5 Simple Tips to Turn Anki into a Habit You Don't Fall Out Of

A habit tracker journal

Starting to use Anki is one of the most impactful decisions you can make in your life.

Even though Anki cannot guarantee that you will develop a perfect memory, it can get you damn close.

Why, then, is it so hard to stick with it?

Talk of burnout is common among those that use Anki. Doing the daily reviews can sometimes feel like a chore, especially when you open the program and have hundreds of cards waiting for you. Each day you have to call forth on all your mental discipline to persevere through your daily review, and then you have to do it all over again the day after. And the one after that as well.

It is not surprising then that a lot of people stop using Anki.

This has happened to me as well. Even though I have known about Anki and spaced repetition for close to a decade now, there have been long spells of time where I did not use it.

The pattern was always the same.

I would open Anki fresh with the excitement that this time I would stick to it, that this time was different from all the others. My mind would bubble in excitement, filled with fantasies of having a perfect memory, fantasies that had me never forgetting things and using this new superpower to achieve my wildest dreams. The only thing I had to do was stick with doing my daily reviews in Anki.

And I would stick to it. For a time.

It is never a quick thing. You don’t stop using Anki right away. It happens gradually. Your daily reviews become a little less exciting with each passing day. They become more of a chore as more and more cards start becoming like strangers to you and you stop answering them as successfully as you previously did.

That’s when the fun stops, and the struggle begins. Cards start piling up. No matter how many times you encounter them you keep forgetting them. The joy of learning you once felt is now gone and you are left with a strange mix of hopelessness and desperation as you see your dreams of having a perfect memory slip through your fingers.

That’s when you start forgetting to do your daily reviews.

Days go by without you once thinking about it, and when it does cross your mind that you have your daily review to do, you still don’t do it. The very thought fills you with dread and a little bit of shame for not having been able to stick to it once more.

Doing your daily reviews becomes a thankless Sysyphean task, and so you call it quits.

That’s a damn shame.

Making Anki a part of your life is one of the most impactful investments you can make, but it’s all for nothing if you don’t continue to use it.

As I’ve pointed out before, the most important thing is to continue using Anki. Everything else is of secondary importance to this.

To help people make sure they keep using Anki, here are five strategies that have helped me turn Anki into a habit I don’t fall out of and avoid burning out of doing my daily reviews.

I hope that they will help you in making sure you don’t fall off the bandwagon and that you continue to feel the joy of learning that Anki makes possible.

Limit the number of cards you review per day

The algorithms that drive Anki’s choice of which cards you review each day were created with the goal of optimizing retention in mind. If the algorithm decides that today is the optimal day for you to review a card, then Anki will show it to you. 

But what if Anki decides today is the perfect day for you to review a thousand cards? That doesn’t seem that optimal to me.

Thankfully, by default Anki caps the number of cards it tells you to review to 150 cards per day, meaning that even if the algorithm decides that it would be best for you to review a thousand cards in a day, Anki will only show you 150 of them - you can afterward decide to review the remaining or stop there. 

My advice is to not mess too much with this cap. 

Some people in the Anki community advocate getting rid of the cap entirely. After all, if the all-mighty optimization algorithm says that you have to review a thousand cards, who are you to know better? 

Yet it seems to me that opening the Anki app to find out it will take you more than two hours to go through all the cards you have to review that day will only make it that much harder to open Anki the day after. Reviewing too many cards each day is a sure way to turn your daily review into a chore and that’s exactly what we’re looking to avoid.

Besides, even if you do not have that many cards to review on any given day, if for some unforeseen reason you miss doing your daily review, you still will have to go through those cards the day after along with any new ones that were already scheduled for that day. Each day that you miss means more cards added to the pile that you have to go through and anyone who has used Anki for a while will tell you that cards pile up faster than you expect. 

There is a reason why the official Anki documentation has a special section on how to deal with missed days.

By capping the number of cards you review per day you, might miss out on all the benefits of the algorithm, but it is better to use Anki imperfectly than to not use it perfectly. If attempting perfection means you drop out of using Anki, then you’re better off settling for good enough.

A slight aside: the reason why you might find people online telling you to get rid of the daily review cap is that a lot of medical students use Anki to cram the seemingly insurmountable mountain of knowledge that they need to cram into their heads. Removing the cap makes sense for medical students because they have a lot of things they need to get through and 150 cards a day is not nearly enough for that. However, the needs of medical students do not neatly translate to those of other people, so unless you’re a medical student, do not mess too much with the cap.

Use the mobile app

Pretty much everyone these days has a smartphone that can install apps. Anki has an app, so use it.

One of the cool things about Anki is that even though it is free, it still manages to offer a way for people to keep their collection synchronized across their many devices. That means any cards you add to your computer will get synced with your smartphone and if you do your daily review on your smartphone your computer will know that you have done so.

With the mobile app, you can do your daily views when you would otherwise have nothing else to do but aimlessly browse the web, which I am going to guess is plenty of time.

If instead of refreshing Twitter once more you instead spend the next ten minutes going through your daily review then at least those ten minutes will not have been the complete waste of time that they otherwise would have been - which is not to say that Twitter by necessity is a waste of time, as my piece on how to use Twitter productively testifies.

Android users are in luck, as the AnkiDroid app is free. iOS users will have to spend some money to get the app, although that money directly supports the creator of Anki which is nice.

Track the days you do your daily review

Because Anki expects you to do the daily reviews, well, daily, it is important when starting out to have a system that makes it easier to adopt the habit of opening up the app and go through your reviews daily instead of only opening it when it randomly crosses your mind.

Changing your habits, and adopting new ones, can be tough. That there are so many books and articles online about it is a testament to that. And while I can’t solve the problem of habit building once and for all, I can at least share what has worked for me to make Anki a part of my daily life. 

And that was to track the days where I went through my daily reviews.

As the saying goes, what gets tracked gets managed. If you keep a log of the days where you did your daily review, and hence the days where you did not, there will be no place for you to hide away from the fact that you are not doing something that you know you want to do. 

Tracking keeps you honest. That’s why calorie counting works: you can’t run from the fact that you just munched on an 800-calorie cheeseburger. 

There are many approaches and apps you can use to track your daily reviews. I use Beeminder when I want to track things in my life and the iOS app Streaks also seems like a nice enough alternative. In the end, it doesn’t matter how you track this; you can use a small notebook that you carry with you every day: that’s how I track my meditation practice. What matters is that you track whether or not you have done your reviews for the day. 

Be profligate about adding cards, but also in deleting them

There is a rush of adrenaline that comes with the realization that you’re finally the master of your memory. 

If you want to learn something and have it stay in memory rather than letting it flutter away as usual, with Anki, now you can. Subjects that once you once thought insurmountable now seem doable. Topics that previously gave you a difficult time can finally be mastered. Old adversaries now crumble before your might!

Yet with that rush of excitement comes danger.

If things go well, you will use Anki for years on end, and if ten years from now you’re still using Anki, the cards that you add today will also appear to you then. Because of the expanding schedule inherent to the spacing effect and the algorithms that underlie Anki, when those cards appear to you ten years from now, they will do so after you not having seen them for potentially years.

A lot can happen in that time.

For starters, you may no longer care about those cards. Ten years from now, your interests may change. You will certainly have changed, but your cards didn’t. If you take up an interest in, say, the Roman mystery cults of the 1st century and add cards about them to your Anki collection, you will still encounter those same cards ten years from now. By then you might not even remember that you had such an interest, and you certainly might not care about any of those cards anymore.

Do you want to continue encountering those cards from years on end? Chances are you don’t. So, delete them.

Deleting cards might seem anathema to the apotheotic dream of remembering things forever, but the fact of the matter is that Anki exists to serve you, not the reverse. Again, the priority is in creating a system that gets you to do your daily reviews every day. If each time you open Anki the cards you have to review are about things you don’t care about, then you won’t be motivated to do your reviews. Deleting cards you don’t care about helps keep you motivated to do your daily reviews.

But there’s an even more important reason why you must not worship every card you create. 

And that is because, at least at first, your cards will suck.

Although it might not seem like it at first glance, creating good cards is a skill that you will need to develop. Because every card you create will continue appearing in your daily reviews so long as it continues in your collection, making sure that cards are created in such a way that you can answer them correctly and easily becomes of paramount importance. 

For instance, suppose you create the following card:

  • Question: What are amino acids?

  • Answer: Amino acids are organic compounds that contain amine (–NH2) and carboxyl (–COOH) functional groups, along with a side chain (R group) specific to each amino acid. The key elements of an amino acid are carbon (C), hydrogen (H), oxygen (O), and nitrogen (N), although other elements are found in the side chains of certain amino acids. About 500 naturally occurring amino acids are known (though only 20 appear in the genetic code) and can be classified …

You get the idea.

There is no way you’d be able to remember all of that in one go. 

To approach this particular piece of knowledge, you’d be better off by breaking things up into many cards, each containing a single thing that you need to recall. For example, you might add the following cards:

Question: What are the three components which together make up an amino acid?
Answer: A carboxyl group, an amino group, and the side chain

Question: Which four atomic elements are the key ingredients of an amino acid?
Answer: Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen

Question: How many amino acids are encoded by the DNA?
Answer: 20

These last three cards contain the same core knowledge as the previous gigantic card, but because each one only asks for a specific, easy to handle, piece of knowledge, you will be much more successful at correctly answering them in your daily reviews.

The cost of having too many badly formulated cards in your collection is that you will have a much harder time answering them, which means that they will continuously appear in your daily reviews since your failure to answer them correctly makes Anki think that you need to go over them more regularly to get them to stick in your memory. 

But because they are bad cards, getting them into your memory will be quite a challenge. It will be like swimming against the current with a sack of rocks strapped to both your shins. You can swim as hard as you like, but there’s no escaping the current. 

What are you to do if - when - you find yourself with too many bad cards?

Well, first off, edit them. Your cards are not set in stone; you can modify them as you see fit. If there’s a way for you to separate that card into one, or more, simpler cards then that is a better alternative than letting the original bad card drag you down. 

You can also delete that card. Maybe you were a bit too trigger happy when your first added it and now that you’ve cooled off, you see that there’s nothing useful about having that card in your collection. It happens to the best of us. As I’ve said, once you realize you’re in control of your memory, learning becomes exhilarating, and all that excitement sometimes results in cards that are, shall we say, less than well thought-through. 

In any case, you will need to be proactive about managing the cards in your collection so you don’t find yourself in a situation where your daily reviews become a chore and bring you nothing of value. 

Add cards to your heart’s content, but do not be afraid of deleting them if that’s what’s needed.

Create a deck that brings you joy

How many inspirational quotes have moved you only for you to never encounter them again?

Add them to Anki.

In fact, you can do more than that. Create a deck filled with things that bring you nothing but joy. These can be inspirational quotes or art that you enjoy and that moves you. We’ll call this deck your joy deck. 

This joy deck is a bit different from your regular deck because rather than wanting the cards that you add to it to appear to you less and less, you want for them to continuously appear to you so that they can continue to give you that joie de vivre that led you to add them in your joy deck in the first place. 

Thankfully, because Anki is such a powerful piece of software, we can configure our joy deck to do just that. 

First off, create a new deck. You can call it Joy. 

List of decks in Anki with a Joy deck

Click on the gearwheel that appears on the right and click on options. That will open a scary-looking window filled with lots of options for you to fiddle with. Worry not, we will only change a couple of things and you can forget about all the rest.

Option's group of a deck

To the right of where it says ‘Options group’, click on the Manage button and select Add. This will create a new set of options that only applies to your Joy deck. We must do this because while we want the cards in our Joy deck to show up regularly, we do not want the same for our regular deck – otherwise, what’s the point, right?

You can name the new options group anything you want. I named mine Joy because that makes sense to me. 

Now that you have a new options group, you need only change two options:

  • In the Reviews tab, change the option where it says Maximum reviews/day to 20
  • Again in the Reviews tab, change the Maximum interval to 15 days.

The names are self-explanatory. The first option tells Anki to only show 20 cards a day from your Joy deck - your joy cards, whereas the second tells it that you do not want to go more than 15 days without seeing each of your joy cards. 

Of course, you can change both these options to be more to your liking, but I think this is a nice starting point. 

Here is an example from my Joy deck:

Menacing face of Jocko Willing saying Good

What, the menacing face of Jocko Willink doesn’t bring you joy? You’re such a weirdo…

The joy deck isn’t the only way you can use Anki to bring more joy into your life. For example, you can use it to remember things about your favorite fiction. Are you a Tolkien fan? You can add cards about it on your regular deck. 

You can also use Anki to enrich your relationships with the people in your life by adding details about them to it. For example, you can use it to memorize their birthdays or the foods they love. 

There exists no life that could not use more joy in it, so use Anki to bring some light to yours. 

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