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Instilling Novel Thought Patterns and Making Your Long-Term Memory Accountable with Anki

When I was in high school I struggled with everything except for math, because I didn’t understand how to remember things. Then, I discovered Anki and started getting good grades even in dull, rote memorization-based courses. Actually remembering things feels like a minor superpower! I use Anki to learn new English words, remember important thoughts I encounter, prepare for the exams, learn new subjects; but my favorite use is to instill novel thought patterns with it. A similar idea was proposed on LessWrong back in 2011.

Instilling Novel Thought Patterns With Anki

Problem: you have a certain thought you want to be having or an action you want to be doing but when the moment comes you forget about it or the trigger just never fully comes to your attention.

Example: When I make decisions I want to be aware of status quo bias, but when the decisions actually come, I completely forget about it. Or: instead of postponing small tasks (e.g. taking out the trash) I want to do them immediately, but when these small tasks actually come, I forget about this intention and continue with whatever I was doing before i.e. telling myself I’ll do them later.

How to solve? Make these if-else action plans Or Trigger-Action Plans. to always be somewhere at the back of the mind, preferably not far from the working memory, always at the edge of awareness.

Solution: Anki deck with the maximum card interval of 1 day and long initial learning curve.

Why Should This Work?

Because the problem with the type of actions I described here is not that they’re intrinsically hard, but the inertia and forgetfulness. Frequent reminders of them by Anki will increase the awareness of novel thought patterns and hopefully make a dent in the old ones, without a significant exertion of will.

Why use Anki instead of just daily reminders or something? Because there’s a qualitative difference between recognition and recall. Seeing a reminder that tells you to do something brings it to your awareness for a moment and that’s it. Seeing a “less than 3 minutes” card in Anki, makes you recall what you actually want to do and explicitly form the thought “If a task should take less than 3 minutes to complete I will just do it instead of postponing it” (and, if possible, visualize the next instance of this event), which lasts much longer and, hopefully, causes some cognitive dissonance.

Dec 2016 update: Wait, but does it actually work?

It totally does:

July 2018 update: Yes, this still works

Implementation

To try this strategy, you need to create a new deck in Anki, and create a Basic type note, which has e.g. “less than 3 minutes” on Front card and “If a task should take less than 3 minutes to complete, I will just do it instead of postponing it” on Back card. I have a “thought_pattern” tag associated with these notes.

Then go to deck options and create a new Options group. Key settings are:

  1. Steps (in minutes) – I set to 1 5 10 40 120 360 1440, but you can experiment with this
  2. Graduating interval – 1 day
  3. Easy interval – 1 day
  4. Interval modifier – anything less than 100% (otherwise 1 day limit would be ignored)
  5. Maximum interval – 1 day You could probably try increasing the maximum interval up to 7 days, but don’t forget to set the interval modifier to more than 100%.

My Favorite Thought Pattern

Front card:

saying no

Back card:

If I want to say no, I will stop and make sure this is not just status quo bias (coz it probably is)

Status quo bias sucks. Does this one solve it? Beautifully so. Although several months had passed before it finally kicked in, the number of times I noticed saying “no” out of status quo bias, then having this thought come up and make me retroactively reverse the initial “no” is in the tens already.

More Examples of Thought Patterns

Front:

<3 minutes

Back:

If a task should take less than 3 minutes to complete, I will just do it instead of postponing it

Front:

delaying an ughy task

Back:

When I want to delay an ughy task, I’m gonna ask myself “what’s gonna change with my mental state”

Front (I don’t eat sugar):

do i actually want sugar or am i just playing?

Back:

nope, I actually don’t want to eat sugar. The rule is just there to help in ambiguous cases; it’s not something to be played. spirit not letter of the law

How To Start Using Anki

I recommend Anki to people all the time. Unfortunately, Anki has a rather steep learning curve, which means that simply recommending is not enough – some introduction is necessary. Hopefully, the previous part of this post demonstrated the appeal of Anki. Note: Anki is a universal spaced repetition app, which means that it can be used for anything, yet it’s not optimized for anything specific. Thus, if you just want to prepare for e.g. GRE, you might instead prefer to try Magoosh’s GRE app or any of the alternatives.

So, to get started with Anki:

  1. Figure out what you want to learn with it. You can start with

    • learning keyboard shortcuts for e.g. closing a tab (Ctrl+W), Opening the last closed tab (Ctrl+Shift+T), getting to address line (Ctrl+L)
    • learning new words
    • learning new concepts / formulas for the subjects you study
    • thought patterns (see above)
    • remembering important insights from articles you read
  2. Go to this page and read Introduction section up until The Basics section

  3. Navigate to https://apps.ankiweb.net/, download the program, and install it on your computer

  4. Watch this video, which is a very nice demonstration of the learning process itself

  5. Create a couple of cards on a subject you’re studying right now or simply about things you want to remember (or maybe some thought patterns)

  6. Explore Anki app as needed! It has a ton of features and you’re going to be overwhelmed by it all the time at first. Don’t despair, learn slowly, and remember to look at Anki’s manual when needed. Actually, if you have any questions about Anki use — feel free to message me and I’ll try me best at helping you!

  7. Tab Snooze for two weeks Michael Nielsen’s amazing essay Augmenting Long-term Memory (so that you read it already familiar with what using Anki feels like)

Now, you’re capable of creating your own decks and notes. However, there’s a whole lot of implicit knowledge involved with using Anki, which is why if you google “anki tips”, you’ll see a lot of different articles. I tried to assemble the best tips that I know and my strategies below. Sorted roughly by importance:

Short Tips

  1. Create an ankiweb account and sync it often (button in the upper right). You really don’t want to lose your progress/data.

  2. Make a habit out of Anki. Since it schedules the cards based on when you’re likely to forget them, ideally, you want to review all your cards daily. I do it while commuting. Alternatively, you can use Anki during breaks, while waiting, while walking, etc.

  3. Create reverse cards. This is super important. More on this below.

  4. Mess around with deck options (Decks –> Gears icon –> Options). For example, if you feel the daily limit of 20 new cards is too high or too low, just change it. Personally, I prefer to get new cards shown in random order, than in order added (New Cards –> Order). Also, I suggest changing Lapses –> New interval to around 20%. This way, when you forget a card, it does not get reset completely, but instead reduces the interval to 20% of what it used to be.

  5. Don’t be afraid to suspend cards you don’t need. Maybe you have learned almost all of the countries but keep forgetting which of the Caribbean islands exactly is Saint Kitts and Nevis (true story). Maybe just suspend this note and don’t worry (also true story), if it’s not really that important.

  6. Don’t be afraid to edit bad cards on the fly. You’re gonna learn how to make notes that work for you over time, but initially they will probably be less than ideal. So if you’re reviewing a card and see how it can be improved, just click edit button and fix it.

  7. Install the load balancer add-on. It evens out the cards due every day, so there’s no sudden spikes in cards you need to review. To install an add-on to Anki, go to Tools –> Add-ons –> Browse & Install… Then, paste the code of your desired add-on in the field (the code is on the add-on’s webpage).

  8. Offensive mnemonics are more memorable (by @suchaone). Generally, the more offensive or outlandish a mnemonic is, the better.

  9. Snip formulas (and other stuff) into Anki. Use Snipping Tool or Win+Shift+S on Windows; Shift+Command+4 on Mac Sometimes LaTeX is the way to go (fortunately, Anki supports it); sometimes you should just open the snipping tool, take a screenshot, copypaste the formula, and move on (fortunately, Anki also supports inserting pictures in cards).

General Strategies

Decks

Usually, you want to put the cards from different subjects together because it seems to improve the learning process (by making it more varied and fun) and is generally simpler. My personal configuration consists of four decks:

Notes

Suppose you’re trying to learn some new words. For example, to learn what a word hebetude means, you create a note with “hebetude” front and “the state of being dull or lethargic” back. Then, whenever you’ll see or hear hebetude somewhere, you’ll know exactly what that means! Great, isn’t it? The problem is that when you’ll have a chance to use this word, the following is going to happen in your head: “damn, what was that word that describes when someone is dull or lethargic or something…uh, whatever”.

What you really want is not to be able to simply recall the meaning of the word — you also want to be able to recall the word itself — and for that you need a reverse card.

One problem with the default note type that includes reverse cards – called Basic (and reversed card) – is that it only has two fields. Whether you’re learning languages or math, having an example of a usage of a word or a concept is usually a very good idea. This means that we need a new note type that would enable us to add examples to Anki.

To do this, go to Tools –> Manage Note Types… –> Add –> Clone: Basic (and reversed card). I named this note type “Basic (and reversed card) with example”. Then, click on the new note type –> Fields… –> Add –> Field name: enter “Example” –> OK –> Close.

Finally, we need the examples to actually show up when reviewing the note. So go to Cards… and paste the following into the Back Template field:

{{Example}}

After doing it, go to Card 2 and paste the same code into the Back Template field there. (Example) should show up on the preview for both cards. Now, you can use the third field when creating Anki notes, which should be very handy (and if you don’t have anything useful for it, you can either leave it empty or use the default note type).

This note is bad because you might end up learning only the order of cation and anion. Several different piece of info

That was it! At last, you’re all set to learn anything with Anki! :)


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