Commonplace Books Part 5: Automation


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 fifth article in the series, which talks about how I am using automation with my 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:

Artwork by Nora Owens

Two Main Uses of Automation

In part 3 of this series I mentioned that one of the deciding factors for me when choosing a tool/system for my personal commonplace book was how well that tool was able to harness the power of automation. For me and my process for keeping a commonplace book, automation really comes into place in two different activities…input, and revisiting my content. But before I talk about that, let’s take a step back and consider why I chose automation for these two tasks. The reason I want to do this is because how I keep a commonplace book may not be how you keep a commonplace book, so automation may make more sense in a different area of your process. When you consider automation you should think about activities that are highly repetitive or monotonous or activities that you are finding a hard time making time for or ensure you do on a regular basis. Automation isn’t free. It takes some of your precious time to setup, so the time you save in the long run should ideally be greater than the upfront investment you need to make to make it happen. The other aspect of automation to keep in mind is that when implemented in a smart way it is an action that just happens with little to no effort or thought on your part.

So when considering automation, take a look at how you choose to keep a commonplace book and look for pain points in your process or areas where you aren’t consistently implementing your system. These are areas where automation can help. I wish I could get more specific than that, but there are so many different ways to automate and so many different methods for keeping a commonplace book. So instead I am going to deep dive into the two areas I use automation in my specific system.

My Automation Example #1: Input

I like reading and I like writing, but sometimes I am just not in the mood to write. Manual input into a commonplace book can feel a lot like writing sometimes (and can even seem like work). So I wanted to take some friction out of that process. With that being said, I want to recognize that sometimes friction is a good thing. Friction forces you to slow things down and when you slow down you tend to leave more time open for thinking and thinking is a key element in knowledge retention. So automating input into your commonplace book may not be right for everyone.

For input automation I use the automation built into iOS called Shortcuts. If you aren’t familiar with Shortcuts, it is a stock app that comes already installed on iOS devices running iOS 13 or later. The idea behind Shortcuts is that it allows you to string together multiple actions across multiple apps into a single action called a shortcut.

My input shortcut starts by taking the contents of my iOS clipboard and assigning it to a variable (I’ll explain why I use a variable in a bit). I chose the input of this shortcut to be the iOS clipboard because I wanted to be able to use this shortcut in a variety of different ways:

  • If I am reading a book on my Kindle I highlight passages and quotes on the Kindle. When I am done reading, I export my Kindle notes and those notes go into a spreadsheet where I can copy each entry onto the iOS clipboard.
  • If I am reading a physical book I will write in the margins and bracket quotes and passages as I go. Then I will go back after reading the book and use dictation and just read the passage out loud and let iOS convert my speech to digital text. Then I copy that text so that it is in my iOS clipboard.
  • Another option I use for physical books is an image to text tool like TextGrabber for iOS. I simply take a photo of the page that has text that I want and convert the text in that image into digital text and copy that text to my iOS clipboard.
This shortcut combines the digital text you start with on the clipboard, with the name of the book and author into a standard format for input into your commonplace book (Image by Skip Owens)

I mentioned I assigned the incoming text to a variable. I do this because as I go through the shortcut I keep adding text to the variable. The first text assigned to the variable is the text from the iOS clipboard . Then the book title and author are added after the quote.

The next part of the shortcut presents me with a list of potential tags or keywords I want assigned to this particular entry. The Shortcuts app has a command called “Attach to Ulysses Sheet” that lets you add content to a Ulysses Sheet you have already created. In my case, I want to add keywords to my commonplace notebook entry so that I am able to look up entries later by these keywords I have assigned.

Further down in the same shortcut the user is presented with a list of previously used keywords that can be assigned to the entry. Shortcuts automatically adds the keywords to the Ulysses entry for you. (Image by Skip Owens)

If I were to have to create each Ulysses entry manually it would take me a lot of tapping, typing, and even more tapping to just make a single entry and assign tags. But with Shortcuts I’ve cut it down to just a few taps, plus it presents me with a list of keywords that I have already established in my system. Displaying the entire list of previously used keywords all at once makes it really easy to figure out which ones apply to this entry.

If you want to download my shortcut and edit it and use it for yourself you can do so by clicking here.

After you click on the link I just gave you and download the shortcut into the Shortcuts library on your iOS device, you will also need to go into “Settings” on your iOS device and then into the “Shortcuts” menu and make sure the “Allow Untrusted Shortcuts” is toggled on. I have added comments throughout the shortcut explaining what everything does and how to edit the shortcut for your own purposes, so enjoy!

My Automation Example #2: Revisiting my Commonplace Book

The other place I use automation is in revisiting the content I have added into my commonplace book. After a few years of adding information to your book you will notice that you have a huge inventory of knowledge at your fingertips. But what is the most efficient way to revisit that information and eventually put that knowledge to use? One way I have found helpful is to automate the process of retrieving an entry from my commonplace book and having it presented it to me.

I actually use several different shortcuts within the Shortcuts app to revisit commonplace book entries. The main shortcut is pretty simple, it just pulls a random entry from the “Quotes” group within my commonplace book in Ulysses. The Shortcuts app has a command called “Get Sheets” from Ulysses and that command will get ALL of the entries or sheets from within that specified group. I then use a command called “Get Random Item” from that list of all entries that I just retrieved from Ulysses. I then extract the text from that random entry and that is all that shortcut does.

Click here to download this shortcut that pulls a random commonplace entry from your Ulysses application.

This shortcut pulls all entries, called sheets, from a specific Ulysses group and selects a random entry (Image by Skip Owens)

I then have several other shortcuts within the Shortcuts app that call the “random entry” shortcut and does various things with it. For example, I created a very customized shortcut called “Morning Report” that pulls my local weather forecast for the day, all of events from my calendar for the day and a random commonplace book entry and verbally reads all of this information to me. I usually just manually trigger this shortcut first thing in the morning when I come downstairs to make my morning coffee. I have it setup to read all of this to me over the HomePod in my kitchen. But I even went a step further and put an NFC sticker on the lid of my stainless steel coffee bean container. So I just have to place my iPhone on top of the container as I am preparing my coffee and the shortcut runs (no tapping anything and no unlocking of my iPhone needed). Because of the amount of personal customization with this shortcut I’m not offering it for download (it is too specific to my calendar and my weather app), but wanted to use it as an example of what you can create on your own.

Another shortcut I have is called “Read Random CPB” and it also calls the “random entry” shortcut, but it gives me a few options. The first things the shortcut does (beside grabbing a random entry for me) is ask me how I would like the entry delivered to me. I built in the options to have it speak to me over my kitchen HomePod, speak to me using my iPhone’s audio or display it to me on the screen of my iPhone in text format. This gives me all kinds of options for revisiting my commonplace book entries no matter where I am. You can download the “GeekDad Read Random CPB” shortcut by clicking here.

This shortcut gives you the option to have a random entry presented to you as text on the screen or read to you by Siri from a couple of different sound sources (Image by Skip Owens)


Just remember, this shortcut calls the “get random entry” shortcut from above, so be sure you download that shortcut as well or the “GeekDad Read Random CPB” shortcut won’t work.

Hopefully these couple of automation examples give you some ideas of how you might be able to automate your specific commonplace book setup. My next article in the series (which has now been published) will talk about some products I have run across over the years (both digital and physical) that you might want to consider using as part of your commonplace book setup.

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