Write Things Down in a Commonplace Book

Keep a commonplace book of things you want to remember. You will wish you had written it down.

What is “it”? Everything that makes you go “hmmm.” Anything that strikes you as important. From books you read, podcasts you listen to, conversations you have with friends. Anything.

You can use cheap notebooks. You can use bullet journals. You can use Evernote or some other online tool.

I prefer hand-written notes for things I want to remember. And to hold them, I prefer 4×6 index cards. Not the cheap, flimsy paper that people try to pass off as index cards these days. Actual index cards that have some weight to them.

I spend a lot of time writing on these things so I want it to be enjoyable. A quality index card is just something that feels good to me.

I’m going to show you my system that has worked for me for the past few years, which is a riff off of Ryan Holiday’s system.

First, I underline and mark up my books. After I am done reading I go back through and transfer what I wrote and/or underlined to index cards. One card per thought. I categorize it and write the page number and book for reference.

If I transfer a direct quote, I put it in quotes.

Index card with a note about Washington
Index card with a note from Mind of the Maker

Second, once I get enough in one category, I group them together in the container. This can be done easily with Post-it filing tabs.

Notecards organized in a storage container.

Not complicated. It just takes a little extra time for each book that I read.

The hardest part is coming up with good names for the categories. Or figuring out if something belongs in a pre-existing category. And remembering what those pre-existing categories are.

But that is a common problem with all taxonomies that try and organize content.

Some of my most populous categories:

  • Metaphor – I write down great metaphors I come across. Mostly from fiction, but many come from non-fiction. Wodehouse and Pratchett are good for these.
  • Creativity
  • Writing
  • Washington – biographies contribute the most, so they usually get their own category.
  • Management/Leadership
  • Productivity

I also have a growing collection for each book of the Bible and for each of the virtues.

If I’m writing about a topic, these cards are indispensable.

What does this have to do with fatherhood and parenting?

You must accrue wisdom. To accrue it, you must remember it. To remember something, unless you have a phenomenal memory, you must write it down. To be able to use it, you need to organize it so you can find stuff.

I have one category named What My Kids Said. My children say so much funny stuff that I would forget most of it if I didn’t write it down. Going through this group of cards brings me joy.

Looking at them now, I see the following:

Youngest son: You can go left, backwards, forwards, and fivewards!

I also have a category for Life/To the Kids. These are general life lessons and examples I come across that I think are important for me to remember for my own improvement and to eventually impart to my own children.

In a world where we are drowning in information, curation is valuable. Curation is necessary. Our “information overload” problem will get worse, not better.

I hope my commonplace book, this curation of wisdom, will be part of the legacy I pass on.