Note Taking in Anki
- Typical Note-Taking Practice
- Adding Notes to Anki
- Key Benefits of Anki Use
I’ve tried many, many solutions to note-taking and so many of them didn’t seem to work. I’ve finally settled on a software I like and it is an unusual choice: a spaced repetition software called Anki. This essay explores why I chose this software and how I believe others could benefit from it’s use.
Typical Note-Taking Practice
The importance of writing is often talked about, with particular emphasis on taking notes. Ultimately, both activities refer to the idea that all of us—particularly knowledge workers—should be capturing our thoughts in order to accumulate knowledge and insight. We write in order to conceptualise novel ideas, solidify learnings, and better prepare ourselves for the future. Too much of this work, however, is ad-hoc and ineffective. Too often notes are created with good intentions and are never utilised; they exist as a throwaway fragment within some archive of knowledge that only seems to grow as time goes on.
For the more dedicated among us, notes are compiled into lists or occasionally revisited to recall a specific fact or idea, however my experience is that notes don’t really progress from this stage and certainly don’t provide any meaningful return on the time invested in their creation. I think the key problem with these kinds of traditional note-taking systems (think Evernote, Notion or even a zettelkasten-based software like Obsidian or Roam) is that you need to decide what notes you need to expand upon. I believe the best way to improve writing and thinking is by engaging in a consistent way and working on it incrementally every day—trying to pick files out of a library of notes feels not only arbitrary but a little overwhelming.
As I begin searching for an alternative approach to this style of incremental note-taking, I considered how I use Anki (a spaced repetition/flashcard software) each day. I have a deck of cards I’ve created which represents a collection of conceptual knowledge, in the form of questions and answers, that I’m trying to remember. Information in this deck ranges from fundamental engineering/career knowledge to geography to important elements of my personal life. Each day I open the app on my phone or computer and am presented with a number of cards I need to ‘review’. I spend 15 to 20 minutes reviewing these cards and am prompted to advise the software whether I correctly recalled the answers to the given questions and, if I did, whether I found them particularly easy or hard. After this, my review is complete and I have successfully completed my study session.
Throughout this process, the scheduling algorithm built into the software decides, based on the responses I gave to each card, when I should review each one again. It attempts to find a balance between not showing you the cards so frequently that I would waste time reviewing them, but just frequently enough that I can still recall the correct answer. The beauty of this algorithmically-determined system is that the burden of choice is removed from the activity—all the software requires of me is that I do my best to answer the question in front of me. Instead of thinking through topics I have recently been interested in and attempting to recall what I found interesting about each, I can make the choice to take 20 minutes out of my day and ‘do my flashcards’. This concept is articulated by Andy Matuschak as programmable attention:
The review sessions of a Spaced repetition memory system don’t just help you remember things: it orchestrates your repeated attention over time across hundreds of tiny tasks, too many to manage by hand. Systems like these are a form of programmable attention. You use simpler forms of programmable attention all the time: inboxes with snooze and alarm features; bots which remind you of things; Twitter is a kind of programmable attention.
– Andy Matuschak, Programmable attention
Once I saw this concept articulated like this, I began to think through how Anki could be used to improve my note-taking. Although the Anki software has obviously not been designed for note-taking as it’s primary purpose, I believe it can still serve as an excellent platform due to the nature of the scheduling algorithm and its ability to program your attention. This concept can be a little abstract; I like to think of it as bundling a discrete number of things into something that can be done for a certain length of time. So, how does a system like this practically work?
Adding Notes to Anki
In Anki, the place where you create cards is called a deck. Similar to the kind used in casinos, this is essentially a collection of cards which contain the information. In my app, I have a deck labelled ‘Knowledge’ which contains all the facts and information I regularly learn. For the purposes of my note-taking, I created a new deck called ‘Writing’, which allows the information I put in this deck to be kept separate to my other deck. This allows me to keep review sessions focused and ensure filtering/sorting cards is straightforward (basically, I can alter my writing deck without affecting other decks which are used for different purposes). With this deck created, it is a very simple matter to add notes to my deck. By clicking
Add (Hotkey: A), a dialog pops up that allows me to put information in either the front field (typically the question) or the back field (typically the answer). What I like to do is to put any fleeting idea, thought, or question which interests me into the front of the card, and save the it to the deck. Saving multiple thoughts is extremely easy too, just press
Ctrl + Enter to add one card and start creating another. Cards don’t require names, file extensions, metadata or tags. Just add them and move on.
Once cards are created, they are defined by Anki as being New. This means they are fresh and need to be reviewed so that they can transition to a status of Learning and become part of the deck. These cards, however, cannot be treated like a typical question/answer card, since at the moment they are blank on the back side of the card. This is where the concept of programmable attention comes into play. When you are ready (I like to do it in the early morning), open Anki and study your ‘Writing’ deck (or the equivalent you’ve created for your notes). When a card pops up, take a bit of time to think through whether you believe it is a useful card or not. Quite often in my case, thoughts or quotes which seemed useful or important yesterday feel boring or irrelevant the next morning. This is okay—good, in fact—because we are able to suspend the card
(Hotkey: @) and move along to the next one. This is a crucial concept because you are able to close loops and begin to interact with a library of thoughts, instead of collecting them as a one-off, temporary idea.
If a prompt does seem helpful, on the other hard, this is your chance to think through how you can extend or riff on the idea. Can you think of a practical application for this idea, an example of how you’ve used the concept in your life? Does the card relate to another idea you’ve recently had? Is it more or less important than you initially thought, and why? When you have an idea for extending the card, simply click
Edit (Hotkey: E) to edit the back side, adding a bullet point, a sentence, a paragraph or a link that seems relevant. When you’re happy, close the window
(Hotkey: Esc) to save editing the note, and
Space to progress to the next note. The
Space hotkey here selects the answer ‘Good’, which progresses the note through a learning step. I’ll address the implications of this idea a little later in the essay but for now, think of this as basically telling the software you’re done with that card for now.
As soon as you press the
Space button, the software will bring up the next note in your deck. Repeat the above steps here, looking to extend the usefulness of the note as much as you can. If you can’t think of anything particularly helpful to add in the moment, you can press
Space to reveal previously added notes (if you’ve added any) which may prompt some insight, otherwise you can select Again/Hard/Good/Easy to delay review of the note, depending on the timeline you’d like to re-visit; if you want to come back to it very shortly, click Again and if you feel confident you won’t be able to add anything useful for a while, press Easy.
Feel free to stop either when you’ve completed your reviews for the day or if you’ve achieved some amount of time you’ve allocated for this task during the day. There are many different ways to approach how you manage your attention with this writing inbox, find whatever works best and proceed with that.
Key Benefits of Anki Use
While the scheduling algorithm is obviously not built for this application and it seems, at first glance, like a very strange choice to use a spaced repetition software for the purpose of note taking, I believe this practice actually has some really important and powerful concepts incorporated—mostly in the way the knowledge is framed. So rarely are we forced to re-visit the words we write; especially those we ordinarily consider as transient, even throwaway. By using such a straightforward, simple software which does not tempt users with plugins, custom styling, etc. we are more easily able to focus on the words in front of us and have multiple attempts to approach a blank slate and add context and ideas to any given note, based on the different context the note is being written in, or the experiences of the individual between reviews.
The software is cross-platform (Windows/Max/Linux/iOS/Android) and syncs automatically upon closing, or whenever the user chooses. There is no need for cloud storage or proprietary software. Use of hotkeys is extremely efficient and the software limits included features to only the essential, which makes the learning curve very rapid (meaning a better ROI on time spent).
Once you’re satisfied with the progression of any given note, the card(s) can be used as a basis for an essay (which is how I wrote this one) or exported into another application of your choice (Anki has a great feature for browsing decks, which makes filtering and sorting a breeze). I think of Anki as being a great filter and incubator of ideas: I’m able to continually address and build upon ideas until I have purged the useless ones and refined the useful ones, then proceed to use them for whatever use I need (typically writing longform articles or getting a better grasp of complex topics). This sets the foundation for good information management and instils good habits as a knowledge worker; take the time to seriously review your ideas so you can move forward with codified information and knowledge.
I hope this brief essay can serve as a useful jumping off point for anyone looking to extend or change their personal knowledge management (PKM) systems. I have found it extremely useful for improving my writing workflows and it allows me to reflect more deeply on the inputs I’m discovering in my daily life. I believe this software does a great deal to reduce the friction of capturing and writing notes, which ultimately leads to more notes, more writing, more thinking, and more insight. I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts if you have tried a similar system or have useful information regarding Anki use generally. Feel free to get in touch at email@example.com, thanks!
- ^ Personally, I tackle a chunk of my writing inbox early in the morning (after review of my other Anki decks) and will progressively add information to cards throughout the day.