10 Years With Anki: My Story and My Principles

| May 1, 2023

Discovering Anki

When I was 19, I bought my first smartphone, the Qtek S200. It was a real breakthrough compared to the Nokia 6630, particularly regarding personal productivity tools. By using Outlook for calendar and task management, I stood out among other students. In parallel with my studies, I could balance my part-time job as a Java developer and several small freelance projects. Since then, I understood how computers can boost our productivity, and thus leave space for creativity in our brains.

I intuitively felt there might be software that could supercharge my memory as well.

This idea was reinforced when one of my freelance clients asked me to create a J2ME application. This app was designed to show a predefined set of Psalms and motivational quotes on a sophisticated schedule, where intervals between viewings of a particular item grew over time. The interval calculation algorithm was called SuperMemo. Despite my distaste for religion, sectarianism, and Tony Robbins, I delivered the project and retained my fascination about SuperMemo.

In my early 20s, I revisited the concept of spaced repetition. My collection of ideas and facts in Evernote was growing beyond my memory’s capacity. I considered creating software to send me reminders, but a search for existing SuperMemo solutions led me to Anki, hailed as the best spaced repetition software.

I tried Anki twice and each time drew two conclusions: (1) the learning curve is steep, takes a lot of time, attention and persistence, and (2) it opens up a whole new world with new opportunities. Unfortunately, the former conclusion (read procrastination) prevailed, and I deleted the software.

It wasn’t until a trip to Europe in May 2013 that I realized my English was lamentably bad. I used it for work, so my vocabulary was limited to technical and work-related terms. I vividly remember being unable to recall the word “cucumber” in a restaurant. That was a line in the sand. I decided to put all necessary effort into learning English.

Upon returning home, I reinstalled Anki. Surprisingly, there was an iOS app that could sync with the desktop version. It cost $30. I bought it on the third day of using the desktop app, and looking back, it was the best and most life-changing investment of my life so far.

My Struggle

Now, it’s time to recount what I’ve learned since then:

  • I filled the gaps in my English, and I constantly expand my (mostly passive) vocabulary when consuming information in English (books, articles, podcasts, movies).
  • In late 2013, I restarted learning German, initially just for fun by learning traffic sign captions, but it grew into an obsession with the mathematical beauty of the language.
  • In my English and German classes, Anki cards were the cherry on top. These cards turned out to be more crucial than usual homework, allowing me to achieve a much higher pace than other students. When in 2019 I applied to a German language school as a language enthusiast with B1/B2 level skills, I was mistakenly attributed a C1 level. But, armed with my Anki magic and just a month of diligent gap-filling and Anki-powered learning, I caught up with my C1 peers. Hiding hand in action.
  • In 2015, I started learning Spanish with the goal of reaching A1 or A2 level with minimal daily effort. Currently I’m just maintaining the level by dedicating several minutes a day for it. I feel comfortable when traveling to Spain and US.
  • My knowledge in computer science expanded, beginning with Java (collections, concurrency, Java puzzlers), then accelerating my learning of Scala, and delving into software architecture and myriad AWS services.
  • I memorised a lot of silly facts that even not worth mentioning here.

The most valuable aspect was the unexpected aha-moments. These occur when I see a card I haven’t reviewed in over a year, and this piece of knowledge collides with new information and experiences, sparking serendipity.

Over the years, Anki essentially became my “second brain”.

Now, I must acknowledge some drawbacks and pain points:

  • Reviewing cards took about an hour per day and required discipline. Missing a day doubled the workload, and a week of neglect could cost a whole workday to catch up.
  • System maintenance was time-consuming, often requiring hours of “gardening” (pruning and weeding out cards).
  • There were times when the backlog of thousands of cards became overwhelming, leading to stress and sometimes despair and depression.
  • Often, I had no choice but to delete all unruly cards, trashing all the efforts I had put into them.

In total, I’ve created around 100,000 cards. Not all survived, nor were all relevant or good enough to survive. Around 1,100,000 reviews, 6 sec/card. It’s 1,800 hours of just reviewing cards in 10 years.

My approach to using Anki has evolved significantly:

  • My note types have transformed from basic one- or two-directional cards to a more complex kind of “operating system”.
  • The structure of my decks has evolved, as well as my taxonomy for tagging the cards.
  • After several major lapses, I revised my philosophy on what should be memorized and what should not.

About a year ago, during another “major lapse”, I discovered Zettelkasten and then Obsidian. I feared (and at the same time hoped) that this might mark the end of my Anki “lifestyle”. Instead of memorizing, I could just write down information, structure it, and access it easily on any of my digital devices. I wondered if my 10-year Anki anniversary would ever come.

After much reflection, I chose to continue with Anki, aided by the Obsidian_to_Anki plugin. The key is to think carefully before creating a card: should this be memorized, or is it sufficient to store it in Obsidian? The cost of the former choice can be a huge disappointment about lost time and mental energy.

My Principles

For those considering the “Anki lifestyle”, I offer this advice:

  • Treat it as a lifestyle commitment. If you start, you must stick with it as long as you need the knowledge – essentially, forever.
  • Anki is not for quick results, like cramming for an exam. It’s a long-term commitment.
  • Fewer cards are better.
  • Gardening is quite important. Don’t delete cards simply because you feel you’ve learned them thoroughly. The interval will grow and next time you see a card (let’s say in a year), listen to yourself and think how this “letter from the past” might be projected to your present. Should the card be improved? Were you wrong a year ago? Or maybe you are wrong now?
  • Master the toolkit. Understand notes, cards, fields, types, decks, tags, flags, and hotkeys. Learn deck options. Build your own taxonomy for tags, flags. Learn hotkeys.
  • Be flexible and open to change. Your system will evolve over time. Thus, make the system flexible. You’ll be definitely changing the structure of your decks, note types, screens, devices, fonts, colors. For instance, use more fields (each field for its own purpose), use plain text (extract formatting to CSS).
  • Be brave to make significant changes, like restructuring your decks or modifying note types.
  • Experiment with plugins, judiciously. Before opting for a plugin, think if you can abandon it one day. If your cards will stop working after disabling a plugin, don’t ever use it.
  • Use shared decks for memorizing reference information only (countries and flags, hieroglyphs).
  • Always store the source of information to maintain the context and to come back to the sources if needed.
  • Make backups.
  • Stick to Piotr Wozniak’s “Twenty rules of formulating knowledge”. Stick to it, stupid!
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