Recently, I shared my list of foundational practices — the basic things everyone should do to live better. Of course, my choices are personal. Your list might differ a little from mine.

Most people, however, tended to agree with my choices. Foundational practices should be obvious. If they weren’t, there would be some controversy over how useful they are.

Yet there was one practice that a lot of people admitted to not doing often. …

Learning and habits seem like to separate facts about our psychology. Learning is about knowledge, information and skills. Habits are about routines, behaviors and actions.

However, I think the two actually work on mostly the same principles of the brain, and recognizing this connection can help you both learn better and form better habits.

Learning = Habits

To see the connection, let’s start by asking what a habit is. A habit is a semi-automatic behavioral response, given a certain set of cues in the environment. In other words, when you say you have a habit you mean something of the form “Whenever X happens, I do Y.” …

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Photo by Yogendra Singh on Unsplash

Where does the motivation come from to improve your life? At first glance, this seems like a strange question: why wouldn’t you automatically want things to be better? But the good life is hard work, so we often fail to do the things we know would make our lives better.

Cal Newport told me that, while in grad school, he noticed a lot of people became much better students after they had kids. This is paradoxical because children are time-consuming, and thus, it ought to be much harder to succeed academically.

I noticed something similar in myself, when I decided I wanted to run my own business. There were a lot of spillover benefits to other areas of my life, even though they weren’t related to entrepreneurship. I started reading books, exercising regularly and eating healthier, for instance. …

If you want to improve your life, where should you start?

Years ago, when I started working on myself, I tried lots of different things. Some helped a lot. But a lot didn’t matter. Filtering by trial-and-error works, but it can be slow and discouraging. Knowing what I know now, I’d recommend different practices to my younger self.

The typical person, if seriously committed, could make enormous improvements in their life in less than a year. But only if they build from the right foundation. …

How much should you worry about forgetting things?

In one sense, forgetting is a very real problem. How many of us could still pass exams for classes we took in college? How many dust-covered books sit on your shelf which you’ve forgotten the plot? Knowledge, like all things, decays with time.

It would be nice if there were a simple procedure for guaranteeing permanent memories. Indeed, it seems like there already are memories we have like this: a first kiss, a fantastic vacation or the birth of a child.

Yet, psychologists question whether these memories are as durable as they seem. On September 12th, one day after the devastating terrorist attacks, psychologists had Duke university students record their memories of the event. Later, they followed up after 1, 6 and 32 weeks to see how well they held up. …

Last month, Cal Newport and I released a new course, Life of Focus. The course covers three months dedicated to cultivating focus in three areas: work, life and mind.

One thing that makes a course like this different is that it centers on month-long challenges. Thus even if you’re already relatively focused, you can use the course as a tool to train yourself to go even deeper.

It was in that spirit that I decided I wanted to participate in the course alongside the other students for the first session. …

Focus is incredibly important. But often we struggle to turn it on when we need it. The right rituals can help a lot.

The human brain is a giant association machine. As neuropsychologist Donald Hebb famously put it, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Repeated patterns form stronger connections. Thus if you pair a consistent ritual with focused work, it can be easier to transition your mind into a state of productivity.

But rituals can also go wrong. If everything needs to be perfect to start working, you’ll rarely do it. …

My first set of articles I wrote that got my blog some attention were a series called Habitual Mastery. At the time I had spent a couple years extensively working on my habits through thirty-day trials. The series was an attempt to condense my observations into usable advice.

For someone who has never put serious effort into building new habits, the concept can be life-changing. A lot of writers who talk about self-improvement start with habits. …

A reader asked me recently whether I thought there was a limit to how much math you could learn, based on your intelligence. As in, if your IQ was too low you’d get stuck at algebra or calculus and be unable to learn any more math.

This seems highly unlikely. The way deep subjects like math are learned is through a process of increasingly abstract chunking of simpler mathematical ideas. It would be really strange if this process just dead-ended at some arbitrary point.

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Another observation that easily refutes this point is simply how much more mathematical everybody is than in ages past. Counting beyond the number four is undeveloped in some cultures. Before mass education, most people were innumerate. As my friend, Kalid Azad, likes to point out — rewind time far enough and things like the concept of “zero” were PhD-level insights! …

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Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

For many, perhaps most people, life is full of struggles. Your career isn’t where you want it to be. You’re a bit out of shape and really need to start eating better. Your relationship status is complicated.

True, the promises of self-help books are often inflated, get-rich-quick schemes turn out to take a long time and not all of life’s problems can be fixed. However, a lot of struggles can be lessened through fairly obvious (but not necessarily easy) steps: set goals, build better habits, learn more and do the work.

But suppose you’re successful with that. You’ve gotten a handle on the big parts of your life. Even if things aren’t perfect, you’re headed in a good direction and what remains are mostly details. …


Scott H. Young

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

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