Thoughts from a Commonplace


How I Organize Ideas, Aid Memory and Remain Focused

“There can hardly be anything more useful as a sound help for the memory than a good and learned digest of Commonplaces.” 

Sir Francis Bacon, 1623

Recently, quite by accident I might add, I realized that I have been using a 500-year-old technique to aid my memory and organize my thoughts.  

I’ve been a journal writer off an on for most of my life.  It’s that journaling habit the spawned this blog and started me on the path to becoming an author.  About 8 months ago I realized that I was getting ideas for things to write about, or new things to try in my business at weird times.   Sometimes late at night or on the weekend when my computer was turned off.  In order not to lose these ideas I would pull out my iPhone and try to record my thoughts in a notepad to review later. 

I found it exceedingly difficult to write coherent thoughts on a small hand-held device and would often forget about them as quickly as I hit save.  Days and sometimes weeks later I would find these little thought fragments saved on my phone with little or no context to make sense of what I had written.  Not to mention the fact that sometimes my ideas come to me in the form of pictures and diagrams that are impossible to record with typeset words. 

So, I decided to go old school and bought a notebook to write and draw in.

As a physical act, notebook writing does two things.  First, it helps cement what you are thinking about in long term memory more so than tapping on a keyboard.  Second, the book itself is a physical reminder to review what you wrote down.  Since I started recording my thoughts in a notebook, I have managed to hold on to more of my ideas and ultimately get more done. 

The thing is, until this morning, I thought I had invented this technique, certainly no one, but me carries around a ratty old notebook anymore.  Even school children are taught to record their lessons digitally these days.  Cursive writing is no longer taught in schools.  Long handwriting of anything more than a grocery list may soon be a thing of the past.  But me, I still need to write things down. 

During my reading time this morning I learned that my technique is not so unique after all.  I’ve been reading “The Shallows, What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains”, by Nicholas Carr.  Carr’s main thesis is that every new technology changes the way humans think and rewires our brains on a molecular level such that we have physically different brains from one generation to the next.  The internet, with its incredible storage power and speed of recall is encouraging the human brain to evolve and sacrifice nuance, deep thinking and long-term memory for immediate, binary, and narcissistic decision making. 

Our brains, in essence, are taking on the form of the computers that drive the internet.  The robot uprising has already begun, we are becoming the robots ourselves.   

In the chapter on memory and how the internet is encouraging humans to sacrifice personal internal memory for collected and stored data, Carr reminds us of the original information storage device, the written word. 

The Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) is widely believed to be the first teacher to encourage his students to learn by writing.  He encouraged every student to keep a notebook, “so that whenever he lights on anything worth noting down, he may write it in the appropriate section.”  The act of writing, and reviewing regularly, according to Erasmus, would help to ensure the information remained fixed in the mind.  He viewed these written notes as “kinds of flowers,” which could be preserved in the pages of memory. 

Over time, Erasmus’ notebooks became known as Commonplaces because all a learner’s thoughts on a particular subject could be located and retrieved from a “common place”.  It is also where we get the colloquial meaning of “common place” for something that is considered mundane or widely understood because it would show up in multiple notebooks from different students.

My mind is a constant whirlwind of thoughts and ideas.  I often liken it to a caged tiger, brimming with power and energy but locked up by circumstance and poor timing.  Through COVID the tiger has at times gotten so restless as to give way to violent outbursts followed by shame and deep depression.  The physical act of notebook writing has so far been the only thing I have found to calm the raging tiger and prevent depression.

If you’re an ideas person like me, what techniques do you use to keep a clear head and remain productive?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. 

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