The Benefits of Keeping a “Commonplace Book”


The best ideas are typically not “out of the blue” revelations. They are most often the result of multiple existing ideas converging at the right place and time, and yielding an insight. As Steven Johnson wrote about in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, brilliant insights are typically the result of a “slow hunch”. They begin in obscurity, then become more clear over time until a breakthrough occurs.

Those dangerous intersections – or moments of serendipity – are where creative accidents are most likely to occur. While there is no way to ensure that you will have breakthrough moments when you need them most, you can increase the likelihood by keeping simmering ideas and inspirational stimulus in front of you consistently.

One method that I’ve used for years, and has been utilized by others for generations (Ryan Holiday goes into great detail here about how he uses his) is keeping a commonplace book. This is a single place where you keep ideas, quotes, inspiring thoughts, and other potentially useful information for regular review and potential re-purposing. My running commonplace book is a small, unlined insert I the back of my Midori Traveler’s Notebook, but I also transfer ideas and insights regularly into Evernote so that I have a digital archive for potential use in my writing, consulting, or podcasts.

Here are a few tips for keeping a useful commonplace book:

  • Keep only one, and make it single-purpose. Often people write ideas and quotes inline with their daily notes, grocery lists, and other daily marginalia. This makes it far more difficult to review important insights and separate them from the minutia.
  • Review it regularly. Because I keep my notebook with me everywhere, I am able to routinely pull it out on a flight, while waiting for a meeting, or over breakfast and skim through my recently discovered quotes and ideas.
  • Use it when trying to generate ideas. If you are stuck on problem, pull out your commonplace book and see if anything sparks an insight. You’ll be surprised how often you’ll spot a pattern and something will click.
  • Don’t be too selective. If something connects with you, record it. You can always be more selective later about the ideas and insights you transfer to your more permanent archive. If something catches your attention now, capture it.

With the increase of information crossing your attention span each day, it’s easy to forget even the most impactful experiences. Make every effort to capture these, and to ensure that they become a valuable part of your creative process.



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