What is a commonplace book?
It’s a single place to keep your thoughts, ideas, quotes, observations and information you come across in your life for later use.
“Great wits have short memories” - Chinese proverb
When you were younger, maybe you created lists of your favourite foods, things or people you didn’t like. Maybe you kept newspaper clippings or recipes from magazines. That’s a commonplace book.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s an analogue system like a notebook or index cards. Or something digital, such as OneNote, Evernote, or even a set of text files. Use whatever works best for you.
In fact, if you already keep a diary or use Pinterest, you may already be keeping a commonplace book without even realising.
In this article, I cover why and how I use Bear Writer to maintain mine.
It’s worth noting that I don’t just use it for collecting and collating things. I also use it as part of my daily journalling since I want a single trusted system that I can search when I need it.
Why would you keep one?
Why wouldn’t you? Some of the greatest people throughout history kept them, as well as common people like us. Cheap notebooks made it possible for soldiers to record their thoughts and observations. In fact, if it weren’t for folk like us, we’d have much less understanding and first-hand information about many events like wars.
If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll have noticed my interest in Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was more or less a commonplace book. Do an internet search for ”commonplace book” and you’ll find plenty of examples that may inspire you to start keeping one.
“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech – and learn them so well that words become works.” - Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
As Seneca said, we should be recording the information that is helpful and practical to us in our lives. If you’re writing on a regular basis then noting ideas, quotations, etc is a helpful practice for your brain. You will make new connections and have a rich source of information to draw upon.
As I alluded to above, keeping a diary or journal is a great start. Many people jot notes on paper or index cards, make notes in books as they read them, later transferring them into their commonplace book.
You might think that tediously copying out items is a waste of time, but it’s important to spend some time doing it. It forces you to make it count and the act of writing it down helps cement it into your memory.
But, I also think it’s important to be able to quickly capture items that might otherwise not get captured. For example, those fleeting shower thoughts you have so you need to have a system to try to catch those too.
Ryan Holiday, in particular, thinks that it’s essential to use something physical. I prefer a combination of both analogue and digital to have as much chance of capturing something when it occurs. When I’ve written something in a physical book I will later review and write it up into Bear, helping to cement my knowledge and let it percolate.
There isn’t a “One True Way” to do it. It can be as simple as starting with a blank notebook and a pen or a text file on your computer. Just start and find your own system that works for you.
If you want to try a digital system, here’s how I organise mine with Bear currently.
Why Bear Writer?
I’ve tried other solutions like Evernote and OneNote. They both allow for this sort of thing but they do bind you into their more proprietary systems which makes it harder to leave. However, an absolutely critical component of a digital commonplace book is ease of migration. I don’t want to pour years into a system that becomes inaccessible because of the inevitable march of technology, or the service goes out of business, or through some other factor that is outside of my control. It’s imperative that I can pick it up and move it elsewhere without difficulty. This means I use plain text using markdown syntax. Bear lets me do this while still looking good from a text styling point of view. I can export all my notes as markdown documents whenever I need to. The tags, titles and markdown structure make it possible for me to convert to a different system if I need to later.
Bear is a very lightweight application which is available on all my devices and there is very little friction to add a new note. This is essential for capturing those fleeting thoughts.
Soon, I plan to get an iPad Pro and Pencil to take it to the next level of writing and sketching. The holy grail will be something which allows it to be handwritten but convertible to text for later ease of searching and copy/pasting. I’m hoping I can keep using Bear to do this.
There are several ways to get information into Bear beyond the obvious, direct method of creating a new note.
On Macs, there are free browser extensions for Safari, Chrome, and Firefox which allow you to save whole web pages or portions of it. You can configure them to import images and add the page URL to the created note, as well as add default tags. I have set a default tag of
#review to make it easy to find and later categorise at my leisure. Very often the imported web pages are formatted for you.
On iOS, Bear includes an App Extension making it easy to grab text, links, photos, and files from other apps. Use the share icon and choose Bear. You can choose to create a new note or append or prepend the selected information to an existing note. In browsers, you also have the option to save the whole web page content.
Bear also supports the x-callback-url protocol which means you can control Bear via URLs on both Mac and iOS. This makes it easy to create your own bookmarklets or other little apps to get something into Bear. (In fact, the Alfred workflow I mentioned above uses this method.)
For example, I created a little bookmarklet which lets me add an URL and the page title to a Today I read note. It then opens the note so I can add any other quick comments. I use this to record anything I read on the web that I want to note or remember during my journalling activities.
Snippets and templates
When I add a note I will usually use a template to create consistent notes around topics. I have several TextExpander and Alfred snippets to capture information in a structured form. I heavily cribbed from Michael Schecter’s Better Mess so that I could later export the data and have it still make sense in a set of text files.
This involves using a naming system which captures the type of information, the title and a date. For example, when I’m capturing a quotation I use:
quotex - name of quotee - 2017-10-25
In the case of quotes, my template has placeholders and titles for me to complete in a consistent manner.
My other main note category headings are:
Blogx – Blog post title or idea - yyyy-mm-dd
Ideax – Actionable idea - yyyy-mm-dd
Thoughtx - Tangent for blog or idea - yyyy-mm-dd
Runx – Running lists of books, unprocessed to-dos, calls, and the like (no date)
Why blogx, quotex and not simply blog or quote you may ask? Bear’s search functionality is pretty powerful so it’s not strictly necessary but if I were to export the data to files it’s a lot easier to find quotes using quotex than quote. Otherwise, you could end up with a lot of extra results that aren’t what you’re looking for. Additionally, it makes my snippet expansions consistent and unique since I type
;runx, and so on for expanding the appropriate template.
While we’re on the topic of templates, as I also use Bear for journalling I have a TextExpander snippet to create a daily journal entry that’s based on Michael Hyatt’s template.
Categories (aka tagging)
Categorising the information in your commonplace book is essential. The categories you choose will very much depend on the sort of information you record. As you saw above, I have several styles of notes where I use the category as part of the note heading, e.g. blogx. In addition, I use a series of tags to further categorise the notes - and this is where Bear is in a league of its own. You’re probably familiar with the hashtag syntax, popularised by Twitter. In Bear, you can add as many tags to your note as necessary by prepending the word with a hash (#) wherever you want in the note. I add mine at the end of a note but sometimes will put one right by the relevant bit of information in a longer note. So far, you’re probably thinking “that sounds like most other note-taking apps that support some form of tagging”. Bear takes this and super-charges it. Firstly, when it sees a tag, it gets added to a tags navigational menu. Clicking or tapping on a tag instantly filters the notes list. Your tags can comprise multiple words - surround the words with hashes
#this is a multi-word tag#, et voilà. Next, you can nest tags infinitely deep - this is killer. It means you can categorise and sub-categorise notes into meaningful hierarchies. You no longer need to end up with a ridiculously long tag list. You do this using slash notation. For example, I have lots of projects that I work on so I use a nested system like
#project/30dta. This means I only have about 15 top-level tags, which I’m sure I could cut down further. This form of hierarchy and the navigational menu comes in handy for my journalling. My daily journal note for today has a tag like
#journal/2017/Nov/18. Tomorrow, it’ll be
#journal/2017/Nov/19. This enables me to filter notes by year, month and day without resorting to searching.
Finally, it’s important to review, organise and (re)categorise regularly otherwise you’ll end up with a mess. If you can’t find what you’re looking for quickly and easily it’s easy to become discouraged.
During my weekly review session, I filter my notes which have a
#review tag attached. These are notes that I captured in the moment or via a browser extension. I read through the note, add any further information or clean up the formatting. Then I’ll add any tags before removing the
Merging and linking notes
Bear has several powerful features that make reviewing simple.
You can rename and merge tags if you decide they can be categorised better. This changes them across all your notes. Renaming a tag is as simple as right-clicking on a tag in the tag bar and choosing Rename Tag.
If you want to combine several notes into one, you can select two or more notes, right-click and choose Merge.
Over time, and as you review your notes you’ll likely want to link to other notes. You can do this in two ways. The most obvious one is to right-click on the note in the list you need to link to and choose Copy Link to Note. You’ll have a link on your clipboard you can paste into whichever note/s you need to. This is all well and good but typically you’ll be in the middle of writing a note when you want to add a link to another. It can be painful to have to go and find that note, copy the link to it and return to the original note to paste it in. It’s easier now that you can open Bear notes in multiple windows but there’s an even simpler method. If you know the title of the note, just surround the title with double square brackets to create a link
[[note title here]].
I scratched the surface of what Bear can do and how it can help you maintain a commonplace book. It has lots of other features and many more improvements planned.
I’ll finish with a few quick tips and practices that I’ve found to be helpful for daily use.
- Don’t pin lots of notes - it doesn’t take long before that gets out of hand. Instead, pin a note which acts as a table of contents to frequently needed notes.
- Use the x-callback protocol as an easy way to extend other applications or tools like Alfred. Create quick bookmarklets or workflows to speed up access to commonly used notes. For example, I have created a workflow to prepend text to a running scratch note to quickly jot a note. I also have one to open the scratch note in a new Bear window.
- The Bear Pro subscription automatically syncs all your notes across devices with iCloud. You can never have too many backups though, so every week I also export all my notes as markdown to a Dropbox folder.
- Create templates for common note structures and use a tool to make inserting them into your notes a snap. I recommend TextExpander or the snippets in Alfred.