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Improving Long-Term Memory With Anki: Tips For Starting Out

October 31, 2020

Time To Read: 4 Minutes

Author: Conner Jensen

How can you improve your long-term memory?

Recently I've started using Anki, a spaced repetition memory aid, to assist me in learning Ruby, and Design Patterns.

The basic idea of spaced repetition is that the best time to remember something is right before you're about to forget it.

You create flash cards in Anki, then it takes care of showing you these cards at different intervals.

This way you will "refresh" your memory at just the right time, solidifying the concept into your mind.

Here's an example.

Let's say I am trying to remember what the .empty? method does in Ruby.

I would make a card that says "What does the .empty? method in Ruby do?"

Then on the back it would say something like "It returns true for an array or hash that has a zero length, or an empty string"

Anki would show me this card about 10 minutes after I create it, if it was easy for me to answer then it will show it to me again in an hour.

If it was still easy after an hour then it may not show it to me for a day, then 4 days, and so on.

You should be able to answer the card correctly each time, and the space between your rememberings should be getting larger.

Spaced Repetition Makes Learning More Rewarding

Many times I've read a book, then a few months go by and a friend mentions they just finished it too. I would love to discuss it with them and I remember enjoying the book, however, many of the details have slipped from my memory, making it difficult for me to have an engaging conversation with them about it.

This frustrates me. I want to be able to remember the important parts of books, lectures, and blog posts and while I'm reading or listening I want to know that I will have a good chance of incorporating the important lessons into my life. Using Anki makes learning much more rewarding, knowing that you will be able to remember the important take aways for years to come, gives me the feeling that I am not wasting my time with learning.

Use one Big Deck

When starting out I thought it would be a good idea to have many small decks, with each one niched down to a specific topic I'm attempting to learn.

I found out by reading this article by Michael Nielsen, that it is a much better idea to have one big deck.

He says that using Anki effectively is difficult enough and you should limit the work your brain needs to do. Instead of needing to make a decision where each and every card will go, you can default to throwing everything into one big deck. You may lose 1-2% effectiveness by having one big deck but if you are able to be more consistent by doing so then it doesn't matter.

I tend to agree with him. Having one big deck make it easier for me to create and study cards, which means I am more likely to do so.

It can be difficult to let go of the potential 1-2% gains, especially as someone who loves to optimize things, but the skill of making well constructued Anki cards is difficult enough, and all your mental effort should be spent on this, not the organizational structure of your cards.

Each card should require only one "mental motion"

You should make your cards focused enough that it takes only one mental motion to answer them. This is beneficial because it will train your brain to more easily recall this information at real time. Not only this, but it will also help you understand what you are confused about if you get the card wrongs.

If you find that you are getting certain cards wrong on a regular basis, try breaking them up into smaller cards that have a narrower focus.

Using Anki for conference talks, lectures, and reading

It can be distracting to constanly be breaking focus to create an Anki card. You want your cards to be well crafted and this can take some mental effort.

Instead of trying to create Anki cards whil listening or reading, just take simple notes and then create the cards after the talk is done or you are finished reading.

This will allow you to spend more time crafting more effective cards

Make atleast 3 to 5 cards on a topic

If you only have one card relating to a topic, this can lead to what Michael Nielsen calls "orphan" cards. These orphan cards will not have anything else in your memory that connects to them, making them difficult to recall and remember.

Don't neglect to make "easy" cards

Often times a concept seems so straightforward and easy that I assume I'll never forget it. But don't skip over making cards for these types of things. Often times these "easy" concepts are foundational to learning the more difficult things and it's important to have a solid understanding of them before moving on.

It can seem pointless to make a card for these easy ideas, but keep in mind that you are currently immersed in the topic, in the future the "easy" stuff may to be as easy for you to remember as it is now.


My advice, as a new Anki practitioner, is that you just start making cards. Don't worry too much if you are doing things in the most optimal way. Just start throwing cards into One Big Deck and then study them at the intervals Anki determines for you. Give this a week and I think you'll start to see results. These results will only further motivate you to continue using the Anki system and from there the sky is the limit.

Thanks for reading and I hope you start implementing the Anki method of space repitition for increasing your long-term memory in your daily life.

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