamin Franklin

Time to Pay it Forward

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1 comment

1 Comment

Nov 01, 2022

Love the expression of the present being a sliver of time that converts the future into the past! I wrote that in my common-place book. :)

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