Principles of Ultralearning: 5) Retrieval

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
Finding the right memory at the right time can be like finding a particular book in a vast library

What did you have for breakfast yesterday? How do you find the area of a circle? Why do black surfaces get hotter than white ones?

If you tried to answer any of those questions, then you tried to retrieve a memory.

Retrieval is our ability to recall memories.

You can’t use a new skill if you can’t remember how to do it.

Classic studying advice involves highlighting key points and re-reading your notes. The former has been found to be next to useless, and re-reading notes isn’t much better.

The best way to remember something and have it stick, is to try to remember it without clues, just trying to summon up that memory.

Practice retrieval over longer periods of time each attempt

When Should You Test Yourself?

The sooner you test yourself the better.

After the first time, you should increase the amount of time from test to test.

If you have simple question and answer formats to what you want to memorise then you could try a spaced-repetition flashcard app like Anki, which is free on to download on your PC or Android.

What Is The Best Way To Test?

Increasing the difficulty of testing will make your learning more efficient.

If you have a choice between a quiz with no clues and a multiple-choice one, the multiple-choice will be more comfortable, but you will learn more from the quiz, even if you get more answers wrong.

Young tells of a study that shows that the very act of trying to retrieve an answer is enough to improve your memory.

This is because each time you try to retrieve a memory, your brain follows the same pathways, getting stronger each time.

It’s like walking the same path through a field over and over, eventually a permanent impression is made in the mud.

Young offers some tactics for retrieval, in addition to flashcards, which you saw a moment ago, there’s also:

Free Recall

If you’re learning from a book, try reading a whole passage, then write down every point you remember without looking at the book.

You can re-read the section after to see if you missed anything important.

Try again with as many passages as you like or the same passage if you want to memorise it.

Question-Book Method

As you are learning material, write down a question where the answer is something you will want to remember later, then only write where to find the answer, like a page number and the book it’s in.

You can quiz yourself later and you will be able to find the answer to check.

You can write the answer on another bit of paper, so you can re-use the question later.

Self-Generated Challenges

Sometimes what you want to learn can’t be tested as simple questions and answers.

You may have learnt a new technique you want to use in programming.

You can challenge yourself to use the new programming technique to solve a problem, such as using a new algorithm to calculate your weekly budget or to find pi.

Closed-Book Learning

You can work on your Drills or Direct Learning project without looking back at your notes or books, to make sure you have to retrieve the knowledge yourself.

Don’t give in to the temptation to read over your notes, until after you’ve done the test.

All these methods can feel uncomfortable, but they’re effective.

Think of it like working out for your brain, when you do a workout for your body, it’s usually the ones that are most difficult that give you the most improvement.

To see the rest of the principles you can go here or buy the book here.

Principles of Ultralearning: 4) Drills

Not this kind of drill…Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

Think about something you are learning. What’s the part you find hardest to improve? That’s the thing you work on.

Focusing on the parts you enjoy feels nicer, but it is not the best way to learn. To improve, to really improve, you need to focus on what you really struggle with and attack that problem ruthlessly.

Remove the Noise

Drills take away all the parts of what you want to learn, except the one aspect you want to improve.

If you’re playing guitar, you need rhythm, pick technique, finger placement etc. To drill, you would pick one of these and work at just that.

Direct-then-Drill Method

Last week, we looked at why Directness is the best way to learn a whole skill.

Drills are the opposite of Directness. They help you improve a small slice of a skill.

They remove all the real-world subtleties you can’t simulate, doing nothing but drills would mean you wouldn’t be able to Transfer your skills.

Drills are for improving weak spots, not replacing your whole project.

To overcome lack of Transfer, you work directly on the problem, then drill your weak point, then go back to directness and cycle through as needed. Keeping all that precious Transfer.

How Do You Drill?

Designing a good drill, requires that you know what to drill, how to do it and that you actually do it.

Time Slicing

Take a small piece of the main skill and work on it. Once you’ve mastered it, use the small piece as part of the whole again, for example:

Go over the few tricky bars in a song, then practice the whole song.

Take the same type of shot in football, then play a match.

Go over key phrases in a new language, then talk to someone in that language.

Cognitive Components

Skills are actually multiple smaller skills put together. Removing all the other parts you need to focus on, allows you to hone in on the one bit you want to drill.

Going back to the guitar example, if you wanted to work on rhythm, you could strum the beat of the song and mute the strings with your hand, so you don’t have to worry about the melody or your left hand at all.

The Copycat

Copying other work reduces the amount of thinking required to create the drill, so you can focus all your mental effort on the drill itself. You don’t have to work so hard to design a drill if it’s already been designed.

If you wanted to practice being more succinct in your writing, you could take someone’s essay and try to summarise it in fewer words. You could even do it with your own writing.

Magnifying Glass Method

If you can’t find a way to extract the specific sub-skill you want to improve, spend more time and effort on it instead.

If you want to do better research for projects, spend 10 times longer than you normally would.

Prerequisite Chaining

Start learning a skill without learning all the things you “should” learn first.

You can waste a lot of time and a lot of motivation learning all the basics you think you should learn first.

For example, when learning to draw, you can just start drawing, but you may realise that things at a distance don’t look right, so you learn perspective, you carry on drawing, suddenly things don’t look 3d enough, so you learn proper shading, rinse and repeat.

Whereas if you started off with perspective and shading, you might never have enjoyed drawing in the first place.

Drills aren’t fun, but they are an effective way to aggressively improve. Learn the rest of the principles here.

Let me know some ideas you’ve had for effective drills below.

Principles of Ultralearning: 3) Directness

unsplash-logoMiguel Henriques

Have you ever attended a lecture, understood every word, then someone asks you what it was about, but you can’t explain it?

You are not alone. many people struggle to transfer what they have learnt in theory to real life. You may understand that you have to kick a football at a specific spot to make it go to the top left corner, but you still can’t bend it like Beckham. Can you tell I am not up to date with football?

Maybe you heard a colleague explain how to do a fancy formula on your spreadsheet, but then you go to do it on your computer and the numbers all come out wrong. This is because transferring knowledge to actual applications is really hard.

First off, there is nothing wrong with reading books. Books are the source of endless knowledge. The problem is that just reading is not enough to get good at something.

Try reading how do a triple somersault before the first time you get on a diving board and see what I mean.


Transfer is being able to apply knowledge or skills you have to other situations.

Transfer is why a plumber who has never been to your house can fix your sink, they have seen similar problems before. Not the exact same, yet they can transfer their existing skills and fix the new problem.

Explaining a concept using an analogy is also Transfer, you are using your knowledge of one thing to explain another.

Transfer is difficult.

Young cites studies where it has been found that university psychology students who learnt psychology at school level perform no better than students who started for the first time at university. Young says this is because the high school knowledge has not transferred well to university level.

Overcoming Transfer with Directness

Directness is Young’s solution to the difficulties of Transfer. Directness means learning in as similar a way as the one you will actually use the knowledge or skill in.

Directness works for 2 reasons:

  1. The closer your practice is to the real situation you will use the skill, the less Transferring needs to be done. Writing well-researched essays with citations is much more likely to prepare you for writing academic papers, than writing in a diary will.
  2. Learning by doing exposes you to subtle details that you can’t get from theory. When driving, you may understand that you need to find the biting point to move into first gear, but you can’t learn how the biting point feels by reading about it, you’ve got to get behind the wheel and drive!

Tips for Direct Learning

Project-Based Learning

Don’t just read about doing something, do something.

So if you want to program apps, build an app.

If you want to learn carpentry, build a chair.

If you want to climb a mountain, start climbing.

Immersive Learning

Get stuck into the situations you will use the skill for.

If you want to learn french, go to France and don’t speak English (Young did this, with 4 languages in one year) .

This method of learning is scary, but it forces you to get good fast.

It also helps you see where you’re going wrong through feedback (a principle we will look at later). A phrase book can tell you how to say specific phrases, one at a time, but knowing when to say each phrase is much more difficult.

Flight-Simulator Method

Some things you can’t practice in real life. Training fighter pilots in the most dangerous manoeuvres in real planes every time would result in a lot more dead pilots. So fighter pilots train in safe simulators that mimic real life.

The key to a good simulation is having the same level of challenge and the same cues to act, as the real thing. If you have those, then you can forgive slightly low-budget graphics or sound effects.

The skill itself is what really matters.

The Overkill Approach

Aim for a level of challenge you feel you aren’t ready for.

If you aren’t ready you will have to do your best just to be able to do it.

Testing gives you feedback, which helps you improve faster.

If you find the test easy, you need to try something harder. If you keep failing in the same way, you know what to drill later (another principle we will learn soon).

Take an exam you don’t feel you could pass yet.

Play a song you haven’t memorised yet, for an audience.

This is another scary method, but it is backed by research, pushing yourself to your absolute limits in practice has been shown to separate top-performers from the middle of the pack. You will get used to the discomfort.

To learn about the rest of the principles of Ultralearning see the rest of the series here.

Please let me know any projects you want to undertake in the comments below.

Principles of Ultralearning: 2) Focus

The modern world is a carnival of distractions. Every person, every device, every surface is screaming for your attention.

How can anyone get any work done? With Focus.

When you’re focused, distractions melt away, your attention is like a laser and you get stuff done. You could even finish reading not just this sentence, but the whole post, without checking your phone.

What is Focus?

Focusing is maintaining concentration on one subject for a period of time.

Focus is becomingly increasingly rare in our distracting modern world.

Therefore, focus is a skill that can boost your effectiveness in any skill.

What Makes Focusing So Difficult?

Focusing is difficult at 3 different stages:

  • The Beginning
  • The Maintaining
  • The Optimising

Failing to Start – The Beginning

Procrastination is not a character flaw, it’s something even the most successful people struggle with. It’s human. Why do you think the George R. R. Martin hasn’t released a book in so long?

Beating procrastination is a 2-step process:

Step 1 – Recognise you are procrastinating.

Are you avoiding work because you don’t want to do that task, or because there is something you do want to do more?

There is no one plan to suit everyone.

We all have our own vices, my drug of choice is binge-watching TV. Streaming services are against me! They’re just so damn convenient.

If you are looking to do something more pleasurable and you have the time and energy to do so, do it. Then it’s no longer a distraction.

If you are avoiding something you don’t like doing, but know you should, move on to Step 2.

Step 2 – Manage to concentrate for 5 minutes.

Just 5.

For some reason, our brains resist work the most in the first 5 minutes. Then your brain realises you aren’t harming it, relaxes and lets you carry on.

Next thing you know an hour has passed and you have written a handy new blog post… Maybe that’s just me.

Failing to Carry on – The Maintaining

Now that you’ve started and passed those gruelling 5 minutes, you just need to keep it up.

There are 3 forces conspiring to pull you away from your work:

  • Your Environment
  • Your Task
  • Your own Mind!

Environment: The Stuff Around You

Why is the environment trying to distract you? Is it because you didn’t recycle last week? Probably not, but shame on you all the same.

Many people prefer to have the TV on or some music (myself included) to make sure they aren’t stuck in silence. But when it comes to learning, anything else taking your attention will actually reduce the amount you learn.

When learning, you’re better off removing anything else that takes your focus. Your brain can only hold 4 chunks of information at one time after all.

Task: Your Project Itself

Have you ever had to do something difficult, taken one look at it, and decided it’s not for you? This is the because difficult things make us uncomfortable which makes us want to quit. Remember Dumbledore drinking that (sadly fake) Horcrux?

Your ultralearning project shouldn’t taste as bad as fresh Horcrux

In this situation, you need to try to organise your resources you learnt about in Principle 1: Metalearning to better suit your style of learning. If you know you space out watching videos, try to find the transcript of the same material, for example.

If the topic is truly incomprehensible, you could end up just watching the video, but taking nothing in. You can avoid this by summarising each thing you learn. This will take longer, but you will learn much more.

Mind: Your Mind Has Betrayed You?!

You have finally started typing the essay to end all essays. Scholars will worship your beautiful prose, as your fingers dance across the keyboard, but wait, didn’t you forget to fold your socks?

If there is a genuinely solvable problem distracting you, just do it. Then get back to work with peace of mind.

The real struggle comes from problems you can’t solve.

What will happen with Brexit?! What if a super volcano erupts and blocks out the sun, starting a new ice age? Why did you make that lame joke to the person you liked all those years ago?

These kinds of thoughts are unhelpful and extremely distracting.

If you try to fight them, then they will win.

You will end up going over and over the problem in your head and not focusing on your project at all.

The best method is to take an idea from mindfulness. The wonder drug of the past few years.

If you observe the thoughts distracting you.

Notice them.

Let them go.

The nagging thoughts can leave you and you can focus again.

Admittedly, this is much easier said than done. Fortunately, mindfulness is actually a muscle, even if you fail to get it right first time, you strengthen your mindful maximus (not a real term) and it becomes easier next time.

Failing to Perfect – The Optimising

You have now figured out how to focus like a laser on one topic, but what if you wanted to connect completely disparate ideas?

There are two types of useful thinking when you are learning: Focused and Diffuse. These are a spectrum and can be optimised for each problem.

Focused Mode

Focused thinking is best for doing something that requires very narrow concentration like throwing a dart a specific point or understanding a new difficult concept.

Diffuse Mode

Diffuse thinking allows your mind to wander more and pull connections from different parts of your store of knowledge.

This is best for constructing a creative idea from multiple parts that don’t link in any obvious way.

The more you learn the more you will know which type of thinking is better for the situation.

Learn about the rest of the principles here.

Have any more tips on better focus? Please let me know in the comments below.

The Principles of Ultralearning: 1) Metalearning

ULTRALEARNING: A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense” – Young’s self-described imperfect definition.

Ultralearning is a tool used to teach yourself things extremely quickly and effectively. In the book, Young gives many examples of people he calls “ultralearners” who master things from languages, public speaking, scrabble and chess. He even has examples of his own achievements: completing the MIT Computer Science course in 1 year, learning 4 languages in a year and drawing very realistic portraits in 30 days.

The book draws on 9 principles of ultralearning:

  1. Metalearning: Learning how to learn
  2. Focus: Learning how to focus more deeply and for longer periods of time
  3. Directness: Learning by doing the skill or using the knowledge you wish to learn
  4. Drill: Ruthlessly attack your weakest points until you don’t block your learning anymore
  5. Retrieval: Using testing as a way to learn
  6. Feedback: Getting genuine critiques on your work to confirm if you are truly learning
  7. Retention: Making sure you remember what you learnt
  8. Intuition: Learning how to understand at a deeper level, not just memorising
  9. Experimentation: Learn how to keep learning even once you have reached mastery


Metalearning is learning how to learn.

An oversimplified example would be to say that you can memorise 2+2=4 but learning how to add the numbers allows you to figure out any addition, rather than memorise every possible sum.

Why, What and How?

Metalearning can be broken down into why you want to learn something, what will count as success for you and how you will achieve your goal.


Your reasons why can either be Instrumental or Intrinsic.

Instrumental: You are learning the skill or knowledge in order to achieve an outside result, such as a promotion or a new job.

Intrinsic: You are learning for the sake of learning and don’t necessarily care if there is an immediate use for the skill.


The what of your Ultralearning Project can be broken down into 3 main categories: Concepts, Facts and Procedures:

Concepts: Ideas you need to understand

Facts: Information you can just memorise

Procedures: Anything you can only learn through practice, such as pronunciation


You need to know all the resources you have available to you. These can be planned through Benchmarking and Emphasise/Exclude methods:

Benchmarking: Figuring out the common learning methods as a starting point for your project. This can be reading lists, internet searches, or advice from an expert.

Emphasise/Exclude: Go through all the resources you listed in your benchmark and if they are not relevant, Exclude them. If a resource is not only relevant but more effective than most, you can use it more, Emphasise it.

How Much Should You Plan?

Young says to aim for 10% of the total duration of the project, but he says this isn’t law.

If you are doing a particularly large project (thousands of hours +), then you may only want to spend 5% of your time planning.

Also, don’t feel your planning all has to be done at the beginning, you can do more research during the project, such as when your learning slows down.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

The longer you keep using a specific technique or working on a particular skill, the less improvement you will see.

At the beginning, there is so much you don’t know, that every time you progress, you progress a lot. Once you know more, the amount more you knew is much smaller.

Imagine you have no water, then you get a pint of water from the tap. You now have infinitely more water than you had. Get another pint, you have twice as much water, another pint, you have 1.5 times what you had, this keeps going on until one more pint is just a drop in the ocean.

Learning using the same method will eventually lead to you progressing in tiny drops at most.

This is a sign you need to try another technique for your Ultralearning project. If you don’t have an idea for one, it is time to do more research.

I will write a summary of each principle outlined in the book, but I highly recommend reading the full book for yourself. The stories Young tells and the depth of explanation are much greater.

Ultralearning, is a new book by Scott Young, who is most well know for his blog about learning and the impressive learning challenges he has completed. The book can be found at the follow address: