Anki Tips: The Biweekly Design Review
Spaced repetition is a magical tool that can dramatically change the way that you learn and remember complex information—from languages to pure mathematics. It’s exciting when you realize that all it actually takes to remember a fact is to review it for a few minutes a year.
I remember when, shortly after picking up an Anki habit, I made a giant list of all the things I wanted to master—from linear algebra to all my friends’ birthdays!
But like any technology, the reality often isn’t quite what we expect from the initial hype. If the famous Gartner hype curve applies to anything, it certainly applies to how we experience tools like Anki:
With spaced repetition, we quickly learn that card design is time consuming, but also that it matters. Some cards are much more pleasant and easy to review & remember than others. Learning effective ways to express complex ideas as atomic and coherent flash cards is a skill that takes practice. The first cards you make will probably become your least favorite ones over time. You might even end up with whole decks that you loathe.
As a lifelong learner who uses Anki both professionally and for hobbies, card quality matters to me: I plan to maintain my Anki cards until I die, and the average review intervals for my decks are typically measured in years (rather than days or weeks).
You Need to Refactor your Cards
Admit it: you’ve made some bad cards. A lot, actually. We all have. And they need to be nuked from orbit. They are interfering with your happiness, if not your grades. They need to be redesigned from scratch, leveraging your best and latest skills.
“But Siggy!” you say, aghast, “it took me months to make those cards! You can’t honestly be asking me to go through aaaallll that woorrrrk!”
Oh, rest assured that I am asking you to do the work. Anki is a big, daily part of your life. Just like keeping your lawn mowed and teeth clean, a little maintenance goes a long way toward a pleasant and excellent life.
But we will do two things to make it easier:
- We’ll only commit to refactoring a card or two every 3 or 4 days—nothing drastic. “Journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step” and all that.
- We’ll let our curiosity flow. Often our cards are bad because we never fully understood the topic to begin with. Refactoring cards can be as fun and adventuresome as learning new material for the first time: you find new clarity, and new ways to visualize and understand old wine skins.
My Review System
This year, I’ve watched my backlog of marked cards drop from an initial mountain of 800 bad cards down to around 100. It’s a good feeling to be clear of 700 units of dead weight!
My procedure goes like this:
- Do your reviews every day (duh!). If you have troubles with this, that’s a separate problem. My standard advice is to delete social media apps from your phone: Anki is fun, but it will never compete with Tik-Tok and Insta.
- As you review, mark any card that you realize is difficult, poorly worded, missing an effective image/diagram, etc. If it’s completely and truly broken, you can suspend it too. If you hate it with a deep and unyielding passion, you can delete it—but every time you delete an Anki card, a baby angel cries. Try and save it with refactoring first!
- Set a reminder in your personal organization system to work on your marked cards once every 3 days or so. Again, if you don’t have a well-oiled personal organization system—that’s a separate problem. I’m a chronic procrastinator by nature, so take it from me: organizers make the difference between being able to choose your habits and letting your habits choose you. Personally, my current favorite is OmniFocus for macOS, but a Bullet Journal, Moleskine, email system, or sticky notes will do.
- Refactor marked cards. You do this by going to Browse in Anki and typing “tag:marked” into the search bar. Refactoring may involve editing the card, deleting it and creating a new one, and/or adding new, supporting cards to help create a more coherent picture. This might take study: explore Wikipedia, find new images, finally get clear about that technical term you always faked your way through in class…. Have fun with it!
- As long as you refactor at least one card, you can check the design review off of your to-do list for that day. Some refactoring is easy, though, so I often find myself, say, churning through 20 marked language cards that lack audio clips—because it’s fun to watch my total marked card count drop suddenly.
This last point is especially important. The nature of refactoring is that some cards are much easier to fix than others. You’ll naturally avoid the difficult ones that are going to take thought and study, and they may sit there for a while.
So don’t try to (re)build Rome in a day. Just aim to improve one card.
Then sit back and enjoy the characteristic Anki users know and love so much: steady, monotonic progress toward mastery of your world.