Drastically reduce your study time with this open-source app

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

Someday in December last year I was laying on the couch even though I had lots of stuff to do for University exams and assignments. Do you know the feeling when you are 4 episodes deep in a new Netflix show and this silent, but recognizable voice in your head tells you what an unproductive little prick you are? What do you do in a moment like this?

On any other day I would’ve hit “Yes” when Netflix asks if I’m still watching but not on this day. I knew I had to change something. I knew I have to get up and put in the work. And I knew I need a system that keeps me motivated but at the same time is really easy to follow. That’s when I started to explore this open-source app I installed months ago on my MacBook and all the add-ons and YouTube videos that go with it.

Introduction

I know some of you now might think “Really? This old piece of junk?” but yes, exactly, it’s the good ol’ Anki. So what’s with that software? How can it help me save time with studying, and how does it work? These are exactly the questions I cover in this article.

Background

Anki is a memorizing software that was first published in 2006. It is not a simple flashcard application, it is so much more. It relies on 2 science-backed learning techniques and combines them to form the ultimate software to memorize anything, anywhere. I will explain them in a minute.

The best thing is: it is open-source. This means you can install it for free on your computer, and everybody that is interested in helping the developers of Anki to expand its features can do exactly that by creating add-ons. And these add-ons are the reason why you can memorize any possible topic with Anki.

How does the Anki algorithm work?

When you create an Anki card in a deck that uses default settings, the card has a Starting ease of 250%. The intervals for learning the card are usually set to 1 day Graduating interval, 4 days Easy Interval and you will see 20 New cards/day. Steps (in minutes) is set to 1 10. So what does all this mean, and what can I do with this information?

Default settings of an Anki deck

Steps (in minutes)

When you answer new cards the first time you will see 3 options to choose from on the bottom. The first number in the Steps (in minutes) field above are the minutes till you see the card again if you hit the Again-button(you have to answer new cards correctly at least twice). Choose this option if you got the card wrong.

The second number is the time till you see the card again when you choose Good (use this when you answered the card correctly).

The Easy button sends the card directly 4 days into the future (this is where the Easy interval takes action). My advice here: NEVER EVER use the Easy-button. You can forget a lot of stuff in just 4 days, and it won’t be a big deal to answer the card again when it was easy the first time.

When cards Graduate

Photo by JodyHongFilms on Unsplash

When you create new cards, the card is in “learning state”. This means that you will see this same card every day till it hits the Graduate interval in days. While the card is in learning state, its ease-factor (250% on a new card) does not change. Even if you answer the card many times false, it does not change. But after the card graduates the ease factor can change and that’s where it gets interesting.

The Anki algorithm works with the Spaced Repetition principle. And depending on your ease-factor, you will see cards more or less often. For example, you will have to answer a new card twice the first day, then on the second day again, but then it graduates, so the intervals get bigger. After the second day it will take 2 days till you see it again, then 4 and so on.

Please DO NOT change the Starting-ease of 250%. On my decks I even use a Graduate-interval of 3 days that means I will see every card on the first 3 days. This makes sure that I can memorize them really well before they graduate, and I can prevent myself from getting into Ease Hell (drop a comment below if you want to know more about Ease Hell).

So what’s the science behind Anki?

Anki uses 2 main scientific memorizing techniques.

The first one is Active Recall. By using a flashcard model, our brain is forced to recall information from its memory. In short:

Active recall involves retrieving information from memory through, essentially, testing yourself at every stage of the revision process. The very act of retrieving information and data from our brains not only strengthens our ability to retain information but also improves connections in our brains between different concepts. — by Ali Abdaal (read more about it here)

The second technique is Spaced Repetition. The principle behind is to use the “spacing-effect” for memorizing new information. Scientists discovered that just after 1 hour we forget about 50% of the information we studied. So we have to memorize the information more often. This will not just help to get the information into our long term memory, but we will spend actually less time studying. And that's why you should not mess with Ankis Starting-ease.

Here is a great illustration of spaced repetition by link

How you can create a habit of doing Anki daily

The one thing that got me to use Anki every day, reduce my study time and have a more stress-free semester is the add-on Review Heatmap. This add-on displays a heatmap with info about how many cards you studied on a specific day. But more important: It has a Daily average and the Longest streak statistic built-in.

The promise to myself

I made a promise to myself that completely changed my student life: I would keep my daily streak hot and do ALL my reviews every day, NO MATER WHAT. And this works surprisingly well. All I have to do is to go over my reviews and maybe the new cards for that day every day. This takes usually between 15 and 60 minutes depending on the cards, and I’m good to go.

No more late night study sessions, no more bad grades, no more last minute panic attacks the day before an exam, and no more silent voices in my head while watching Netflix.

If you are interested in more in-depth coverage of the best add-ons for different purposes or how you can adjust settings based on study material, so you get the most out of it, just drop a comment below.

Also, I would like to hear from you what you think about using software to memorize things. How are you studying, or how does your workflow look like?

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Engineering Student, coder, part time entrepreneur and productivity hacker based in Austria

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Sandro Zoebinger

Sandro Zoebinger

Engineering Student, coder, part time entrepreneur and productivity hacker based in Austria

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