Why you should be keeping a Commonplace Book

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I have never been able to successfully keep a journal.

The last time I was even remotely triumphant at journaling was at ten years old, attempting to document my family’s vacation to Disney World. It was quite entertaining rereading my entries describing an absolute refusal to go on Space Mountain and how, for one meal, I raved about eating the most delicious grilled cheese sandwich of my young life. Since that trip, however, my feeble attempts to journal and chronicle other vacations, events, and even trivial life moments have been half-hearted at best; I tend to find the journaling process more tedious than enjoyable. I did, that is, until I discovered a different kind of journal: the commonplace book.

Unlike a journal or diary, the commonplace book strays from the “Dear Diary” format, dutifully repeating the day-to-day, and instead, becomes essentially a compilation of ideas and information that can range from quotes, recipes, random facts, passing-thoughts and inventions, to business advice, lists of great restaurants, and the jotting down of which movies and books you want to see and read. While seemingly disorganized with every idea scribbled next to another, you easily navigate the commonplace book by numbering each page and creating an index at the beginning. The commonplace book more resembles a reference book, except that it is completely unique to your interests and curiosities.

The practice of keeping a commonplace book goes as far back as the 15th century with luminaries like Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marie Curie, and even George Lucas and Larry David all creating commonplace books. You can choose the traditional route writing in a notebook, or you can opt for note cards or an electronic version. Whichever method you choose, the benefits for creating this volume of information go far beyond simply providing a place for you to organize quotes or to go back and find that chocolate chip cookie recipe.

Find Patterns

Perhaps you still don’t know what you want to be when you grow up or you find yourself making the same mistakes over and over again. With a commonplace book, which is naturally filled with your favorite gems, you can begin to see patterns in what draws your focus. Paging back through your commonplace book will not only reveal what excites and interests you most, but can also illuminate issues and topics you struggle with. Being aware of these patterns and asking yourself questions as to why you gravitate toward one subject more than another, can help you to better understand yourself, your goals, and what you’d like to create for your future.

Helps Creativity

One of the pleasures of creating a commonplace book is that it releases you from the pressures of a journal. A commonplace book doesn’t require you to write in it every day, create long prose, or engage in deep introspection. It is more reminiscent of brainstorming as the jumble of information you collect is likely to spark your creativity and sharpen your problem-solving skills. By reading through your commonplace book you may stumble across a quote or anecdote you wrote down that inspires another idea or helps solve a dilemma you’re struggling with.  

Keeps a Record

The commonplace book creates a history and record for yourself. While it won’t be an archive of your day-to-day life, your book will instead reflect who you are at this time and age, what your interests are, and the ideas and concepts you’re just discovering. You’ll be amazed at how your thoughts and values change and develop with time and new knowledge.

While it was entertaining for me to go back and read my ten-year-old self’s thoughts on the rides and food of Disney World, I’m finding the commonplace book an easy and enjoyable alternative for capturing my thoughts, ideas, and interests. Experiment and try it out: You might be amazed at what you discover for yourself, about yourself.