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.


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Author: rechelleroz

Hi, I'm Rechelle. Mum to three, energetic (is there any other kind) boys and married to a Pole (he's Polish). We live on the beautiful and aptly named, Sunshine Coast in Australia. We moved here 4 years ago, after a stint in the UK. I'm a teacher, love reading and writing in my spare time and hitting the beach. My secret passion is home-grown philosophy, not the university kind. I love thinking about 'stuff' and pondering our lot in life. I'm also slightly addicted to bakery treats (now there's a whole other blog!)

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