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:
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:
- 1 Real Talk: What is Anki? How does it work?
- 2 Isn’t Anki just for memorizing small facts?
- 3 How to Start Using Anki
- 4 Here’s How I Make Anki Flashcards
- 5 Rules to Follow when Creating New Cards
- 6 How You Can Study Without Spending Study Time
- 7 Smash That Spacebar
- 8 Next Steps
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 encoding1.
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.2 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.)
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.
You can add Tags to your cards in two ways: During Card Creation, or using the Card Browser.
I recommend adding Tags during Card Creation — it’s much faster and more proactive.
To add Tags, you just enter the name of your desired Tag on the “Tags” field of the Add New window.
Here’s something to remember: Replace spaces with underscores.
Note: If you missed that and accidentally entered two words separated by spaces, you’ll be creating TWO tags for your cards, not one.
Now, creating that card, you should notice that the Tag name you entered in the Tags field did not go away.
This means you can create and create several cards without having to worry about putting Tags in every single time—that’s pretty handy.
The second method is via the Card Browser. You open it up by clicking on “Browse” on the Home Screen or pressing “B” in the same place.
Then, just find your cards by clicking on a deck where you put your new cards in (1), then select your cards on the right-hand side (2), and press Ctrl + Shift + A.
I don’t prefer this method because it’s rather easy to mess this up. Imagine accidentally adding tags to other cards when you already have a large collection of cards — just thinking about organizing it is already a disaster.
Let’s move on to the more practical guide—How I make Anki Cards.
Here’s How I Make Anki Flashcards
When you’re creating your cards, the most convenient way to create high-quality cards is to include:
- A well-formulated question
- A short, specific answer
- Screenshot of source
- Tags (optional)
You should be good as long as you remember those.
To demonstrate, I’ll be using a random book from the medical field (a field I don’t know anything about) just to demonstrate this process from a beginner standpoint.
So, when I see something on my book like this:
This card below is the one I make. I included the Question, Answer, Screenshot, and Tag.
Notice that I italicized and bolded the word “previously” to show emphasis. It’s a way to make a cue for an answer more salient and easier to process.
Now, I highlight the answer along with the screenshot and then press Ctrl + Shift + C. That’s the shortcut for a Cloze deletion.
Note that you can totally use a basic card for this. I just used Cloze because:
- Basic card type is pretty straightforward and doesn’t need explaining
- Creating a Cloze card is somehow mystified for beginners
Again, just press CTRL + SHIFT + C upon highlighting what you need to Cloze.
Shortcut for Cloze Deletion: Ctrl + Shift + C
Let’s look at the card previews.
By the way, I want to tell you that for conceptual subjects, I break each concept down into more questions that test my understanding.
From the same passage in the book:
My questions go like this:
“What does specific immunity use act against agents? (2x)”
Answer: Antibodies and Activated Lymphocytes.
“To what type of agent does specific immunity react?”
Answer: Previously Encountered Agents.
Basically, for conceptual information, you have to encourage your understanding of the material.
Facts are good to include as cards, but ultimately, our questions should ALSO simulate situations that use the concept itself so we don’t miss out on actually applying what we have learned.
For example, this card:
See how that works?
Alright, let’s move on to what you need to remember when creating new cards.
Rules to Follow when Creating New Cards
Rule #1. Learn FIRST, and THEN do spaced practice
If you’re just starting out, all you need to know is that the purpose of these flashcards is to test what you already learned.
NOT to test what you haven’t learned — which many people do.
It’s easy to get confident that you can remember anything using Anki, but none of that matters if you do not understand the material you’re putting in. (Unless you’re really memorizing isolated facts, but even so, context matters for retention)
Well, what’s the worst that could happen when you don’t follow this rule?
You’ll know how to answer the flashcard but you’ll find out that you cannot apply the “knowledge” anywhere else.
In other words, you just get pseudoknowledge.
Rule #2. Short question, short answer.
Don’t try to put in paragraphs in a card.
Don’t even try to put “Explain” type of questions.
Break them down as much as possible.
This brings me to my next point.
Rule #3. The number of cards doesn’t matter
When adding cards, it doesn’t matter if you have plenty of cards just by studying a chapter as long as you follow the two rules above.
What matters is you actually learn the concepts thoroughly.
So, again, break a concept as much as possible. By doing this, you’ll be able to recall each card in less than a second. (Well, not less than a second, but that’s how it’ll feel like 😉)
It’s much, much faster compared to creating a few but long, complicated cards.
For example, instead of:
“What are Newton’s Three Laws of Motion?”
You write questions like:
- “What is Newton’s First Law of Motion?”
- “What is Newton’s Third Law of Motion?”
- “Which law states F=ma?” (obviously, this question covers one law in another angle — also called redundancy)
This reduces ambiguity — making your cards faster to answer. Compare that to doing a mini-brain dump for each card and you’ll realize it gets tiresome pretty quickly.
How You Can Study Without Spending Study Time
Head over to Anki Sign Up and register for an account. It’s totally free. That’s why Damien Elmes is a hero.
Then, after creating a free account, head over to Anki settings by clicking on Tools>Preferences or by pressing Ctrl + P on your Anki window.
Go to the “Network Tab” and check the first two boxes.
This will allow automatic syncing of your deck to the AnkiWeb servers—which allows you to sync your cards to ALL devices.
It’s pretty neat, especially if you’re going outside with your smartphone. (or when you’re sitting on the toilet — not exactly neat, tho)
When you’re waiting in line, or just doing nothing at all, instead of scrolling through Facebook, you can answer 5 to 20 cards in a minute, depending on how good you create cards.
That means you’re converting idle time into STUDYING.
If that isn’t called studying smart, I don’t know what is.
You can turn it off and manually sync your cards by pressing Y on the home screen, but it’s always a good idea to sync your cards automatically upon open/exit just to avoid forgetting.
Smash That Spacebar
Studying using Anki is pretty straightforward.
You just open the app, click a deck with due cards, and you’re set.
When a card shows up, you just press on the spacebar to show the answer.
When the answer shows up, you are given choices below to choose from: Again, Good, Easy. (This is for new cards only — we’ll get more into this in Lesson 4)
Using Anki default settings, Anki will show the card again after a certain amount depending on how difficult it was for you to recall the card.
- Again – Less than a minute, the card will show up again
- Good – The card will show up in less than 10 minutes
- Easy – The card will show up after 4 days
You press Again when you failed to recall the answer, Good when you successfully recall the answer, and Easy when you recall the answer in an instant. You can use shortcuts as shown below:
As a side note for default settings, pressing “Again” on a mature card for a total of 8 times makes your card “disappear” and not show up for review.
This is called a “Leech card”, and is usually classified as a poorly created card.
When you get Leech cards, all you have to do is reformulate your questions. Again, refer back to how I told you to create flashcards.
Alright, now before I end this, I would like to give you some tips that would help you study smarter using Anki.
Why You Should NEVER Miss a Day of Review
Memory works every single day, which means seldomly used information are DELETED every single day.
Anki works to combat this effect; that’s pretty much all the reason why.
Another reason not to skip is you end up with a mountain of cards the next day. Yup, now you’ll have to review your overdue cards PLUS your due cards — that’s a hell of a review session to go through (trust me, I’ve been through 1500 cards in a day and I almost cried just doing that).
So, try do study every single day without fail.
In contrast, there might be some days that you have a lot fewer cards than you used to.
It’s probably because most of your cards are mature enough and/or you really have few cards in your deck.
Remember the “Tag” system that I mentioned earlier? This is where it comes in.
When you do a custom study session, you can select cards from specific Tags in a certain Deck.
It’s smart to use it right before an exam if you’re a student, just to take advantage of that “fresh” state of recall.
As powerful as Anki is, it’s just a tool that needs to be operated the right way — and I want to make sure I drive that point home.
If you need more help in using Anki than I was able to cover in this guide, you might want to go through the other post in the Anki Fundamentals series to learn more:
- How to Create an Anki Deck That Maximizes Learning
- How to Make Better Anki Flashcards: Principles for High-Quality Questions
- Best Anki Settings: My Recommended Values
Otherwise, let’s go back to the “information encoding” part earlier.
Remember I told you this?
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.
I told you that because learning is actually a product of the brain’s information encoding system.
Work with it and you guarantee retention & learning speed.
Otherwise, you guarantee forgetting and wasted time.
It’s as simple as it gets. Yet, many don’t seem to get this.
They piece together multiple hacks and create a “duct tape system” in the hopes of getting more results.
They try to overoptimize Anki as though it’s the only thing that matters for learning.
That’s why I’ve put together a second free course for you so you can avoid this big trap — I call it “Tool-first Thinking” and it’s one of the biggest reasons why many Anki newbies still don’t get meaningful results with Anki. (or ANY study tool, for that matter)
If you’re preparing for exams right now, or you constantly feel behind of your study schedule, I insist that you devour the next course with all your heart.
It’s 100% free.
When you’re ready, just click the red button down below.