What do Bill Gates, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Jefferson and Montaigne (the guy who invented the essay) have in common?
Each of them kept a commonplace book.
According to Ryan Holiday, in this piece, a commonplace book is: “a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.”
I keep my commonplace book in Evernote. There I have all sorts of “notebooks” (i.e., file folders) — on everything from quotes to interesting insights to inspiring home decor to reminders I need. Because I regularly forget that writing is hard for most writers, that I need to listen to my own heart first and foremost, that we can learn from our failures, that rejection happens to everyone. Evernote makes it easy to copy and paste a blog post or quote or sentence (and then actually find it). With each note I often include my own thoughts, and why the words I copied are meaningful to me.
Holiday’s commonplace book is a box of index cards. He writes: “I use 4×6 ruled index cards, which Robert Greene introduced me to. I write the information on the card, and the theme/category on the top right corner. As he figured out, being able to shuffle and move the cards into different groups is crucial to getting the most out of them. Ronald Reagan actually kept quotes on a similar notecard system.”
His categories include everything from “life” to “death” to “article ideas” to “strategy.” He stresses the importance of writing things down, instead of using digital tools.
This is powerful, because in writing we notice things we wouldn’t have noticed before (like in drawing). Austin Kleon features this quote from Nicholson Baker here on his tumblr, which speaks to this:
Copy out things that you really love. Any book. Put the quotation marks around it, put the date that you’re doing the copying out, and then copy it out. You’ll find that you just soak into that prose, and you’ll find that the comma means something, that it’s there for a reason, and that that adjective is there for a reason, because the copying out, the handwriting, the becoming an apprentice—or in a way, a servant—to that passage in the book makes you see things in it that you wouldn’t see if you just moved your eyes over it, or even if you typed it. If your verbal mind isn’t working, then stop trying to make it work by pushing, and instead, open that spiral notebook, find a book that you like, and copy out a couple paragraphs.
I love this idea. And I think there are many places for housing our inspirations. Evernote is one option. Holiday’s index-card system is another excellent tool. The great thing is that you don’t have to pick between analog or digital, between computer files or note cards, between smartphones or journals.
Here are several other options you might try:
— Take photos of quotes, observations and ideas with your smartphone. Review your images weekly or monthly. Print out the photos that are meaningful to you. Then paste them into a scrapbook, which becomes your commonplace book.
— Post your inspirations to Instagram. Like the images from other people’s accounts that resonate with you. Maybe the colors in the image caught your eye. Maybe a quote caught you by surprise. Also, go over this weekly (let’s say every Sunday). Write down these quotes, observations and your thoughts in a notebook. Be sure to include the person’s Instagram account that posted the particular image.
— Buy blank index cards. Write down the idea, quote, or observation. Then include a doodle with it. It might be a stick figure, comic or any image you associated with those words. Doodling is great because it helps us access our imagination and exercise our creativity. Plus, it’s interesting to go back and see the doodles and drawings you associated with different words at a different time.
— Record your inspirations. When we speak words aloud, whether they’re our words or someone else’s, they become tangible. Similar to writing things down, reading aloud makes us pay extra attention. We notice things we wouldn’t have if we just read silently to ourselves. Most smartphones have a recording option, so you can create brief voice memos.
— Think play. Play is fun, of course. But when something is playful, it also means we’ll actually stick with it, because it’s inherently enjoyable. Buy a big sketchbook and write your quotes, ideas and information using colored pencils or crayons. Create collages based on the quotes you collect. This will probably help you generate even more ideas. (In the tip mentioned above, doodling on index cards certainly can be playful, too.)
In this piece Holiday shares a round-up of comments from readers about their commonplace books. Whatever method you choose, commonplace books are a great way to collect our inspirations — whether those words or images are for writing an article, creating a presentation or living a more meaningful, wonder-filled life.
Do you keep a commonplace book? Is it digital or analog? What does it look like?