Commonplace Books Part 3: Choosing a System

I narrowed my choice of commonplace book systems down to three systems I already owned and used (Images by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash, devontechnologies, DayOne, and Ulysses)

If you read books at all (and I mean even if you read just a little) you should consider keeping a commonplace book. I am writing a series of articles about commonplace books and this is the third article in the series, which talks about choosing a tool or system for keeping a commonplace book.

If you just getting into this series with this article I suggest you start at the beginning of the series and work your way through:

The Basic System

For many people just a simple notebook will work just fine as a commonplace book (Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash)

Before diving into some of the more complicated and technical options for keeping a commonplace book, let’s start with the basic option… good old pen and paper. Don’t knock it; after all, this is how the first commonplace book was kept. The most simple and easy way to get into keeping a commonplace book is to just pick up a nice empty notebook (there are a ton of options here both in types of notebooks and the style of paper in them) and get a writing utensil of some kind and start writing. Create a separate entry in your notebook for each item you which to capture. Depending on the reasons for why you are keeping a commonplace book you may want to organize the sections within the notebook by some sort of category or content type. But for the most part there is no super sophisticated organizational system or format; just write down the pieces of information as you come across them and move on. But think about how you will revisit what you write because that is the whole point of keeping a commonplace book. Choose a format, layout, and organizational scheme that works for how you process information. Ask yourself the question how you would look for a certain piece of information you wrote in your notebook several years from now and make sure that what ever format you choose is one that works for how you plan to use that data in the future.

The Technical and More Complicated Options

I was raised on computers, so my comfort zone is the digital realm. There was no question in my mind that I wanted to choose a digital option for my commonplace notebook. Here are just a few reasons why I chose digital:

  • I needed something that would work with a large variety of formats (physical books, digital books, digital articles, emails, digital photos, etc.).
  • I travel a lot so my system needed to be very portable and in the cloud so I could access it everywhere I go.
  • My handwriting is pretty terrible, so typing, dictation, or cutting and pasting was my preferred method of input.
  • Search capability was very high on my list of features. I wanted to be able to quickly do a search and find any piece of information I wanted quickly.
  • Research for both GeekDad and some of my side projects was another reason I wanted to keep a commonplace book, so my system needed to be able to utilize tags and categorizes so that I could rearrange the information later for use.
  • I also wanted to automate the process of revisiting my commonplace notebook because I knew if there was any friction associated with the process that I wouldn’t do it on a regular basis. Automation solves that problem for me.

With all the reasons down on paper it was now time for me to decide what digital system or tool to use for my commonplace book. So I started with digital tools I already owned and used for other purposes, those being Ulysses, DEVONThink, and DayOne. But those were just the options I started with. There are many, many more systems and tools that would make an excellent commonplace book. Here are just a few you might consider:

  • Evernote
  • Microsoft OneNote
  • Bear for iOS and Mac
  • Apple Notes for iOS
  • Pinterest
  • GoodNotes for iOS (all the power of digital but with the option of handwriting with an Apple Pencil if you choose)
  • Your very own wiki (there are a ton of options here)

How I Chose My System

This may seem like a lot of work, but since I narrowed it down to just three options I choose to keep a commonplace book in all three systems. After all, there is no better way to test out a tool than to just use it. So for a few months I kept three identical commonplace notebooks, one in Ulysses, one on DayOne, and one in DEVONthink.

I would love to be able to tell you that my decision was based on a complicated rating system, but it really came down to just a few key things for me. The first being that the DayOne app is built around the idea that the day you make an entry has some inherent meaning. For a commonplace notebook (at least for how I am keeping mine) that wasn’t the case. It didn’t matter what day, month, or year I wrote a quote from a book in my notebook. But maybe that does have some meaning for you and if so then you should take a close look at DayOne. I have been using the DayOne suite of apps (iOS and Mac) for about 7 years now and keeping a daily journal. As a daily journal knowing the date you made the entry is everything, but for my commonplace book it didn’t have any meaning so the formatting system just didn’t feel right to me for this purpose.

DayOne was by far the nicest looking interface. iOS automation support to add content was amazing, but retrieving content was not what I wanted. In the end having each entry defined by the day I added it to the system just didn’t make sense to me. (Image by Skip Owens)

Tagging and categorizing was super important to me and both Ulysses and DEVONthink did a great job in this area. In fact, I would hands down give the win to DEVONthink in this category. The organizational structure (folders and tags) combined with the almost mystically powerful search engine of DEVONthink on the Mac makes it a very compelling choice as a commonplace notebook tool. But the third key thing was the deciding factor for me.

DEVONthink had tags and folder organization and great search, but it lacked really good iOS automation. DEVONthink also expected file names which added a bit of extra work for every entry. (Image by Skip Owens)

The third and final key observation I made during my trial period using all three systems was my options for automating the process of inputting, revisiting, reading, and rediscovering information in my commonplace book. From an automation standpoint both DayOne and Ulysses had very powerful automation capabilities within iOS (DEVONthink did not). As I mentioned before, DayOne just didn’t feel right for my use so I ultimately chose Ulysses.

Ulysses is very simple, a plain looking interface. One downside is that tagging takes a few more click than I would like. Smart folders and search are great and you can add attachments to each entry. iOS automation was the killer feature for me with Ulysses. (Image by Skip Owens)

My next couple of articles on commonplace books will go into more detail about how I set up and use Ulysses to function as my commonplace book and then how I automate with Ulysses on iOS. So stay tuned for Part 4 & 5 of this series of articles to learn more.

Closing Thoughts on Choosing a System

The purpose of this article wasn’t to go into excruciating detail on my selection process. As someone who might be considering getting into the practice of keeping a commonplace book for yourself, this won’t help you. No, what you need is a little bit of guidance on how to choose a system for yourself and some ideas to get you started. So think hard about why you personally want to keep a commonplace book. What kind of information will you put it your book? Do you enjoy physically writing things down? Maybe you even have the skills to draw sketches and that’s a great thing for a commonplace book. How often will you be entering information into your commonplace book and from where (home or on the go)? All of these things play into the type of medium or system you choose. I knew my reading habits, which is a mix of Kindle and physical books. Maybe you do more internet research or maybe the information you have is more visual. Don’t choose a system because that system worked well for someone else. Choose it based on your need. As I listed earlier in the article, I knew my needs and wants before I started testing out potential tools. Figure that out for yourself before you get started and keep those needs in mind as you consider your options. Once you have done that I highly recommend you give any system you are thinking about a trial run like I did with the three systems above.

Last but not least, always think about long term data portability. The nice thing about a paper-based system is that we will always have the technology to read it. That isn’t always the case for digital systems and tools. So make sure any system or tool you choose has a way to export and transfer your information into another system or tool if that particular system or tool stops being supported or ceases to exist.

Read my next article in the series, “Commonplace Books Part 4: My Setup Using Ulysses.”

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