Hi, welcome here. In this post, you’re going to learn how to start using Anki in the most efficient way possible — based on my experience.
Whether you’re using Anki for medical school, MCAT, language learning, engineering (like I did) or for continuous learning (what I do now) — I think you’re gonna love this.
Specifically, we’re going to cover the most essential elements of Anki that you should focus on, so you can:
- Immediately start using this awesome spaced repetition software
- Avoid the same mistakes that I did; and
- Have a roadmap that tells you what’s actually important when using Anki
If you don’t know already, here are a couple of things Anki allows you to do in a nutshell:
- Schedule reviews automatically, so you don’t have to worry about which specific topic to study
- Study 1714.29% more efficiently as compared to those using conventional flashcards
- Only study information you’re about to forget, so you study only what needs studying
- Encode information into long term memory at will, rather than by chance
- Remember almost anything you want without having to re-read
- Study anywhere! Studying felt less effortful than ever the moment I started using Anki before. What a blessing.
Now, this guide exists because I believe you just need to learn the few core info if you’re just looking to start.
The Anki manual is helpful, but it’s an app documentation rather than a quick-start guide.
You want a guide that’s Lean, rather than filled with information you can’t readily use.
Redditors seem to agree:
The very first version of this article was read by thousands of people from Reddit — awesome guys out there.
That being said, I made this guide comprehensive, yet concise so that this will also make you a decent Anki user more quickly.
Here’s what you’re gonna learn in this post:
Real Talk: What is Anki? How does it work?
As you may know, Anki is an open-source flashcard app that uses spaced repetition algorithms to help you prevent natural forgetting.
Even if you’re not born with awesome recall skills, Anki can help you to intentionally commit information into long-term memory.
But there’s a caveat.
That is, Anki works by supplementing your study process.
As good as it is, it’s NOT a magic pill nor a substitute for poor learning skills.
Why? Because Anki covers just the final one-third of the brain’s processes for long-term information encoding.
If the first two-thirds of the system you use for studying is messed up, then Anki isn’t really going to help at all.
So many newbies experience this problem that I made yet another course about it. (I’ll tell you about it when you finish reading.)
Ultimately, I did this because when you do use Anki with the right process, you could gain tremendous advantage over the competition:
- You basically guarantee that anything you study (again, using the right process) WILL get remembered for a long time
- You build up a tall stack of prior knowledge that allows you to understand complex concepts quickly
- You eliminate the most time-wasting study activity of all — “restudying what you’ve already studied because you forgot”
- You can turn downtime into productive study time (when you use Anki while eating, for example, it allows you to practice 50 items in a breeze)
Best of all, you get a tremendous long-term efficiency benefit:
Michael Nielsen predicted that in 20 years, he is 1714.29% (120 minutes/7 minutes * 100%) more efficient for each card when learning using spaced repetition compared to conventional flashcard learning. I found that this was even greater for me — and it will be true for you, too, after you read this post.
Does any of that sound good so far?
Okay, good. Let’s move on.
Isn’t Anki just for memorizing small facts?
Contrary to popular belief, just because Anki is a flashcard app doesn’t mean it’s only used for memorizing words or raw facts.
As I imply in the last section, Anki is also a tool for LEARNING — which means it helps you establish a “library of mental models” for understanding higher-level concepts.
Personally, I’ve used it with great success for all kinds of things — From Algebra to Advanced Engineering Mathematics, Physics, Electronics Engineering, Electronic Communications, Marketing, Business, Content Creation, Control Systems Engineering, Birthdays, and so on.
I never skip Anki because in my mind, if I don’t retain all the prerequisite knowledge I’m required to remember, then it’d be hard for me to understand higher-level concepts in the future. (Ultimately, this causes even more wasted time.)
“If Anki is so effective, then why do so many people fail at using it?”
Glad you asked. Three reasons why:
- They use shared decks. They keep trying to remember what they haven’t even learned yet.
- They create one deck for each topic — a recipe for what’s called domain dependence.
- Intermittent Reviews. They do Anki reviews intermittently—as if natural forgetting can be “skipped.”
- Their thinking is stuck in Anki and ignore the other 2/3 of the brain’s learning process. They functionally fix themselves into Anki — they see it as “the entire car” when really, it’s really just “a small part of the engine”. Again, I’ll talk more about it at the end of this post to keep this section tight for the uninterested.
Note: I’m well aware that you can use shared decks effectively for standardized exams, but I really don’t recommend it — UNLESS you’re in Medical School. I know of people who’ve created and used high-quality shared decks with great success, and you can find them here.
Thing is, most of these people who fail at using Anki treat is as a magic pill, instead of a tool that requires skill. (Woah, that rhymed…)
Michael Nielsen, one of the pioneers of quantum computing, put it best in his essay:
Anki is an extremely simple program […] Despite that simplicity, it’s an incredibly powerful tool. And, like many tools, it requires skill to use well. It’s worth thinking of Anki as a skill that can be developed to virtuoso levels, and attempting to continue to level up toward such virtuosity.
Put another way, Anki is only effective if you know how to make it effective.
How to Start Using Anki
To start using Anki, you need a computer (or laptop) and/or smartphone — preferably, both.
(Plus, it’s much, much faster to create flashcards using a computer.)
To download Anki on your computer, head over to AnkiWeb and download Anki.
I prefer to use version 2.0 because more add-ons are readily available for this version compared to the 2.1 one. (I also haven’t felt the need to use it)
You’ll still be fine whichever version you intend to use, just keep the add-on compatibility in mind if you want to use them (which, you’ll want to).
UPDATE (1/28/2020): Since Anki started phased out Anki 2.0, I now recommend downloading the latest version, which you can find at the same place.
Then, for your smartphone, if you’re on Android, it’s available in Google Play Store, just search for “AnkiDroid” and look for this one:
iOS users are required to pay for the app because that’s where the app gets its funds, after all. Heck, even if it’s a paid app on Android, I’d still pay for it. It’s that amazing.
Creating and Organizing Decks
Once you’ve installed and opened Anki, you’ll see one specific deck named “Default”.
You can either choose to rename it or just create another deck of your own.
To create a new deck, just hit the “Create Deck” button on the bottom part of the Anki window. You’ll be asked for a Deck name; I like to use my subject’s name for this one.
Now here’s where it gets interesting.
If you’re a lifelong learner like me, you ideally want to create a single deck only. That’s because you’ll find that a lot of concepts, even in seemingly unrelated fields, tend to be loosely related.
On the other hand, if you’re a college student, then ask yourself:
“Am I learning things that would come up in a single exam in the future?”
If you answered “yes”, then you should put those “things” in a single deck. (Related: Creating Effective Decks)
That’s because by doing it this way, you would be learning the concepts as a WHOLE unit (via Interleaving), rather than as ideas ‘filed’ in a single topic — unable to transfer itself freely.
Here’s what I mean.
Back when I was reviewing for my Engineering Board Exams here in the Philippines, I put together all of the things I learned on Communications Engineering under “EST” — the exam name.
I literally studied like 4 textbooks on that subject and filtered out unimportant stuff to get ahead more quickly.
Here’s what the deck looked like.
IIRC, I got 86 on that specific exam — and get this — with confidence. When I counted my unsure answers, they were 16 items. Turns out I got 2 of those correct.
When you use Anki the right way, your exams transform into black-and-white results. It’s either:
- You truly know it
- Or you don’t
No more “mental block” type of crap again.
To be fair, I just had 2-3 months left to learn EST as I deleted all of my decks to get the cards right. (Sad life. That’s what I’m talking about when I said “easy to mess up”.)
Anyway, I’ll elaborate more on this in the next lesson, but this should do for now.
In addition to creating decks, you can organize your decks into subdecks in two ways:
One, by using the format “MAINDECK::SUBDECK”. Example “Physics::Thermodynamics”.
And two, by dragging the deck over to the desired Master deck. Here’s an illustration.
Don’t get me wrong, though — I don’t use the “subdeck” method very often, unless my subdivision is a really broad subject.
Also, I don’t recommend you create a lot of subdecks—you’re better off using Tags instead for “Custom Study” purposes (more on this later).
Creating and Organizing Cards
To create cards, just hit the “Add” on the top part of your window.
By clicking on it, you should be seeing the Add New window containing (1) Type, (2) Deck, (3) Front and Back fields, and (4) Tag field.
Now, I wouldn’t worry about the “Fields…” and “Cards…” buttons just yet. To tell you the truth, I don’t think you even need them. I have successfully used Anki effectively without even touching those things.
In the “Add New” window, the question goes in “Front” and the answer goes in “Back” field, just like your good ol’ paper flashcards.
Once you’ve entered your desired Question and Answer pair, you can click on “Add” or just use the shortcut: Ctrl + Enter to make the card.
Note: Make sure to DOUBLE CHECK the “Deck” field before adding the card to prevent future headaches.
By the way, the card you’ve just seen is one of the “Basic” Card Types.
Tthe “Basic” card type allows you to perform the traditional flashcard studying.
The Cloze deletion, on the other hand, is a “fill-in-the-blank” type of card.
Out of the many card types, I have found that the “Cloze” card type was the most flexible one—also the easiest to create. (But that was back when I used Anki 2.0.)
Either works fine, tho. Anyway, let’s move on to organizing your cards.
Like I said, I like to use Tags instead of subdecks.
Why tags? Because it simplifies everything. You need not worry about creating subdecks for each subject because you can use “Custom Study” more selectively later on.