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1C: SRS Best Practices

Building the Habit

The goal of using an SRS is long term retention. The ONLY way you benefit from using an SRS is by using it consistently. The most important best practice is to consistently show up every day and do your reviews!

There are two fundamentally different approaches to tackling SRS reviews.

Most people find that they’re able to build a consistent habit if they do their reviews at the same time every day. First thing in the morning works well, but any specific time of day is good for anchoring the habit.

Some people are more successful fitting review into the gaps in their day. They treat their reviews like a mini-game on their phone. When standing in line at the grocery store or waiting for the kettle to boil for tea, they will whip out their phone and knock out a few reviews. This allows them to spend their available blocks of focused time on immersion.

Experiment a bit, and opt for the approach that consistently gets your reviews done.

Reviews

It’s crucial to always do your daily reviews. There are two reasons for this.

Forgetting

As we explained in 0: Active Study, the SRS shows you cards it thinks you will soon forget. If you don’t review on time, you’ll forget more cards, and have to spend more time than necessarily re-learning forgotten material.

SRS Debt

The second reason is, what we call, “SRS debt”: any reviews you don't complete by the end of the day carry over to the next day. If you skip reviews today you’ll have twice as many tomorrow.

This becomes overwhelming very quickly. SRS debt is the number one reason people end up quitting their SRS. To ensure this doesn’t happen, strive to always complete your reviews.

If you’re short on time, reduce the number of new cards so you can focus on reviews. There are no real consequences for skipping a day of new cards.

New Cards

Most SRSs let you customize how many new cards to learn every day. How to do this in Anki is explained in 1A Basic Anki Setup.

By default, Anki will mix new cards and review cards, but it’s also possible to learn new cards before or after reviews. You can personalize this setting in the “Scheduling” tab of Preferences. Experiment with all three settings to find which one works best for you.

Don’t Learn Too Many New Cards!

You can’t directly choose how many reviews you’ll have each day; the SRS shows all cards you’re likely to forget soon. However, you can influence the number of future reviews by changing the number of new cards you study today.

Learning too many new cards per day is the most common mistake people make when getting started with an SRS. This leads to an unmanageable number of reviews which takes away time from immersion and leads to burnout (i.e. quitting the SRS).

This pitfall is so common because it takes about two weeks for the number of new cards to fully impact the number of reviews. This time lag causes people to underestimate review loads.

You can estimate the number of reviews per day by multiplying your new cards by seven. For example, if you are learning 10 new cards per day, you can expect 70 reviews per day in two weeks.

When getting started, it’s best to start small to ensure you don’t get overwhelmed while establishing the habit of using the SRS every day. Start with five new cards per day, and increase the amount slowly as you feel fit. Consistency is much more important than quantity. If you can consistently learn 10 new cards each day, you'll surpass 1000 cards in less than three months.

Remember, active study is less important than immersion. Spending too much time on the SRS means taking time away from immersion.

Grading Cards

When grading cards, don’t be a perfectionist. Don’t try too hard to understand the exact meaning. A general understanding is good enough.

If you think you will recognize and understand the word in context, then hit “good”. If not, select “again”, so you see the card again sooner. As mentioned in 1A Basic Anki Setup, don’t use the “easy” and “hard” buttons. They’ll mess with your progress.

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If you make a mistake but you actually do know the word, feel free to grade it “good”. If it turns out you actually forgot it, then it will be more obvious next time that you need to hit “again”.

Don’t be afraid to hit “again”. This isn't school. The goal isn't to get the highest grade. Forgetting a word is not failure.

Anki’s algorithm isn’t designed to produce flawless retention; it actually aims for a retention rate of about 90%. This means that if you forgot a card, you either needed to see that word sooner, or you weren’t ready for that word. Both of these are completely normal, and per Anki’s algorithm you should be forgetting about one card in ten.

If you never forget any meanings, you’re probably seeing your cards too often. It feels counter-intuitive, but the overall process is more efficient if you’re failing a few cards each session.

Deleting or Suspending Cards

If you fail a card you’ve learned over and over, Anki will mark it as a “leech” and it won’t come up anymore for review.

Remember that active study is meant to support and accelerate the process of acquisition. Your brain will be “ready” for some words and expressions, and not ready for others. If a card becomes a leech, your brain isn’t ready to remember it, and it’s not worth the effort to try. You’ll come across the word again later and learn it when you are ready.

Making cards means guessing about what you’re ready for. Expect to guess wrong some of the time.

You should feel empowered to get rid of any cards for any reason. Don’t like it? Get rid of it. Feel like the concept is ambiguous? Get rid of it. Word just isn’t sticking? Get rid of it.

You can delete a card, which removes it from the deck entirely, or you can suspend it, which takes it out of the rotation but saves the card. We recommend suspending, as you may want to put the card back into the rotation once you’re ready to learn it.

Falling Behind

If you miss a few days and reviews pile up to the point where you dread even thinking about Anki, then the most important thing to do is to stop the bleeding.

There’s already some damage: any cards that have piled up are words that you’ve probably already forgotten. Let’s call those “stale” cards.

In the meantime, any cards that Anki thinks you’re about to forget will be scheduled for review. Let’s call these “fresh” cards.

You now have a queue that is a mix of two types of cards: fresh cards that you will probably forget soon, and stale cards that you may have already forgotten.

The problem is that Anki doesn’t prioritize fresh cards. If you follow Anki's review prioritization but don't finish the whole queue, you'll spend time relearning stale cards while forgetting fresh cards.

In other words if you prioritize relearning forgotten words, then you will end up forgetting even more words.

The solution to this is to take the stale cards out of the rotation temporarily, and then slowly feed them back in when you have fully reviewed all the fresh cards for the day.

To do this, create a new deck called “Backlog”, and move all the cards that are waiting for review into this new deck.

Then, every day:

  1. Do the reviews in your main deck.
  2. Choose a small, manageable number of cards from your backlog deck, and move them into your main deck.
  3. Review these cards.

Now these cards are back in the normal rotation.

It may take a few weeks to clear out the Backlog deck, but in the meantime you won't be forgetting fresh words.

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