By Tereza Ruzickova
In my first article, I outlined how significant flashcard learning has been for me and how I utilize it in many different - often unexpected - areas of my life. In this article, I will share some practical strategies for making the flashcard habit stick. Most of these I've learned the hard way over the past ten years (while accumulating more than 40 000 cards!). Here are my key takeaways from the article.
For the past few years, I have found that the most variable that determines whether I regularly create new cards is convenience. When I set up a super convenient information-gathering method for any facts that have flashcard potential, I am much more likely to make and revise flashcards alongside everything else that I do.
I have found the software Things to work really well for me, especially their keyboard shortcut that creates new notes very quickly and effortlessly both on the phone and desktop. This way, I easily note down anything that I want to remember throughout the day - whether it's fun facts I hear on podcasts, gratitude moments I experience, or even life lessons that randomly occur to me. You can also effortlessly create cards directly into the Thought Saver mobile app.
About once a week, I then go through all of these notes, filter out any that no longer seem interesting, and start creating new cards. I always aim to keep each card as simple as possible, which often means having to break things down into several cards and stripping the content to the most essential bits of information.
For example, this might be one note I write down after reading a book:
Francisco Franco was a Spanish general who led the Nationalist forces in overthrowing the Second Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War and then ruled over Spain from 1930s to 1970s as a dictator.
And this is how I might break it into several cards:
Learning to make my cards extremely simple was a game-changer for me. Before that, my cards would contain lots of complex information, which would make it really effortful to remember them and to motivate myself into regular revision. When it's easy to feel successful, I'm much more likely to continue doing it.
Once I create a card, I then categorize it into one of several decks. My approach to this has changed over time; in the past, I used to just throw them all into one deck, which I called Everything. I felt like that simplified the whole process and made it easier to build a habit around it. I still use this deck, but I have also separated out other ones for specific situations. My current organization looks like this:
Of course, the way you organize your cards is completely up to you - my most important tip is just to consider what's convenient for you in relation to applying this knowledge in your life.
Now that we have learned how to create and organize cards let's dive into some tips for making flashcards a regular habit in your life.
I'm a big fan of the Tiny Habits approach when it comes to establishing reliable practices in my life. According to this paradigm, you first ask yourself: “What's the smallest version of this habit that I can manage even on my hardest days?” This tiny version becomes the only thing you really have to do on a regular basis. If you happen to feel inspired and motivated, you can always do much more. But by keeping the daily requirement tiny, it becomes very easy to succeed at doing it consistently. This brings positive feelings of accomplishment, which keeps the habit going.
For me, I decided that the smallest amount of flashcards I could go through is five cards a day. This takes about a minute and requires no real effort (because I keep my cards very simple). Not only is it very easy to achieve this, but it also makes the practice extremely flexible. I can do it while I'm standing in a supermarket queue, while I'm commuting, or even when it's 10 pm, I'm half asleep, and I just realized I haven't done my daily flashcards.
Now, you might be asking: 5 cards a day? That's nothing! I can relate; my perfectionistic brain would much prefer it if I went through 300 cards a day. However, I have tried and failed at that many times. And each time, it would leave me feeling so disappointed that I wouldn't even want to look at my cards for a while. So I've concluded that this just isn't realistic long-term as my commitments and energy levels change over time. When I set the bar low, I feel successful every day, no matter what else I'm doing. On particularly good days (or particularly boring times on public transport), I often end up revising much more. I feel that, overall, this leads to sustained motivation and a higher number of total revisions than if I pushed myself into something straining every single day.
Thought Saver follows this idea too, encouraging you to only quiz on a small number of cards per day to build up the habit, normally around five daily cards.
One thing that motivates me in these tiny steps is to see them gradually add up. For the last few years, I've been using an app called Tally to track this. That way, I can see that, for example, I have gone through more than 8 000 cards in my Spanish deck this year just by continuing (and, on good days, expanding) my tiny flashcard habit. This has been a great way to stay connected with my Spanish learning hobby during my busy schedule.
Another way to improve habit-building is to find the right time and context where your flashcard learning “fits”. For example, in the past, I tried going through flashcards while eating breakfast or during breaks at work. However, neither of these habits stuck with me very well. In the post-mortem investigation I conduct for every failed habit, I realized why it didn't work for me. At breakfast, I'm often still quite groggy and want to do something relaxing to ease into the day. During work breaks, on the other hand, I may be a bit stressed or cognitively overwhelmed, so I prefer to clear my mind with meditation or a walk.
In the end, I found that the best time for my flashcard practice is during evening relaxation or if I can't fall asleep at night. However, this will be unique to everyone based on your individual circumstances. Experiment and find out what's best for you!
I hope this article gave you some useful pointers on how to make flashcards a convenient part of your life. It all gets easier with practice - and if you have any of your tips, please share them in the comments below!This post was written in collaboration with the team at Thought Saver to teach you more about how to use flashcards in your day-to-day life.
I use flashcards too and use Anki (PC and Android).
For vocabulary very short cards are best.
But for insights I use bigger cards. That is because
a) It is more about reminding about the insight and it's context.
b) I want to know the sources and further pointers which is more like a database.
When you review only five cards a day how does that add up to memorizing 40000 cards? It seems on many days you have to review many more cards. Like in the train as you mentioned. How does the distribution look in practice? Or do you accept that you will not review most of your cards?
Hi, thank you for your comment!
Yes, exactly, I find that if I set the daily bar very low (e.g. 5 a day), and keep the habit alive in that way, I will occasionally get bursts of motivation that lead to much bigger numbers. I'd say once a week I may do 50-100 cards in one go, once a month it might be even more. But I never force myself into that, I just follow a motivation wave when it comes (and it's made easier by the cards being short and easy). This means that there will be periods without bigger waves and that's ok. I found the Tiny Habits book very useful for this approach.
Occasionally these waves result in there being too many cards in the revision "queue", which makes the daily habit harder (there are too many cards that I can't remember). In those times, I reset a bunch of the cards that are in the queue and learn them again from scratch later on.
In terms of the 40 000 cards, I should have clarified that I am not necessarily actively learning many of those. Many of them are just dormant in the database, because they were for example relevant in my university studies, but I don't find them relevant now. But I still like having them there in case I need them at some point. I also have many cards that I have already learnt many times and therefore they come back around once every year or two.
I find that with the slow and steady approach, I do eventually learn all the cards that are currently relevant to me, I just have to be patient. If something needs to be learnt urgently, I put it in my ASAP desk which has much fewer cards and I get to them more quickly.
Hope this makes sense, thank you for your interest!
I seem to be using Anki quite a bit like you.
I stopped using Anki two times, and when I noticed it the second time, I added a monthly reminder to pick up the habit again.
For concept-like cards, it helped to write short daily FB posts about them.
I've tried multiple times to develop an Anki habit and failed every time. Probably mainly because I tried too much at once. But it's very frustrating. One of the big issues is that I don't know how to prioritize what I need to memorize versus what I don't. When I read a book with the flashcard mindset I want to memorize everything. And obviously that's absurd.
It’s a common thing that people who want to learn efficiently come across. I cover some of my thoughts on efficient learning in this shortform thread: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/jXjeYYPXipAtA2zmj/jacquesthibs-s-shortform?commentId=hQmoiHnf4q8z8H59r.
I think people who want to learn efficiently (learning what you need in less time) in relation to their specific goal, they should watch the following videos (all by the same guy):
Flashcards are good as one tool in the belt, but too many students become dependent on them and cripple their ability to learn things more deeply in less time.
Flashcards in general should be reserved for things that do require memorization, but a lot less things do than some think if you just properly encode things in the first place. Flashcards focus more on memorization of isolated facts rather than understanding things more relationally (which is more efficient for encoding).
I mostly reserve flashcards for remembering some code syntax (because it’s useful for coding interviews) and some specific facts I can’t remember after 3 normal active recall revisions. When I do them, I usually just set a rule like “do 3 flashcards every bathroom break” or when waiting in line. I rarely sit down and do a whole bunch.