Anki Everything

Ever since my co-founder Nick introduced Anki to me from this article by Michael Nielsen, I've been Anki-ing everything. Stratechery, books, articles, even movies and TV shows. For those unfamiliar with Anki, it's basically glorified flashcards with scheduled reviews. The scheduling is based on some science, so it'll show cards you struggle with more often and increase the interval between reviewing cards over time.

I've long felt I had a bad memory. I'd read an interesting article and the following day, I wouldn't remember the details well enough to discuss it in a conversation. I'd watch the next James Bond movie or Mission Impossible and I wouldn't remember a thing about the previous movie.

I've tried everything to fix this. Taking diligent notes, logging movies and books I read with a one sentence takeaway, writing recaps of books, writing essays synthesizing what I've learned. I switched from typing notes to handwriting them and then transcribing them to Notion. I'd actively try to bring ideas I've learned in conversation. Nothing worked - my working memory was only the few things I actively discussed and thought about on a regular basis.

Then I started to Anki everything. I've developed some good habits after graduating from college around learning and self-improvement, but this feels like the most important one I've picked up since graduating college.

Why read a book or article if you can only remember a handful of details you could pick up from a SparkNotes or a tweet? With Anki, I've been able to read once and remember forever (granted I've been only doing this for a little over a month).

From memory, here are a few things I can recall off the top of my head:

  • How a nuclear reactor works as discussed in Chernobyl. Uranium-235 is reactive, controlled by Boron control rods and water. The water evaporates, creating steam and turning a turbine to produce electricity. The steam increases reactivity because of the positive void coefficient (presence of a void, like steam, increasing a physical property like reactivity) and the increasing temperature decreases the reactivity due to the negative temperature coefficient (relative change in a physical property like reactivity due to changes in temperature).
  • Ben Thompson's analysis of Amazon's Whole Foods acquisition. Amazon's strategy is around the first and best customer, itself. The first and best customer immediately brings a project to scale like Amazon e-commerce for AWS and their fulfillment network. They can reap marginal revenue from these huge projects by allowing developers and other companies to use AWS and third-party merchants to use their fulfillment network. The Whole Foods acquisition can be thought of in the same light - they weren't acquiring a grocery chain, they were acquiring their first and best customer. Whole Foods immediately brings their food delivery service to scale, and they can reap marginal revenue from Amazon Prime delivery.
  • Trivia like Amazon's $752 2018 ARPU, Mike Markulla's getting Intel options at $6.22, splitting 3:2 twice, and retiring in his early 30s with the options worth $2.25m, the seven defendants in the Chicago 7 trial (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Renee Davis, David Dillinger, John Froines, Lee Weiner)

While remembering all this random knowledge seems useless, I believe the benefits of Anki-ing everything is improving your ability to synthesize ideas. Here's the progression I've felt with Anki when consuming any content.

  1. Improving understanding - it's a good exercise to write question-answer pairs as you read or watch something to test your own understanding.
  2. Read once, remember forever - I've found it much more rewarding to read, listen to podcasts, or watch an episode of John Oliver, knowing that if I Anki-ed it, I would be able to recall what I learned.
  3. Synthesis - you can't synthesize what you don't understand or remember.

For example, my thesis around Twilio's upside was a synthesis of discussions with Sarah about what ServiceNow does, multiple Stratechery articles on Twilio's Segment acquisition plus another set of articles on the evolution of digital advertising, interviews with Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson, and learning how to use Segment.

Without remembering all the various things I've read and understanding them to a reasonable degree, I don't think I would've been able to come up with my own coherent opinion on Twilio and their Segment acquisition.

To facilitate my Anki-ing, I've made a Notion page called Brain with lists for various types of content I consume - Stratechery, books, engineering articles, normal articles, movies, podcasts, and TV shows.

brain

Anything I feel like I want to remember for a long period of time, I make a page with question-answer toggles, like this one I made this morning from an article by James Allworth on Apple's disruption of Intel.

brain-example

I'll export these pages as HTML and then upload and convert them to Anki files at 2anki.net and add them to my personal Anki deck. It's a fair bit of work that I might find a way to streamline in the future, but the investment is worth it. I generally spend about an hour a day on Anki - usually in the morning after finishing my morning routine.

anki-time

My thought is if I'm going to spend any time reading a book or listening to a podcast, any time spent Anki-ing to remember it is worth it. It's also a fun way to practice presentational skills, as I'll often answer my Anki questions out loud like an interview.

So at this point, you can probably tell I'm a big fan of Anki. Hope this article helps you pick up your own Anki process and habit, and would love to hear if it works for you!

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