How to Create an Anki Deck That Maximizes Learning

Hi, this is Lesson 2 of 4 in the Anki Fundamentals free course. I hope you like it! Let me know if you have any questions or feedback — I'd like to hear what you think! 🙂

In this post, you’re going to learn how to create an Anki deck that not only makes learning more effective, but also more creative.

Specifically, you’re going to learn how to create the optimal number of decks to maximize your learning. (Hint: It’s not exact science, just pure reasoning)

That’s because using Anki for learning doesn’t just mean memorizing what you’ve learned.

It also means being able to apply your knowledge in creative ways — whether that be using your ideas to birth new ideas, using them as hooks for new knowledge, or using them as is.

That only happens, though, when you create effective decks.

One of my readers from the Philippines, Joseph, was able to review faster—from 2 hours to 1 hour—for his Board Exams because of creating effective decks, too:

Speaking of creative ways…what do you think is the most creative way to learn?

Is it when you’re learning one subject deeply and filtering every idea into the lens of that subject only?

Or is it when you’re learning widely and connecting ideas to form new insight?

Of course, your answer would be the latter.

But in reality, we were unconsciously programmed to prefer the first one!

That’s because it’s the exact way we’re taught to learn in school. Surprise, surprise! We call that type of learning “top-down learning.”

With top-down learning, you start with a predetermined category (determined by the school and its subjects, of course) and then believe that everything in that category should strictly be inside it.

Hence, “top-down”. There’s a predetermined hierarchy.

Surely, it’s an effective way for disseminating information, but just because we’re taught that way doesn’t mean we also have to think that way, too. Why? Because that’s not so creative, after all, isn’t it?

Yet, Anki newbies approach Anki learning the same way; they create too many decks — one deck for each topic, and then further dividing them into sub-topics. (Of course, these beginners I’m talking about does not include those who’ve read my Anki post 😉)

That’s suboptimal on multiple levels for creative learning.

Two reasons why it’s suboptimal:

  1. Not everything you’ll learn will be conveniently categorized into topics in the first place — especially in the real world
  2. Transfer of knowledge from one topic to another becomes essentially difficult

The reverse approach — bottom-up learning — is much better.

With the bottom-up approach, transfer of knowledge from one topic to another is more probable.

There’s no “strict” hierarchies, after all.

The “hierarchies” that were supposed to be predetermined now emerges from the cards.

Let me give an analogy:

If knowledge were a biological system, then each topic is an organ containing a portion of it.

The organ must have a system to begin with before it can function properly—otherwise, it’s just a useless combination of cells.

In a similar way, decks are the giant system that has a single function: to make the topics work together, build upon each other, and ultimately create “idea babies” and strong “idea families”.

This deepens your understanding, and thus strengthens your retention more than spaced repetition alone.

Now, I won’t tell you exactly how “idea babies” are made, but it’s safe to guess that your next question is:

How can I create decks that allow creative learning?

My rule is simply to use as few decks as possible. Ideally, a single deck for continuous learning. (Remember what I said in the first post?)

Michael Neilsen, one of the pioneers of quantum computing (!), apparently does the same thing:

The world isn’t divided up into neatly separated components, and I believe it’s good to collide very different types of questions. One moment Anki is asking me a question about the temperature chicken should be cooked to. The next: a question about the JavaScript API.

The big benefit, aside from creativity, is Interleaving.

According to this article [referring to students]:

…scores were 25 percent better for problems trained with interleaving; at one month later, the interleaving advantage grew to 76 percent.

Which basically means putting loosely related — and even unrelated — cards into a single deck improves your long-term retention in a snap.

If that isn’t the perfect advantage of having a single deck for learning faster, then I don’t know what is!

However, if you want more memorization efficiency than interdisciplinary learning, then you should create more decks. (I’d only recommend this if you’re someone who’d take an exam, though.)

Either way, be guided by this graph I made:

Creating Effective Decks: Insight vs Efficiency

But wait, is deck creation really a big deal?

If you want to use Anki for learning rather than memorization alone, it becomes a big deal.

You see, items in your memory should get built upon and associated to by new knowledge, rather than merely get stockpiled and disordered.

Having too many decks is the antithesis of this concept.

To give you a concrete example of what I mean by creative learning, here’s happened to me when I put all General Engineering subjects in a single deck:

First, I was able to learn new topics in subjects under “General Engineering” rapidly because concepts actually related to one another or at least resembled it. (The subjects are Strength of Materials, Mechanics, Physics, Engineering Economics, to name a few)

Then, I was able to make “idea babies” out of then.

One time, I was able to turn material strength analyses into an easy circuit analysis because the governing concept looked like Ohm’s Law.

If that looked like Ohm’s Law, then that means it can be analyzed using techniques formed from that principle. (i.e. “Voltage Divider” or “Current Divider”)

Other concepts had carryover in my life as well—especially Physics.

Frictional force on a flat ground increases with mass and roughness.

If applied to productivity, then massive tasks must be broken down; workflows must be smooth.

That way, you feel no friction.

In addition, the absence of friction means you can accelerate even when using little force; less energy required = efficiency.

To sum up, by having as few decks as possible, you’d be learning concepts as a whole unit rather than as fragmented topics.

Many experienced users will also attest that creating multiple decks are more for efficiency rather than insight.

It’s a trade-off you have to make, so I’ll leave that to you.

I’m teaching you PRINCIPLES (instead of tactics or “tips”) of effective Anki so you can think for yourself, after all.

Next Step: How to Use Anki Efficiently

Overall, “effectiveness” still depends on context.

If you don’t really care much about the “inter-topic” or interdisciplinary insights, then I’d say you’d be better off having one deck for each subject.

However, if your goal is to “build your cognitive infrastructure”, and not “save time in the short term” then take my advice — use only a single deck for everything — and reap the rewards later on.

It’s going to be tough, for sure — but your retention and the way you think will change forever. You’re not going to be bounded anymore by “subjects”, but rather by “possibility”.

Now, creating a single deck might sound like you’re going to take even more time doing reviews.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Thing is, you can reduce your study time — permanently — WHILE maintaining the quality of your learning.

It all comes down to eliminating the wasteful activities in the “big picture” and in the “long-term,” rather than just doing silly hacks.

In the next course, How to Use Anki Efficiently, you’ll learn exactly how you can do it.

I recommend you take it — it’s on the house.

Start Lesson 1 →


8 thoughts on “How to Create an Anki Deck That Maximizes Learning”

    • Hi, I can’t say that there’s a “maximum amount of decks” — I think instead of focusing on the amount of decks you should focus on whether you can combine multiple related decks because that helps increase retrieval effort, thereby slowing forgetting. 🙂 Of course, some decks are kinda tricky to combine, say “Keyboard shortcuts” and “Electrodynamics” because they’re totally unrelated and therefore you probably won’t get the “dissolved boundaries” benefit of combining them. And some subjects or intellectual pursuits don’t even require Anki at all.

  1. Hi, great articles! I’m not a beginner but as the number of my Anki decks continued to grow (I studied Meds, then moved to Israel and studied Hebrew and Meds in Hebrew, then I decided to move to Germany and studied German, and Meds in German, then I thought it’s a good idea to improve my English vocab and catch up on Italian that I learned as a child, and now I spend my free time learning Python and C# (crazy person! :D)), I came to idea that I HATE opening every single deck for a review. It’s just super boring to open 8-10-12 decks.
    And I remembered that I read somewhere that a single deck is more efficient because it makes your brain work even harder switching between languages and topics. So, now I’m checking up on people who actually did something like that and found your article. Thank you!

  2. What do you mean by efficiency? What am I being efficient at? Creating multiple decks and having to manage them sounds like a chore to me, so I don’t get what I am being efficient at

    • Efficiency = reducing wasted time, in this case the waiting time between being shown a question and generating an answer. Having a single deck means you’re doing interleaved practice — mixing multiple contexts such that you are training yourself to discriminate between topics better and better ‘dissolve’ their boundaries. (at least, in my experience) It takes a bit longer to review a single deck compared to having the same cards sorted in their respective “subject decks” because now you don’t need to generate the context (whether consciously or unconsciously) before you answer.

  3. Hi! I’m nesting all my decks under an “All” deck, and do reviews on the All deck. Same effect, right? No subtle Anki algorithms making this less effective?

    • Nope 🙂 From a retrieval effort standpoint, I’d say it’s better even if you didn’t modify the default settings. The tradeoff is that you may find it harder to stick to reviews if you haven’t built that habit already.


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