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Keeping a Stunning Commonplace Book as Your Second Brain for Your Life

by Sam H Arnold 26 days ago in workflow
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Which is better a paper or electronic knowledge system?

Being a constant learner of new platforms and techniques, you would have thought I was all about technology. But you would be wrong. Instead, I keep a computer-based second brain and a paper-based Commonplace book.

What is a Commonplace book

A commonplace book is a resource or collection of ideas, quotes, and observations. Commonplace books are believed to have been around since antiquity - guides to writing a commonplace book date back as early as the 17th century. The purpose is to keep hidden gems for use later.

The commonplace book does not have to be a notebook but could be a series of index cards. The project is as individual as the writer. I prefer to take notes and then add them later; you might have another method. Again this is down to the individual choice.

Bill Clinton, from his 20's, kept a Rolodex of contacts. This commonplace book provided a network he could rely on when elected.

Thomas Jefferson has a very famous commonplace book. This has recently been printed for us all to share. In his book, he kept details of politics; he copied excerpts and abstracts from books. He jotted down his philosophical ideas. Jefferson's record became a hugely historical document

It isn't only politicians that adopted a commonplace book. Darwin first came up with his natural selection theory when he was 29. From then onwards, he read contrasting ideas and theories. Throughout this, he jotted these down in his notebook. When he was 50, he had finally amassed enough information to write his entire theory.

Less Friction

It isn't just to follow in the footsteps of these greats, though, why I have a commonplace book. It is mainly because there is less friction when I am reading to open up a notebook and jot down a quote and an idea.

If I use my second brain, which I have written about extensively and is on Obsidian, it means picking up my laptop and then typing in the quote. It takes longer, and sometimes I am distracted by that notification, so I don't return to my reading quickly.

More deliberate

Paper has another advantage that many people see as a disadvantage. It makes you more intentional with what you write. If you don't have that shiny delete button, you are more careful with what you put on paper.

It allows you time to think honestly about what you are adding. You are more likely to condense what you say if you write by hand rather than typing, especially if you are like me and type far faster than you write.

Better retention

Many researchers have also discovered that memory retains more information if you write it down. This is why college students make handwritten notes to revise.

Committing pen to paper helps the brain solidify the facts and turn short-term memories into longer ones helping you retain the knowledge more accurately.

Check this out yourself, take written notes from one article and then typewrite from another, which article you can remember better.

Setting an example

Although all these reasons are good, this is my main reason for using a Commonplace book.

I have a young family home I am trying to teach them that everything should not be about technology. How do I do this if they constantly see me with a computer in hand? I have to teach them by leading by example.

Not that I am negative about technology for children, I'm very grateful that technology has helped my eldest with ASD learn to talk and many other facts, such as the planets in the solar system. She consumes knowledge as fast as I do on her iPad.

There is a place for technology at most ages, but seeing me write is another skill they want to learn. You can guarantee as soon as I get my pad out; one of them wants to write on it. It is brilliant practice for them and I have a special memory in my book for years to come.

Making lasting memories

I was teaching as we went into the pandemic and I remember telling many of my students to journal whilst at home. It would help their mental health and be a brilliant record for them.

A journal of a time unique in history. Can you imagine your fifteen-year-old being able to share their journal with their grandchildren sixty years from now? What a fantastic time capsule!

That is the other advantage of a Commonplace book; your children are far more likely to keep a journal of all your old writing than a computer full of your files.

Over the years, you will have created a record of thoughts and ideas throughout your life. Going through older commonplace books can provide a nostalgic trip back for all.


About the author

Sam H Arnold

I know where the bodies are buried and I’m not afraid to tell you - author of True Crime, History and Fiction. Find me on Twitter [email protected]

Or find my crime magazine here -

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