Commonplace Journaling Guide for 2024

Realize your goals, learn from your mistakes, discover your inner nature, and craft your character. All that’s required is a pen, notebook, and a handful of minutes a day.


  1. The Commonplace Journal
  2. Building Your Commonjournal
  3. Daily Entries
  4. Migrating to a New Journal
  5. Progress Tracking

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 kept what I call a “commonplace journal”, combining the knowledge collection of a commonplace book with the introspection and self-discovery of a journal.

The result, is a daily journal that serves as a tool to cultivate a varied and interconnected knowledge set, with insights into our nature, and how we can best navigate the chaotic and ever changing world we inhabit.

WIth this tool, you will learn faster, create new ideas more often, make fewer mistakes over time, find peace in times of turmoil, and create a

Surmoil, and create an ever-expanding personal code on living life and living it well.

And since it will be a 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. Tracing its origins to the middle ages,the commonplace book achieved the height of its popularity 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, at best a few weeks, often much sooner when 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 keeping a commonplace journal, I suggest we return to the power of analog, 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 commonplace, 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 . . .

  1. Personal experience.
  2. The experience of others. This is observed personally or instructed from others.
  3. Knowledge from recorded or preserved media. This includes books, television and the internet.
  4. 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.

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2. Building Your Commonjournal

Begin with buying a high-quality journal. For $50-80 you will have a journal with a beautiful leather cover and high-quality paper that will be pleasant to write in. The choice of cover between hardcover or softcover will be one of personal preference, I prefer a leather slipcover 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.

Writing Implements

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 entry level fountain pen, LAMY safari fountain pen, extra fine (jetpens), you’ll want a converter as well.

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

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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.

Personal Exercises

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.

Making Adjustments

Over time you will find the perfect balance of the preceding structure, usually after one to two iterations of your commonplace journal.

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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.

Essential Topics

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.
  • Desires.
  • Experiences.
  • 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.

Journaling Prompts

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.

Morning Prompts

  • Three things I’m 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?

Evening Prompts

  • 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?

By searching the interest, you’ll find nearly endless ideas that you can turn into prompts for maximizing your journaling results.,

Over the years however, I find myself returning to three consistent journaling prompts daily, answered either in the morning or evening.

I start by writing each of the following words, vision, learned, and tomorrow. After each word, I write as much as is needed, or as much as time will allow. There’s no set structure to what follows each word, only the free flow of consciousness and interacting it afterwards.

  • Vision -> What is the vision you have for your life? This could be your vision for your life’s mission, goals, career, family, and so on. Your ability to create the life you desire is directly tired to your belief system and your ability to envision it. This daily prompt is your opportunity to theoretically hone all of the above so you may turn it into a reality.
  • Learned -> How did today go, and what have I learned from it? Did my mental models serve me well, did they fail entirely? What can I adopt, adjust, or discard? What can I do differently next time to avoid the painful consequences of a mistake?
  • Tomorrow -> Today is gone, but I may still awake in the morning and have another opportunity to live life again. What events will I experience tomorrow, what’s on my calendar, what do I need to be careful of, what should I put in place for success?

Over time you’ll create your own set of prompts and ideas. Personalize this, explore, and don’t be afraid to make these as unique as you are.

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4. Migrating to a New 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.

Migration Structure

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.

Journal Review

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 the 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.

Creating Topics

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.

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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 commonplace journal 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 . . .

  1. Temperance – Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence – Speak not but what may benefit others of yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order – Let all your things have their places, let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution – Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality – Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e. waste nothing.
  6. Industry – Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful, cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity – Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice – Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation – Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries smooch as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness – Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility – Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. 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.
  13. 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 code or standards, some helpful questions to engage with are . . .

  • What are my values, and why are they 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?

A more contemporary example can be found in The Code, The Evaluation, The Protocols by Jocko Willink. (amazon)

For Jocko, these include . . .

  • Physical fitness, sleep, nutrition, intellectual fitness, time management, fiscal responsibility, time management, personal goals, professional performance, skill advancement, humility, emotional control, mentoring and charity, family and relationships, disaster preparation, and community impact.

To ensure your progress, each month dedicate a page in your commonjournal with a simple grid. Along the columns of the grid, list each trait of your code, and along the bottom, each day of the month.

When tracking each day, like Jocko you may opt for a simple scoring method of scoring your actions with a 0, 1, or 2.

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.

Your goal isn’t to max a 2 in each category every day but to ensure you’re creating enough progress to accomplish the goals you’d like. Some categories that do not have strong goals aligned with them may see a long string of zeroes, others that are running well may simply see a string of consistent 1’s which can be 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 code and standards.

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