Spaced Repetition is Checkpointing for Learning

tl;dr write flashcards when you read, drill them every day, and you get effective autodidactism without needing extreme executive functioning.

I love learning. But I’m also very scatterbrained. So in a typical year I would start reading dozens of textbooks on all sorts of different topics, make it one to three chapters in—and drop them. If I took notes, I’d forget to review them. So most of the effort was wasted. And if I later resumed a book, I had to start from scratch.

Even after starting an otherwise very successful ADHD treatment, this problem1 persisted. And while I haven’t entirely solved it, I have found a way to mitigate the downside and keep the upside.

The solution is spaced repetition. While reading each chapter of a technical book, I’ll write lots of spaced repetition flashcards. I rarely take long-form notes anymore, since those usually end up being just a scratchpad that I later rewrite into flashcards.

And then I drill them. And if priorities or life circumstances or distraction cause me to put a book down, I will remember what I read. And if, weeks or months later, I decide to resume the book, I am able to continue where I left off.

Making spaced repetition into a habit lets me have the best of both worlds: I can read widely and zero in on my special interest du jour, and drop it when the next interesting thing comes along, and still make tangible progress.

The next post will be about how I learnt to use spaced repetition effectively.


  1. And I don’t, entirely, see it as a problem. Broad, survey knowledge can be useful as the explore phase of explore-exploit, and not all knowledge is worth acquiring in depth.