Your Commonplace Book – Let’s Start!

It’s a busy world and we lead busy lives! So, naturally we want to do the ‘right’ things with the precious time we have; spend it with family and friends, chatting, reading and creating wonderful experiences.

And it’s just that, our experiences matter!

Whether we engage with people, places or ideas, our opportunities to take something special from them relies on us reflecting, recording and later retrieving those experiences.

Sure, we sometimes do this instinctively but more often than not we forget or fail to see the value in doing these three important acts.

We all read, view, listen and engage in conversations with others; taking in information of all kinds, from all around us, but how often do we actually DO something with all this? How often do we really learn from these experiences?

If we really want to make the most of our precious time, then reflecting on our experiences (both good and bad) is vital to our development as an individual.

“We do not learn from experience ….. we learn from reflecting on experience.” John Dewey

A Commonplace Book offers us a chance to do something with all this ‘information’.

The Commonplace Book

The purpose of a Commonplace Book is simply to record and organise your reflections, not least so that you might find some sense of order in your ideas, but also that you might learn more from the experiences of your life and from what you read.

My bedside table used to be covered in a myriad of colourful Post-it notes, scribblings on scraps of paper, books filled with dog-eared pages. I’d go to bed with a head full of ideas, only for them to be lost in the morning light.

We’ve all read books, viewed films and had some fascinating conversations with others and later thought about them somewhat, reflected on them, but never recorded those nuggets of wisdom, insights or just cool ideas.

But for centuries, the Commonplace Book or early versions of it, have been used as a way of recording, reflecting and retrieving information and ideas on any number of things.

And because of this, it’s really the best kind of tool for self-reflection, education, improvement and self-actualisation (if you want to go that far). Pretty cool hey?

So why should I use a Commonplace Book?

Traditionally used by writers, thinkers, politicians and the like, it now has widespread appeal. And for obvious reason.

Today, it’s become an awesome place where you can record your observations, reactions and own thoughts and feelings on the myriad of experiences you have.

A Commonplace Book becomes a personalised reference point of your own making; one that draws from books you’re reading, conversations you’re having, inspirational quotes you come across and random ideas and events that you happen to stumble across daily.

Most importantly, it’s written in a style that is simplified, straightforward and for YOU.

“It’s a Diary! It’s a Journal!” I hear you scream. And yes, it shares some common elements, but it is different.

Your Commonplace Book will have a bit more structure or organisation to it (although mine didn’t for some time!) It isn’t necessarily written in daily and its purpose is more focused on learning and educating ourselves.

Actually, it’s really all about learning and retaining ideas; if memory is the by-product of thinking and doing, then a Commonplace Book is a place to cultivate the habit of not just reflecting, but retaining more ideas.

The art of ‘writing it down’

In a digital age there are platforms which provide a similar template for a virtual Commonplace Book. Microsoft’s OneNote is pretty good and for the mobile device – Evernote or even Pinterest.

But for all the time we spend online or mobile, we still spend a large chunk of our time off-line; chatting with friends, reading newspapers or novels and watching tele.

To stop, without the temptations and distractions of online devices and physically write down our ideas, allows us to engage in a somewhat creative and familiar act.

It also has the added benefit of forcing us to remove ourselves from technology; something I think we all struggle to do at the end of a day.

Writing in a Commonplace Book also naturally lends itself as an activity associated with reading.

“Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.”–Robert Darnton, “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000

Reading requires thinking and reflecting and so your Commonplace Book allows you a space to record pertinent quotes, summaries and reflections on whatever you might be reading; be it a novel, a non-fiction text, a magazine or newspaper article.

But ancient philosopher Seneca duly noted “We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application – not far-fetched or archaic expressions of extravagant metaphors and figures of speech – and learn them so well that words become works.”

Reading is beautiful, insightful and rewarding, but so are our own lives and our own thoughts. If we could ‘read’ ourselves the way we read a book, what things we could truly learn, about who we are.

French philosopher Montaigne, insisted that interesting ideas are to be found everywhere in everyday life and no matter how modest our personal lives are, we can gain greater insights of ourselves through self-reflection.

This kind of valuable knowledge about ourselves, turns up in the pages of our Commonplace Book.

How do I start my Commonplace Book?

Keeping it Simple is paramount when constructing a Commonplace Book, because much like our minds, it can have the tendency to become overloaded and messy.

So to help get you started, I’ve put together a really simple pamphlet which gives you a general template to organise your Commonplace Book into sections. You can download it here (Commonplace Template) or at the bottom of the page.

Without a doubt, you’ll come to develop your own preferred method and structure over time, but this is a good starting point and one that I’ve developed through trial and error.

The good news is you can use any type of book really. Whatever your budget or creative whims, it’ll work.

I have found an A5 size works best for me (at least 240 pages) because I can fit it into my handbag and yes, it pretty much goes everywhere with me.

Lines are good if you are a writer, but you might prefer the creative freedom of no lines, if you fancy adding sketches and graphic mind maps etc.

You’re only real preference might be for a book that has sections already dived up. This way you’ll have clear ‘parts’ allocated for specific fields, as you’ll see in my template. But if not, you can simply buy the sectioned tabs and add those in (like I did here).

The current set up I have cost me a total of $18 from Officeworks (book, sticky tabs, pen & creative stickers).

Now, while in my mind it would be nice to have one Commonplace Book per year, the reality is this may not happen…. and that’s OK. It isn’t a diary after all!

If you find you like more organisation than one book, you can always have another Book just for ‘Reading Reflections’ or another only for ‘Creative Offerings’.

It’s your project and a worthwhile one at that! A neat bundle of reflective pages that stay by your side like a trusted friend.

A book YOU have created and in the process, learnt more about yourself and the world around you.

So, now is as good a time as any to start your own Commonplace Book.

Download the Commonplace Template here and let me know how yours works out for you.


Follow and share:

The War We Wage With Ourselves and How to Squash It In One Blow

There is a war raging on inside our heads each second of everyday.

A barrage of duplicitous dialogue and thought that consumes the battlefield of our mind. Worse yet, it’s of our own doing and invariably dictates our actions.

Now that is something worth thinking about.

Amidst the everyday goings-on, it barely registers what’s happening inside our heads, or we choose deceptively to pretend it doesn’t matter.

“I hate going to work. … I feel guilty putting the kids into care…… What happened to that dream of mine working freelance from home? It’s never gonna happen now…… Wow, my skin looks terrible this morning…….

 Man, I need to lose some weight …….. maybe this green smoothie will be the start of a new regime. ….Crap, I forgot to buy bloody eggs… again! ……Jeez, I need to get more organised….. I can’t wait to get a coffee and muffin on the way to work …… screw the diet.”

We know how it goes. Everybody does. The trouble is, it’s a habit. It’s an ongoing battle to berate ourselves for all that we haven’t done, can’t do or don’t like about ourselves.

And if it’s not that, then we’re chastising ourselves for the fact that we continually do this to ourselves!

“Don’t say you’re stupid,… just forgot…….. It’ll be ok, the world won’t fall apart because you didn’t buy eggs…… Stay positive….think positive…… I’m feeling great! Oh stop it, you sound ridiculous!”

Our days are punctuated with nano-second thoughts, a blow-by-blow account of what we think of ourselves, our experiences, our lives and the people in it.

Life is busy.

Life can be tough.

But we need to save ‘us’ somehow, from this war we wage with ourselves!

The How and Why?

When we are so consumed by our existence, our responsibilities, our ‘to do’ jobs, it feels like there is no time for us to stop and consider the battle raging on inside of us.

It’s just always there.

But, if we were able to do just one thing for ourselves, surely it should be this; to stop the war and broker an amicable peace deal.

We’re all prepared to put a lot of time, effort and money into all other aspects of our lives: our physical fitness, our jobs, our wardrobe, our relationships.

But how much time do we commit to considering how we can better understand and maybe even change our thoughts and in turn our experience of life?

“Know yourself” Socrates


If we did, how much of everything else (our actions, behaviour, relationships, everyday experiences) would begin to follow a more ‘peaceful’ path?

Now, I’m no experienced soldier on this battlefront, but I have become curious and more conscious of my war. In the last 18 months I’ve taken up the challenge and begun to grapple with my thought processes.

Me the Guinea Pig

So the good news is that research confirms what we possibly already know; what we tell ourselves, directly influences the experiences we have.

It is, according to ‘Flow’ author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (no I didn’t make his name up!)  all about perception. Control the way we view things and we dictate the life we lead.

“How we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depends directly on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences”.

Powerful stuff, but easier said than done, I hear you mumble. And you’re right.

From as far back as we can remember, we’ve pumped our minds with thoughts; all kinds, with little attention given to the quality of them or the helpfulness of them.

It would certainly require a great change in our thinking habits and a quiet dedication interpreting the inner workings of our minds. Daunting and deep stuff I know!

“We are too scared to stop and think because it is in those moments of quiet we realise that we are not living the lives we would like to, worse yet, we are not even trying” M. Csikszentmihalyi

Meditation, yoga, self-help books aside, it’s clear to me that I needed to throw our whole self into this fight.

Ultimately, if we want to be more than the thoughts that we let infiltrate the battlefield of our mind, we have to want to think differently first, then take action. DO something.

So in an attempt to quash my own war and in an effort to find a method in the madness, the last 18 months have been quite experimental.

I’ve read, I’ve taken courses, I’ve had deep conversations with those around me, I’ve listened to experts, I’ve reflected and I’ve written a lot of these thoughts down, … here in this blog as well as in my personal journal.

And that’s been, dare I say it… changing.

The chance to read, reflect and record my thoughts in a journal or more aptly referred to as a ‘Commonplace book’, has been….. enlightening.

Nothing revolutionary you might say! Not especially time-consuming or particularly draining. In fact quite the opposite; practical, immediate and worthwhile.

Reflecting on our thoughts and recording these down has been an undertaking many great and ordinary people alike, have committed to; Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius kept one, Thomas Jefferson kept one, Napoleon kept one. Bill Gates keeps one.

And this is why….
  • Reflection: Asking the big WHY questions matters. Being strong and still long enough to listen properly to the answers is key to understanding why we think and behave the way we do. Reflecting gives us a chance to sort through our confusion, review our perspectives and reassess our priorities. What could be more worthwhile than that?
  • Doing: it’s not enough to simply think about things. It is in the DOING after all that we achieve actual change. In committing my reflections (fairly regularly, usually daily) to paper or text I am letting them loose and I have a tactile, retrievable point of reference. In doing this act, I’ve taken the first step in beginning to solve some of my personal dilemmas or at the very least, acknowledged their existence.

It could well be more complicated than this, but for me, for now, this is working. I’m making good ground on the battle front.

I’m no saint; some days I let my emotions drag me about, other days I just don’t want to think, and I’m ok with that.

But just like healthy eating keeps our bodies in order, I’m attempting to cultivate a habit. I’m trying to make my thoughts count, my perspective healthy and my experiences of life meaningful.

All great change starts with a small step, repeated regularly, until it becomes habit.

Committing to writing in a Journal or ‘Commonplace Book’ is one way I’m attempting to master the way I view things and think about them. And if I can do this, then I might just be closer to dictating the quality of my life and shaping the experiences I have.

It’s worth a shot!

In next week’s blog, I’ll run through what my Commonplace book looks like, what goes in it and how you can start your own.

Follow and share:

The True Value of Friendship in a Facebook World

Friends pretty much rock our world. In fact they often are the proverbial ‘rock’.

They are the ones we share our life with, our trials and tribulations, late night philosophical discussions (when too much wine has been consumed), the laugh-out-loud moments and our deepest, darkest fears.

If, as esteemed philosopher A C Grayling claims “relationships are central to what constitutes the meaning of life”, then friendship is at the core of our existence.

As social creatures we all seek that sense of belonging and friendships offer us that security and comfort only to be found in another.

But in a ‘Facebook’ world, I wonder if the quick and easy claims to ‘Friend’ are fast blurring these lines for what constitutes this most valuable of relationships?

Has friendship lost some of its lustre, meaning and even value for us?


We can look at our own friendships over the years and readily admit that they have affected us in a multitude of ways.

Friendfluence is the powerful and often unappreciated role that friends—past and present—play in determining our sense of self and the direction of our lives” CARLIN FLORA

The fact that we find ourselves caught in a connection with someone who was at one point a stranger, is remarkable, but a testament to the value of friends in helping us to thrive and grow.

Aristotle believed friendship to be a virtue….

‘most necessary with a view to living … for without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods’.

The Greeks extolled friendship and saw human love of another, as one of the richest and highest forms of existence.

I know times have changed since Aristotle got about in an off-the-shoulder-cloth, but his words resonate today just as clearly.

All the wealth in the world could not sustain us in the way true friendship does. The sort that is unguarded, honest and heartfelt.

“In friendship there is nothing fictitious, nothing simulated and it is in fact true and voluntary” -Cicero

Aristotle who studied and wrote profusely on the topic, presents three types of friendship: Perfect, Pleasure and Utility

  1. Perfect Friendship  is as the names says; perfectly founded on the best of intentions for one another.These are the kinds of friends you’d do anything for and are happy to share your deepest secrets with.
  2. Pleasure Friendships are those we often like to have fun with, but wouldn’t necessarily share our problems with.
  3. Utility Friendship is based on the usefulness of the friend. The relationship lasts only as long as two people find each other useful.

So, right now you’re probably busy categorising each of your ‘friends’. But herein lies the question; surely each of these ‘types’ of friendships have their role to play in our lives and us in theirs?

Surely all our friendships should be valued?

Numbers game

Aristotle thought you could only have a small number of true ‘Perfect’ friends, as these were the type that took time to cultivate and develop, while ‘Pleasure’ and ‘Utility’ friends could be greater in number.

One very recent and interesting study by a social anthropologist Robin Dunbar, suggested that the average number of friends a human can sustain is around 150. This is inevitably made up of a range of different types of friends and can include members of our family.

Interestingly researchers who also analysed 3 million Twitter users, and 380 million tweets, found a corresponding number – 150 people seems to be our limit when it comes to ‘Friends’.

Numbers aside, friendship’s true value lies not in how many we have or the type, but in its power to help us thrive in a crazy world, to heal our unease about who we are and to ultimately make us better people.

The ancient Greeks revered it and today still, friendship offers us real value in our lives; emotionally, physically and mentally.

So it seems reasonable to argue that friends are not only of significant value to us, but vital to our collective existence.

Not to be taken for granted, we quite simply need each other.

For some more interesting theories on Friendship read this.

Most Famous Real-life Friendships in History #infographic


You can also find more infographics at Visualistan

Follow and share: