Commit Things You Learn To Your Long Term Memmory

I like learning new things. Almost every day I will read a few pages of a technical book, watch a video tutorial or even explore by doing myself. There is a problem though. Even though I understand things and I can fool myself easily that every time I read something I have digested the information and I will be able to recall it should I need to, that’s a lie. Ask me a week later and I might have forgotten the existence of the topic. Is not-on-demand studying a waste of time then? I would not say so. For me even if the piece of information is completely forgotten, the next time I will have to re-learn it, it will be much easier. Unfortunately, one can admit that this is definitely not the best use of time…

I had accepted my fate. The enjoyment of studying stuff will compromise the side effects of poor memory.

Until I came across this article by Michael Nielsen. He is talking about systems to improve long-term memory and he is giving his view on one of them. Nielsen, amongst others, is giving his views on ways one can use a piece of software called Anki. He is talking about personal experience, patterns and antipatterns and how making Anki part of his life had managed to enhance his long-term memory on information that is useful for his daily work and personal life.

After I read this article I felt like I had acquired a superpower. I immediately downloaded the app - which is available for all the popular operating systems (Linux, Mac, Windows, Andoid, IOS) and a web app version accessible from everywhere - and waited for the next opportunity to come.

I was inspired by the hints and tips on how to use it by Nielsen but after a few weeks, I finetuned the process for myself.

Below are things that I found useful on using Anki (or ankifying knowledge) which is a mix of advice from the above article, in random order.

But first of all, let’s see what is Anki.

What is Anki?

Wikipedia summarises it perfectly:

Anki is a free and open-source flashcard program using spaced repetition, a technique from cognitive science for fast and long-lasting memorization. “Anki” is the Japanese word for “memorization”

In practice, you create flashcards. When you review them, you can rate how easy it was for you to answer the question. The options are:

  • Again
  • Hard
  • Good
  • Easy

Based on your selection, Anki will either display the flashcard again or reschedule it for tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, or after a couple of days. Now, if you have repeatedly rated the flashcard as good or easy the flashcard will take longer to re-appear on your deck. In this way, you can review hundreds of cards in less than half an hour.

As you could tell, the difference between a classical flashcard app and Anki is that Anki will show you cards with information that you will most likely forget, so a quick refresh will extend it in your memory. You will find out that a flashcard might appear again after months if you have rated it easy multiple times.

Things that worked for me:

  • Once you get your first flashcard created, you will need to establish a habit of spending time with Anki every day. So you should download the app and make use of the idle time that you might have during the day. I initially started having a routine, checking in with Anki every morning before work but that didn’t work all of the time. So while on the go, waiting in a queue or taking a pooh is the perfect time to enhance your long-term memory.
  • I have tried ready-made decks (there are thousands available for almost every topic, free to download), but as Nielsen suggests making your own is part of the learning process.
  • I separate my decks based on topic (against Nielsen’s advice). I have multiple decks instead of a massive one. This makes it easier for me to review them by making the process less boring. If I feel like I skip a deck at some point. It makes it easier for me to open the app and practice.
  • Neilsen suggests not to try to Ankify things that you are not interested in or there is no purpose for them just for the sake of committing it into memory. I can verify that it is indeed a waste of time. I also have an example. I watched a tutorial on Kubernetes and thought that it would be a good idea to ankify it. I did not have a goal at that point in time and I didn’t need K8s knowledge in my daily life. The deck was a nightmare. Every card was reappearing day after day. After a few months, I decided to sit on K8s Certification. I deleted the old deck and as I was going through the learning material I created a new one. The new one works! And that’s because there is a point of me taking time to review the cards. (Brains are lazy and I guess for a good reason…)
  • Neilsen advises on making Anki card content atomic. A very simple question with a single answer. I follow this advice most of the time and it works better than having a complex multi-part answer. So try to break a question into simpler ones if you can. It works better.
  • Anki gives you the chance to use images on the answer part. That works for me brilliantly
  • if you are on IOS, you will find out that the Anki app costs £20 to purchase. Even though it might sound like a lot of money for something that other platforms have for free (I guess that’s the fate of apple products users, to pay for everything). Go ahead and buy it. You support an amazing project and you will be able to practice your flashcards even when you pooh (I think I mentioned that again :P)

I think that was it. I have put down everything I could share for making your long-term memory stronger. Download Anki and enjoy your new superpower!