Yesterday, I confessed that my current memory system — thousands of Anki flashcards — isn’t working. I want to figure out why.
But first, I want to look at how Anki flashcards have worked for me.
My Memory Goals Are A Bit Unusual
I have two major memory goals:
- to remember long texts, like a Gospel or an epic poem
to remember the important points of what I read
Yep. Those are two huge projects.
Several years ago, I began to scour memory books and web sites, looking for answers.
I discovered a horde of techniques. Many are on this site:
But I found something strange. Very few people were systematically combining these techniques. One author loved mnemonics, another guy focused on his daily crop of flashcards.
So, I got excited. Could this be the secret: combine these techniques? Use mnemonics and rhythm to make information as memorable as possible, and then use flashcards to review it?
I tried it. And with a lot of work, and several attempts, I managed to memorize the Gospel of Mark.
That’s over 14,000 words.
And I even learned it by verse. I worked out this incredibly complex system of loci and mnemonics. You could ask me any one of 678 verses, like, “chapter 7, verse 18”. I would mentally look it up, and (almost) always get it.
Back in 2005, I would have thought this was basically impossible. A few years later, there I was, doing it. For awhile there, I really did know almost every verse of Mark by number.
This was a major personal success. I felt like I had a superpower.
And I still think spaced repetition can change the world. I see people stressing out about tests, and I want to grab them and shout, “Relax! I found the cheat codes!”
Learning Stories Instead
The problem? After the initial euphoria wore off, I started to wonder if I really needed to remember these verse numbers. Pulling a verse out by number started to feel like pulling a rabbit out of a hat — often a kicking, scratching rabbit, desperate to stay out of sight.
I found that other memorizers, such as the Network of Biblical Storytellers, would often focus on chunks, or stories, rather than breaking text into bits as small as numbers.
So, I tried learning chunks of lines instead. This worked much better. I learned chapters from the Gospel of Matthew, and also a hilarious epic poem, the Glugs of Gosh.
I loved learning new material, but I still had to maintain Mark. Spaced repetition made these reviews as light as possible, but eventually, they still bugged me. Why did I keep missing cards? Why couldn’t I be done with Mark?
I decided to also learn Mark over again, as stories. This was so much easier that, eventually, I dropped the Mark verses altogether.
Lots of Reciting
All these texts made for lots of reciting. Altogether, I was trying to remember at least 30,000 words (probably more).
Even Hamlet only says about a third as much. And he has plenty of prompts. He doesn’t do a 10,000 word soliloquy.
And yet, for awhile there, my memory system was almost working. Yes, I would make some mistakes, especially in the Gospels. But I remembered so much.
Keeping What I Read
Meanwhile, I had also started making flashcards of the books I read. Not every book, but a few. I especially focused on one book: Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 1, a dense guide on how to turn your backyard into a food forest. From that book, and some of volume 2, I made about 2000 cards. That’s a lot.
By December 2011, five months ago, I was maintaining around 18,000 flashcards. That’s a rough estimate. My decks had more cards than that, but I had disabled some cards, especially when I downloaded big decks. I also had some new cards that I hadn’t gotten to yet.
A few of these cards were prompts for reciting. Like, recite all of Matthew 5.
But most of the cards were individual facts. Some were short facts, like Spanish vocabulary, that I’d downloaded as Anki decks. Many were cards I had made from the books I read.
Is 18,000 a lot? Some pros have far bigger decks. But for me, that’s thousands and thousands of things I probably would have forgotten. They’d have sunken into my subconscious morass. Instead, with the right techniques, I could hold on to my mental treasures.
But Does the System Scale?
At least, I could hold on for awhile. But at last, the reviews smothered me.
How long did it take me to review each day? It’s hard to say, because by December, I had started skipping days. But I could easily spend an hour, an hour and a half. Keep in mind, a big chunk of that was recitation.
Now, you might think, an hour and a half? What is this guy complaining about? I spend two or three times that long on studies!
But the time commitment itself wasn’t what bothered me. The problem was that the time felt wasted. The reviews felt rote, mechanical … excruciating.
At first, I thought I was just slacking off. But the truth was much more painful. My whole system was deeply flawed.