How do you build general skills? Abilities that not only help you with a narrow problem, but ones that you can apply repeatedly to problems in your life? Many of our goals, whether its becoming a better programmer, a savvier business leader or more original artist are of this type.

The bad news is that breadth is hard. General skills tend to be built out of many specific ones. Understanding deep ideas can help, but these too often depend on a lot of invisible tacit knowledge to apply correctly.

The good news is that, if you’re prepared to do the…


Learning can be tough, but it doesn’t have to be mysterious. Ample research shows that there are better ways of studying, not just for passing the test, but for creating deep understanding.

Below are ten essential strategies you should keep mind any time you need to learn something important.

1. Practice on Questions From the Test

All skill depends on practice. So too, with memory. If you want to remember something, you need to practice remembering it, not just looking at it.

Retrieval practice — where you shut the book and try to recall what you’ve learned without looking at it — is one of the most…


Why is it harder to watch a physics lecture than Netflix? Why does a cognitively demanding activity, like playing a video game, create a pleasurable state of flow, while math problems rarely feel that way? What makes something effortful?

At first glance, these questions seem too obvious to ask. Of course video games are less effortful than math problems — video games are fun!

Yet, I think an understanding of effort is supremely important. Many of the goals we want to accomplish will require a lot of it. …


Flashcards, especially in their digital incarnations, are some of the most powerful learning tools. They can also easily be a complete waste of time.

Powerful, because retrieval and spacing are key to memory. If you want to learn a topic with a lot of stuff to memorize, flashcards will help you do it better than almost anything else. Mnemonics are trendy, but for medium-to-long-term purposes, flashcards are probably better.

It’s also easy to waste your time with flashcards. You can spend a lot of time memorizing something you don’t need to, or fail to memorize the important things you do…


Last summer, I decided to stop using Twitter. I gave up YouTube as well as part of my own digital declutter in the fall.

Since it’s been several months since I’ve stopped using social media, I thought I would reflect on some of my experiences. It’s possible I might go back to some limited use at some point, but for now the benefits of being off-platform greatly outweigh the costs.

Still, I don’t want this essay to be misconstrued as some kind of permanent commitment. If you’re reading this years later and I’m no longer following this, there’s no contradiction…


I’m working on a new writing project, based on some of the ideas I’ve written about in Do the Real Thing, The Hard Way is the Easy Way and the chapter on directness in Ultralearning.

The basic idea is that instead of doing the real thing we need to improve, we often get stuck on fake alternatives. This wastes time, energy and makes us miserable. To fix this we need to choose our goals more carefully, face up to their inherent difficulty and ensure our efforts make direct contact with reality.

Interwoven with all this, I want to expose how…


As many of the readers here probably know, I’ve been a long-time fan and friend of Cal Newport. We co-instruct two online courses and we’ve shared more conversations than I can count. Cal also coined the term “ultralearning” and pushed me to write my book, so his influence on my career hasn’t exactly been minor.

So of course, I was very excited to hear that his latest book, A World Without Email, had reached the New York Times bestseller list in its first week. …


Over the last week, I’ve been writing about thinking of motivation as a system. One which, if you master it, can allow you to make more progress on your goals with less struggle.

Key to all of this, of course, is self-awareness. You can’t diagnose a problem if you don’t even know you have one. Similarly, unless you have a good sense of who you are, your strengths, weaknesses, personality and proficiencies, you’ll always struggle to make progress.

Yet no bookstore sells a book about “you”, so how do you develop this kind of insight into yourself?

Inside and Outside Views

There are two…


In a previous article, I introduced a simple metaphor for motivation: action always flows downhill. Thanks to the amazing circuitry in our basal ganglia, we take the billions of simultaneously firing neurons in our brain and produce sequential thoughts and actions.

Yet the choice of which action to take isn’t always the one our higher selves would opt for. Our motivational hardwiring is notoriously short-sighted, failing to spur us on for rewards that will take months and years to reach.

In this simplified account, one aspect I didn’t include was why our motivational terrain is what it is. Why do…


In the last essay, I shared why it was important to think about success in terms of systems, not inspiration. This isn’t because motivation isn’t important — rather it’s because motivation is itself a kind of system. If you can understand it, you can change it.

Success as systems may not be so dramatic, but the results speak for themselves. The steady accumulation of wealth, building of fitness and acquisition of skills aren’t going to lead to any Oscar-worthy moments, but the outcome is a better life. Provided, of course, you master the processes that lead to them.

Unfortunately, a…

Scott H. Young

Author of WSJ best selling book: Ultralearning www.scotthyoung.com | Twitter: @scotthyoung

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