One Weird Anki Trick

Imagine you had a button you could press whenever you saw or heard something you wanted to remember. By holding that button down for about a minute, you’ll be able to remember that thing forever. There are no undesirable side effects. Sounds like a pretty good deal, right?

There’s only one catch: you have to regularly find new things to press the button on. If you stop for more than a few days, the effects wear off. If you ask me, it still seems almost too good to be true! But it’s not. It’s the magic of spaced repetition.1

I had known about this magic for a long time and read blog posts from all directions telling me to use it, typically but not necessarily through Anki. Examples include Nicky Case’s interactive guide and Alexey Guzey’s guide; and because this has been so well-covered, I won’t go into how or why spaced repetition works or how one would use Anki in this post. Still, for a long time, I found the one “catch” to be of the -22 variety: I didn’t use Anki regularly because I didn’t have any flash cards of things I wanted to remember; but I didn’t make any flash cards of things I wanted to remember because, given that I didn’t use Anki regularly, making those flash cards wouldn’t actually help me remember those things.

Here is the One Weird Anki Trick that got me to finally turn spaced repetition into a habit: I created an Anki deck with a bunch of amusing but utterly useless cards,2 in order to make studying the Anki deck an entertaining activity I actually wanted to do. (Getting the mobile app and syncing my deck online also helped a lot.) Only after I started to habitually check my Anki deck did I start adding cards for the things I actually wanted to learn. I keep everything in one deck,3 so that my fun cards are spread out among my “work” cards, and when I find myself losing motivation, I add more useless entertainment cards.

That’s it. That’s the whole post.

  1. Well, with some “creative” amortized analysis of the time spent.

  2. In my case, mostly random trivia about dragons, with a dash of complexity theory.

  3. This is trick #2: if you’re used to flash cards as a thing you make in school to practice for specific exams, you might expect to make lots of decks in Anki, one for each topic you want to learn about. But, if you read the posts I linked, using fewer larger decks seems like folkloric knowledge. (It also means this trick isn’t weird, so the post title isn’t false advertising.) Nielsen: “The world isn’t divided up into neatly separated components, and I believe it’s good to collide very different types of questions.” The biggest reason I personally prefer one large deck: if I practice on a small deck on a specific topic, I often come to associate the specific cards I made with each other, so that seeing one card may help me think of an answer to an unrelated later card. This is “cheating” because I want to be able to recall the later card outside Anki, without the context of the other cards to help me.

    That, and the surrealism of encountering a totally serious card next to a factoid that was obviously cribbed directly from TVTropes is often itself entertaining.

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