This guide outlines my system of keeping a commonplace journal, a method of journaling modeled after renaissance masters and great men of history.
When consistently implemented, your commonplace journal will bring you unparalleled insights into your nature, the world around you, and above all, self-mastery.
Table of Contents
- The Commonplace Journal
- Building Your First Journal
- Daily Entries
- Progress Tracking
- Useful Templates (coming soon)
1. The Commonplace Journal
”Understand yourself: your temperament, intellect, opinions, emotions. You can’t be master of yourself if you don’t first understand yourself. There are mirrors for the face, but none for the spirit: let discreet self-reflection be yours. And when you cease to care about your external image, focus on the inner one to correct and improve it. Know how strong your good sense and perspicacity are for any undertaking and evaluate your capacity for overcoming obstacles. Fathom your depths and weigh up your capacity for all things.”Baltsar Gracián
For years I’ve been keeping what I call a “commonplace journal”, a powerful combination of the commonplace books that were essential to the lives of renaissance masters infused with a non-traditional journal.
After sharing with a client how I use mine and how it’s far more powerful than a simple diary or journal, I decided to write a mini-series on what a commonplace journal is, how it will help you, and how to craft your own.
Your commonplace journal will help you generate vast interconnected knowledge, unparalleled insights into your nature, understanding the world around you with extreme realism and self-mastery itself.
Said another way, it’ll help us learn faster, create new ideas more often, make fewer mistakes, help us find peace when dealing with emotional turmoil, and create an ever expanding personal code on living life and living it well.
And since it will be physical object, edited and honed and rewritten over a lifetime, it can also be passed down as a cherished heirloom.
Commonplace Book : A scrapbook filled with ideas, quotes, aphorisms, observations, anecdotes, recipes, formulas, and personal knowledge. Private and personal in nature. Usually kept in the form of a physical book and popular during the renaissance to 19th century.
Journal : A personal book kept with chronological events and introspective entries. Journaling has been used throughout the ages to reflect, focus our thoughts, record memories, and discover our natural inclinations and purpose.
Most people adopt the habit of journaling only to discard it after the initial buzz of a new purchase and novelty has worn off, typically 1-3 weeks, often much sooner if keeping a digital journal.
While going digital has allowed us to consume vast amounts of information, capture, and store it safely forever, it’s precisely this dynamic that ruins such a project like the commonplace journal.
In the matter of keeping a commonplace journal, I suggest we return to the power of analogue, like the American founding fathers and the renaissance masters who kept such books.
A physical, written book has power precisely for the fact it requires more of our time, our most precious resource. Digital brings with it the problem of simply capturing ever expanding amounts of information without it ever becoming interconnected ideas, knowledge or wisdom. Yes, there is value in digital, and it is essential for my writing projects and coaching, but the foundation for my personal life that I keep returning to is my commonplace journal.
The commonplace journal combines the power of a journal’s introspection and insights with that of the scrapbooked knowledge and wisdom you encounter in life.
This combination serves as the meeting place, or common place, to generate new insights, creation of ideas, interconnected knowledge and ultimately mastery of self and the world around us.
To achieve these results we must understand the four primary ways we source our information. These four sources shape our worldview, the lens through which we understand our lives and world.
The four primary sources of information are . . .
- Personal experience.
- The experience of others. This is observed personally or instructed from others.
- Knowledge from recorded or preserved media. This includes books, television and the internet.
- Creating connections and discovering commonalities between the above 3 resulting in new and novel knowledge.
In your commonplace journal you’ll be capturing 1-3, leading to the creation of 4, improving over time as you continue your practice.
As humans we rarely see our world as it truly is, but instead as we wish it to be. We filter our present circumstances and experiences through a subjective lens of our past experiences. These lens become a form of prison, limiting our actions and how we can navigate events. Power itself is mastery of self, and no man can be master of his mind when he fails to see the world as it truly is.
In addition to creating new and novel knowledge, your commonplace journal will allow you to discover the beneficial and harmful lenses through which you see yourself and the world.
This personal book will, over time, become one of your most cherished possessions, an invaluable resource that you will find yourself returning to day after day.
2. Building Your First Journal
Begin with buying a high quality journal. For $50-80 you will have a journal that has a beautiful leather cover with high quality paper that will be a pleasure to write in. The choice of cover between hardcover or softcover should be one of personal preference, I personally prefer a leather slip cover where I can exchange paper inserts.
Don’t go the cheap route if you can avoid it here, the more enjoyable your journal is to use, the more likely you are to use it.
Durability is important as well, it should be robust enough to survive not only on your desk but in a bag taken around the world, removed and deposited on a daily basis. For paper size, A5 is pleasant for both travel and writability. Pages smaller than A5 will tend to provide a cramped canvas for writing your entries and reflections.
In my humble opinion, a journal is most beautiful when it is plain, inconspicuous, devoid of the grotesquely embroidered and decorated covers. These highly decorated journals tend to possess poor durability, often poor having been made with cheap materials, and age poorly with time.
Etsy is filled with shops dedicated to high quality journals but here are two suggestions if you are looking for the best.
Nanami Paper. A legend in online writing and calligraphy communities, prized for its Tomoe River Paper which is arguably the best (not to mention the thinnest) for fountain pen use. If you can manage to catch these when they are in stock, count yourself fortunate.
Taroko Etsy Shop. I personally own the A5 leather slip cover with the Enigma A5 dotted which uses the same Tomoe River Paper of Nanami.
It is recommended you use pen, rather than pencil for your journal since pencil graphite ages poorly with time.
Whether you prefer gel, ballpoint or fountain pens is one of personal preference.
I find myself using a fine tip gel for daily entries, and fountain pens with a diverse collection of Japanese inks for important events and reflections.
Here are my favorite writing tools to get you started . . .
Favorite journaling pen, the pilot juice up .4mm (amazon)
Favorite blue fountain pen ink, pilot iroshizuku fountain pen ink (amazon)
Creating the Index
Now that we have your journal in front of you, we begin with creating your index, should your journal not come with one. Having an index is critical for helping to quickly capture ideas and insights while easily finding past writings.
Your future self will thank you for a tidy index.
I recommend dedicating 1% of the total pages of your journal to your index, example being 200 page journal = 2 pages dedicated for the index. Should you possess a large journal, draw a line down the middle of each index page to subdivide each page into two.
Quotes & Principles
Create two entries on the last 6 pages of your journal.
Write “Quotes” at the top of the first three pages. These pages will be reserved for quotes you found inspiring, empowering, enlightening and so on.
Write “Principles” at the top of the last three pages. This section is for holding principles you’ve discovered to use as a foundation for future living and decision making.
These six pages will be the repositories of only the most valuable quotes and principles you discover, worthy of consistent self reflection and daily practice.
If you are unsure or hesitant to add particular quotes or principles to these page then simply add these to entries into the body of your journal and transfer them later to those precious pages after further review and reflection.
Over time as you continue to fill these 6 pages and migrate them into new journals, editing them as you do so, they will become a constant companion for helping you through the most difficult of times.
After your index, set aside 5 pages, writing “Exercises” at the top of each page.
These pages will hold the templates of practices, questions and exercises which you will refer back to as you use your journal.
I’ll be sharing a diverse mix of these for your consideration later in this series.
A preview of these includes . . .
- Self reflection exercises.
- Life reviews. Weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, etc.
- Examining root emotional causes and impacts, such as fear or self-doubt.
- Improving focus and productivity, such as the Ivy Lee method and Eisenhower quadrant.
Please feel free to adjust any of these sections as needed. Over time you will find the perfect balance of the preceding structure, usually after one to two iterations of your commonplace journal.
3. Daily Entries
By now you’ll have completed the skeleton of your journal, with all the remaining pages available for your daily entries.
These daily writings will consist of a personal mix of prompts, reflections, productivity exercises, book notes, self-reflections and more.
Start With One Line Per Day
Journaling begins with the habit of journaling itself. Simple, yes, but not always easy. In the beginning it’s common to quit after a week or two once the excitement of a new purchase and idea wears off.
Our first goal is to use the quickest and simplest way to compound the value of this habit, which is to write at least one line per day in your journal.
The secret to creating new habits is to make them rewarding and satisfying, which we’ll accomplish by writing either one success to celebrate or one lesson learned to improve your life.
Even if the success was as simple as making your bed, this reinforces a mindset of compassion and gratitude in your life.
Continue with writing one line per day as the foundation for your daily entries until you’ve established the habit of journaling as a default. You’ll know you’ve hit this milestone as you’ll begin to look forward to your writings everyday, and miss their absence when you skip them.
After our one line per day, to achieve the maximal value of your journal begin to focus on recording a selection of the essential topics below.
It’s best to write them down as soon as they occur to you which will further enhance the ability of your journal to deliver timely and powerful insights.
Essential topics consist of . . .
- Lessons learned.
- Choices and decisions. What was the thought process, logic, and outcome.
- Observations, of yourself and others.
- Mistakes and failures. Mistakes often provide the greatest insights and knowledge. Relationship, business, career, interpersonal, discipline, etc. These are key experiences to reflect and learn from.
- Successes. Explore the commonalities of what worked and why. Consider discovering the essential, singular aspect of what produced the majority of your success.
- Notes. From books, seminars, courses, etc.
- Principles such as human nature, psychology, philosophy and economic.
- Emotions. Especially capitalize on reflecting on strong emotional responses. Explore their root cause and the effect.
- Look to the commonalities, connections, reoccurrence and patterns of the above 10 together over time.
It’s best to write as though another human will never read your entries; these pages are for you and you alone. Therefore, be open and truthful with yourself.
Prompt Based Methods
In addition to your one line per day and essential topics, you can also use a personal mix of prompts to further enhance your practice.
Below you’ll find a curated mix I rotate through to use in the morning or evening.
I find using 2-3 per day tends to be a good starting point, however when exceeding 5 I’ve noticed that the habit of journaling begins to erode because of the increasing time sink.
- Three things I’m are grateful for . . .
- What could I do that is under my control, that I would do, to make my life a little bit better?
- If I lived even more consciously, freely, and courageously, I would . . .
- What would this task/project look like if it were easy?
- An idea I could experiment with today is . . .
- What is the most important thing to focus on today?
- Looking over my day, how’s today going to go?
- Three wins from today are . . .
- Today I learned . . .
- One thing I could’ve done to make today better and how can I apply it to tomorrow . . .
- Favorite thing of my day . . .
- What could I do tomorrow that is high leverage, meaning there would be an outsized effect for minimal input on my part . . .
- What thoughts and experiences can I put to rest today so I can sleep well?
Now it’s time we go into detail on the practice of migrating your journal, the most powerful and rewarding exercise in keeping your commonplace journal.
Migration is the powerful practice of selectively copying your old journal into a new one, compounding the value exponentially with each successive migration.
After about a year or so of keeping your commonplace journal, you will have built a well-worn book filled with quotes, principles, insights, reflections, life events, analyses and curated notes from the broad sources you have been learning from.
I’ve found it takes me about 2 to 3 years to fill my enormous 480 page notebook, which is why I recommend for newcomers to the practice you start with a journal closer to 100 to 200 pages. The reason being that migration is such a rewarding exercise it often cements keeping a commonplace journal into becoming a life-long habit.
This isn’t to say you’ll have 100-200 pages of deep reflections and philosophical writings however, any well used journal will contain trivial entries and fluff. Leonardo da Vinci was known to keep his grocery list in his workbooks.
Begin by taking out a new, blank journal and putting it alongside your currently filled one.
Revisit part 2 and create the outlined structure in your new journal.
Set both journals side by side, creating check boxes in the old index and choosing what you’d like to bring from the old into the new. You’ll be checking these boxes off as you successfully migrate these passages into your new journal, editing and condensing them as you do so.
Now review your “Quotes” and “Principles” sections and begin to copy the essential ones, discarding the ones that have served their purpose. This should free up a few of these precious pages pages for new writings.
After your second or third migration, add another 6 pages titled “Laws” after yours quotes and principles. This will serve as the section for the truths that are so precious, you wish to remind yourself on them daily. Consider this section your codex on living life and living it well to the standard you choose.
Having completed the new structure, you can now begin using your new journal for your daily entries, as copying and editing the above check boxed passages can take weeks to many months depending on their nature and how much you deem worth keeping.
I find I typically only bring about 20-30% of the various notes, quotes and principles from the old journal into the new, as various connections have been established between topics, as well as quotes and topics I no longer find relevant or worth the energy of writing.
The major benefit to this method is its ability to enhance your writing for clarity and brevity in communicating complex subjects as the prospect of copying 10 pages of dense handwritten notes can take easily an hour, encouraging you to heavily edit them down.
Next, we create a section in your journal titled “Journal Review: Date X – Date Y.”
Begin reading your old journal from the very first entry, copying into the new journal the important lessons, notes, experiences, behavior patterns and knowledge from your daily entries.
For some, reading these entries may be difficult, especially if you’ve encountered hardship and trauma. However, this is also an opportunity to celebrate your successes and to look back on your past self and smile.
Again, I want to stress, be compassionate towards yourself as you read and review these entries. Take pride in the fact that you are among rare company who engage in such a project of growth and development.
This process will not happen in one sitting, and may take several weeks to months of diligent writing depending on the size of your journals.
Migrating journals can become quite addicting, and if you love the process you may want to stay with journals of 100-200 pages. If you find you prefer to do this every 2-3 years, then using a journal of 300+ pages may be the best choice.
During your first migration, you will want to dedicate passages to specific topics and begin to collate your various notes into them.
Book notes can now start to be condensed together into topics. The 10 pages of notes I took from Robert Greene’s book Mastery can now simply be titled “Mastery” and serve as a foundation for adding future notes to it.
I like to keep these topics to about 10 pages to start, and adding a second entry in the index with another 10 pages should I fund the topic needs to grow.
These topics should be personally driven, but some examples from mine include power, habits, relationships, questions, learning and studying, minimalism, philosophy and mortality.
I use small, sticky note dividers for these topics with the name written on them for easy reference.
Repeating the Process
As you keep migrating your commonplace journal from one to the other, you’ll will edit, delete and combine your writings.
Don’t be afraid to discard previous writings, it’s a lot of work to copy 10 pages of notes from one journal to the next. The value of doing this by hand is that it forces you to condense and combine ideas into brief works.
Thoughts on Digital Capture
A few thoughts on scanning the pages of your journal into an app.
Digitally capturing this data is its own form of hoarding unless it is organized, indexed and subjected to a regular system of reference when appropriate.
Did that sound like a lot of work? It is, and the value of our journal system is in the fact it is relatively simple, analogue and requires your most precious resources, your daily time and attention to create and curate which will cause you to value it far more than digital counterparts.
If a particular topic was not worthy of copying into your new journal, it’s exceptionally unlikely you will actually review or use it in a digital app format.
If you choose to keep digital copies, it’s best to do so with the understanding that it is either for sentiments or that the passage is so valuable you wish to have a backup should both your NEW and OLD commonplace journals be lost or damaged.
However, this is not to say that you should not be capturing ideas or thoughts as they occur during your migration process into your task management system should it require action or workflow apps if it’s intended to serve as the basis for future works.
In Case of Loss and Theft
I like to keep my old commonplace journals in a safe location should my newest one ever be stolen or lost.
It’s reassuring to know that I would have a working, living backup in just such an instance to begin a new migration, even if such a loss would be incredibly upsetting in the moment.
In part 5 of our series we’ll be covering useful exercises and reflections to squeeze every last drop of value from your journal.
5. Progress Tracking
Losers have goals, winners have systems.
Since your commonplace journal will serve as a trusted daily companion, adding a progress tracking system will quickly become an incredibly illuminating and rewarding practice.
Your progress tracking system could include habits or goals, but what I’ve found to be even more valuable is to develop a personal code of conduct in line with your goals and values with which you’ll evaluate yourself against daily.
One example of this system in practice can be seen within Benjamin Franklin’s own commonplace journal of which he spoke of in his autobiography with great detail.
“I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.”
“Daily examination would be necessary, I contrived the following method for conducting that examination. I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.”Benjamin Franklin
The 13 virtues that Franklin selected in his quest for “moral perfection” were as follows . . .
- Temperance – Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation.
- Silence – Speak not but what may benefit others of yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
- Order – Let all your things have their places, let each part of your business have its time.
- Resolution – Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality – Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e. waste nothing.
- Industry – Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful, cut off all unnecessary actions.
- Sincerity – Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice – Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- Moderation – Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries smooch as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness – Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes, or habitation.
- Tranquility – Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- Chastity – Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
- Humility – Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
While it’s important to remember his list is both a product of his times and personal philosophy, we too can adapt his practice for our modern pursuits of self betterment.
When developing your own personal code or standards, some helpful questions to engage with are . . .
- What are my values, and why are the important to me?
- What behaviors do I want to reinforce in my life?
- What behaviors do I want to reduce or extinguish?
- How can I codify my values so I can measure myself against them?
- What things are most important to me?
- What future am I looking to create for myself and the people I care about?
- What mistakes am I looking to avoid?
- What have I been tolerating in my life that I no longer find acceptable to tolerate?
- What does success look like for my life, what does failure look like? Knowing this, what measures can I use to ensure I’m tracking towards success and away from failure?
Below is my daily code/standards, which is adapted from The Code, The Evaluation, The Protocols by Jocko Willink. (amazon)
Every month I dedicate a page in my common journal with writing each day of the month at the top of the page and each item of the code in a column on the left hand side. At the end of every day I’ll go down the daily column and write a 0, 1 or 2 to each item.
Should you borrow this template, it’s encouraged that you define what each means to you, and the standards you seek to hold yourself to in each area.
I’ve listed a simple example of how I engage with each value/standard through use of a question at the end of the day, while I keep a more exhaustive explanation of each in my journal.
- Physical Fitness – Did I follow a daily plan for developing and maintaining strength, mobility, and cardiovascular conditioning that will empower me to meet life’s physical challenges?
- Sleep – Did I get enough high quality sleep for optimal health and performance today?
- Nutrition – Did I eat proper the quality and amounts of foods that will help me look, feel and perform my best.
- Intellectual Fitness – Did I create intectual growth through creative projects, reading tough books or humbly exposing myself to new ideas and ways of thinking?
- Time Management – Was I a good steward of my most valuable and precious resource, my time?
- Fiscal Responsibility – Did I responsibly manage and invest my finances well?
- Personal Goals – Overall am I on track for the physical, intellectual, professional, and relationship goals I have set for myself?
- Professional Performance – Did I meet or exceed expectations at work, did I actively support and help my team improve?
- Skill Advancement – Did I undertake work to improve my craft, either through educational materials or seeking the experience of a teacher?
- Humility – Did I check my ego with others and open myself to hard truths?
- Emotional Control – Did I effectively control my emotions so I could be effective in my endeavors?
- Mentoring / Charity – Did I help others today, did I put others first before myself?
- Family / Relationships – Did I spend time and strengthen relationships with co-workers, family, and friends today?
- Disaster Preparation – Disaster and emergencies often arrive unannounced and will give little room for planning or preparation when they strike. Was I reasonably prepared for the foreseeable and unforeseeable?
- Community Impact – Did I make a difference in the communities I am a part of?
For daily scoring I mark down a 0, 1 or 2 and add up the totals of each category each month, which makes for easy comparison from month to month.
0 = No meaningful progress, did not engage with activity to a satisfactory level.
1 = Satisfactory progress, satisfactory actions taken.
2 = Exceptional progress, exceptional actions taken.
My goal isn’t to max a 2 in each category everyday but to ensure I’m creating enough progress to accomplish the goals I’d like. Some categories that do no have strong goals aligned with them may see long string of zeroes, others that are running well may simply see a string of consistent 1’s which is perfectly acceptable.
I recommend being flexible with how you grade yourself if you choose to adopt this practice, such as undertaking a fitness routine having never done one before. Simply going to the gym or performing a 10 minute home workout would constitute a 2 in progress, while months later after having a firmly established practice, such action would constitute a 1.
Most importantly, be honest with yourself. Few things are more powerful than having to confront the hard truth of how you are measuring up to your personal code and standards.
6. Useful Templates