My second brain: the commonplace book

My second brain: the commonplace book

Starting in 2014, I made a concious effort to read more books. Not just reading while on vacation or at the beach, but using the free time in my week to pick up interesting books. All books were non-fiction or biographies. Other books seemed like a waste of time. A year later, I got back into fiction with the Game of Thrones series. That is when I regained my love of reading fantasy books, but my reading goal was still very vague and inconsistent.

In 2016 I defined my goal to read at least 25 pages a day, which amounts to 9.125 over de course of a year. In the end I didn’t make this goal and read closer to 7.000 pages, but I feel like 25 pages a day should be an easy target. As I explained in my previous article, everyone’s schedule contains wasted time. There should be some slack in everyone’s system, and reading should be an enjoyable activity, not a chore. So in 2017 I continued with the same goal, but this time I am breaking through it and am well on my way to read at least 10.000 pages. That’s probably over 30 books. Perhaps less since I’m reading William Manchesters 3 part series on Winston Churchill (around 3.000-3.500 pages).

By reading every day, I sift through a lot of valuable information. I found that simply retaining all read information is not something the brain is made for. At least not my brain.  I couldn’t see myself with a large notebook every time I want to read. So my dilemma was that on the one hand I wanted to retain more information, but on the other hand, reading should remain a simple and fun activity.

That is when I came across Ryan Holiday’s Commonplace Book. The methodology Ryan uses is that everytime he reads something that stands out for him, he folds the page or makes a small note in the book itself for later reference. After reading the book and giving his brain the time to swish around the information for a coupel of weeks, he takes a 4 by 3 index card and transfers all the quotes, phrases or thoughts onto it. One note per index card, allowing for categorization of each card.

He’s no advocate of a digital system, since Ryan feels that the effort of actually physically writing the notes down on an index card increases the value of the information.

I don’t necessarily disagree, but I find that the system I use is more compatible with me. Whenever I read a physical book, I use Ryan’s method of making small notes in the book itself. Sometimes when I want to immediately process information, I transfer my thoughts directly to a note card. I make sure to always have some on hand. After finishing the book, I go through my notes and transfer them to Google Keep. I make one ‘Keep card’ per thought or phrase and tag the general subject for later reference. I am increasingly reading e-books for the advantage of always having the book with you and synching between all devices. Google Books contains a setting where all the marked text is saved to a Google Doc. So there is no distraction while reading, because you can simply mark the interesting text and continue reading. Then after reading the book and giving the stuff I read a chance to find its place in your mind, I transfer and tag these notes in my Google Keep commonplace book.

After I established my commonplace book with the notes I took while reading, I expanded my effort to note EVERYTHING interesting, ranging from lessons I learn in my day job, birthday discussions or on the road. I really like one of the lessons Ryan learned from Robert Greene (the author of The 48 Laws of Power):

It’s all material. Everything bad that happens, everything frustrating or delayed or disappointing—all of it can be fuel for a book. It can teach you something that helps you improve your business, it can become a story you pass along to a friend. Don’t get upset about the things that happen. See it as collecting data. Observe it. Turn it into material.”

By keeping a commonplace book, I am never at a loss for writing material. If I feel down, I simply look under the stoicism tag to read some valuable lessons on letting go on the things that aren’t under your control. I use the same notes for fitness motivation and recipes. Sometimes I simply go through my notes to reread valuable life lessons that have faded in my memory over time. By sharing my book notes, I provide a peek into all the stuff I record while reading a book for the world to learn from. Because a commonplace book can take a multitude of forms and can be created in all kinds of ways, I recommend everyone to start recording what is valuable for themselves. I found a way to make the commonplace book my second brain, why skimp on this luxury?

One Reply to “My second brain: the commonplace book”

  1. Thanks for sharing your useful experience. I am having a commonplace book on Onenote and I’m using it literally in everything; Goals, Ideas, Books notes, my field of study, programming, health and habits tracking, websites bookmarks, Knowledge and trivia, entrainment (list of favourite songs and pieces, Films/tv shows tracker), the thing I’m just using it on desktop, So I thought I could switch to keep or at least use google keep in the go, to note stuff then re-enter them in Onenote.

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