Journaling and Commonplacing

You might think of journaling as a hobby for your nonexistent free time, and most likely, you’ve never even heard of commonplacing. For myself, these two activities are not just a hobby, but vital tools for my life. In fact, I would say that these are the two single best tools that I know of to help someone become a life-long learner.


While I kept a journal off-and-on for over ten years, it wasn’t until 2012 that I began to journal regularly. My journal became, not a place to record occasional thoughts, or the hum-drum events of life, but a repository for all the observations, life lessons, tidbits, and useful thoughts that come to me.

This is the benefit of keeping a journal – it is a physical location to store valuable thoughts for the future. In this sense, it is so much more than a dry record of events. You may have a thought today that, in ten years, would help you – without a journal, you will certainly forget it. With a journal, you will be able to save it, review it, and use it at the appropriate time.

The physical process of taking time out of your day (and it may only be 5-10 minutes) for journaling forces you to ask the question: ‘what is useful to record from today?’ You can always learn something, and most likely, there are valuable lessons that arose from your day. Taking the time to ask this question will reveal those for you. Without asking the question, or recording the answer, you lose these opportunities forever.


While we rarely hear of commonplacing today, it was a common activity in the 18th and 19th centuries. A commonplace book is a place to record excerpts, quotations, and summaries from your reading material.

The commonplace book is the essential tool for students and writers. What is the use of reading a huge book, if in a year or two you have completely forgotten what it said? What is the benefit of a sentence, or paragraph, that is profoundly wise, if you forget it soon after reading it?

Summarizing is an important skill that most moderns have lost. I remember reading of a young man who was educated by his parents in the 19th century. Each day his father took a long walk with him, and the boy was expected to summarize his readings to his father. His father had also read the reading assignments, and pointed out to his son when his summaries missed crucial information. Over time, the young man developed a brilliant mind – in large part due to the exercise of summarizing.

How I use Journaling and Commonplacing

As I mentioned, I’ve been journaling (and commonplacing) for about five years. I currently have eight books filled my thoughts, observations, summaries, and excerpts. While some people may find it useful to keep two separate books, I combine my journal and my commonplace book into one book, making it easier to carry around.

And carry it around I do! At any point in the day, at home, work, or elsewhere, it is rarely more than a hundred feet from me. Keeping it around me constantly allows me to record great ideas at any moment, as well as wise or witty sayings.

I find that mornings work better for this exercise than evenings. In the morning, while the previous day is still fresh on my mind, I take a few minutes to record my thoughts, observations, and lessons from yesterday. Evenings – I find – are too rushed to do this task justice. In the morning, I have a little more time to think, and I’m not so tired that I want to finish and go to bed.

I call my journals my ‘external brain’ because that is exactly what they are. I find that simply writing information down helps cement it in my memory, but I still can’t remember the information perfectly. Having a set of journals to refer to helps me remember so much more than my internal brain can on its own.


When I finish a journal, I take some time to create an index of the important information in the back.

How do I remember what I recorded? First, I periodically read through these journals. Doing this is not only informative, but it is often fascinating. Second, when I finish a journal, I take some time to index it, creating an index in the back that directs me to the pages that contain significant information.

A final benefit of journaling this way is that it provides a wealth of information when I need it. My sisters say that I have a ‘saying for everything,’ and while this isn’t exactly true (I wish I had more), the sayings that I do have come from my journals. At other times, I refer to my journals for further thoughts on a subject that I am writing on. In fact, much of the information on this blog comes from my journals – previous thoughts that I have recorded, and find useful for the present.

In just over two months, a new year will begin. Perhaps journaling and commonplacing will make it to your New Year’s Resolutions list! If so, I’m confident that you will find the benefits well worth your time.