Two years of memorizing everything with Anki

Before my next trip to Portugal, I’m going to use Anki to learn Portuguese!

As James Clear wrote in Atomic Habits, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

Well, my past efforts to learn a language fell apart because I didn’t have a system that allowed me to stay on top of phrases I’d learned or new concepts. After using a language during a trip, I’d fall off the study wagon.

The same thing happened with ANYTHING I wanted to remember.

Luckily, two years ago my questing friend Jono recommended Anki, a powerful tool whose name is derived from the Japanese word for memorization. People from medical school students to language learners to pilots to musicians use Anki to memorize, well, just about anything! 

It’s essentially a smart flash card system that uses spaced repetition. I won’t go into the details here, but check out my tutorial blog post on how I set up Anki.

Anki works. By studying 15-30 minutes/day, I’ve memorized more than I thought possible. Initially it felt like a “should do,” but now it’s a daily ritual. A handful of minutes each day to build my knowledge and skills, brick by brick. I actually look forward to it!

Sure, there are devices in our pockets that can look anything up. But without knowing stuff, it’s tougher to understand context or pull threads together from disparate ideas and weave them together. For many things, be it writing, speaking a language, or playing an instrument, we need to memorize things.

Not sure I’ll be learning Bosnian anytime soon, but who knows?!

My results after two years

In less daily time than most of us spend texting or scrolling online, here’s what I’ve learned (and, more importantly, retained) in two years. I share this not to brag, but to demonstrate the sheer power of Anki!

  1. About 7,000 Italian vocab words (plus thousands of example sentences, conjugations and grammatical concepts) with an average 92% retention.

    For language fluency, 8,000-10,000 words is a good target, which I’ve seen now that I can converse at an advanced B2 level. Future travels in Italy (or living there!) will up my game dramatically with such a strong foundation.
  2. Another 1000+ Spanish words now that I feel solid with Italian, learning 20 words a day. (That’s 7000+/year, bit by bit!) Even better, relearning Spanish after forgetting my high school studies feels easy now with a Romance language under my belt. I bet I can achieve fluency in Spanish (or Portuguese, or French…) much faster. So motivating.
  3. Musical concepts
    1. Famous musicians/composers and musical time periods
    2. Music theory concepts, plus expressions like adagio or appoggiatura.
    3. Difficult passages from piano and guitar songs I’ve learned and want to keep sharp.
  4. English vocabulary, poker lingo, countries of the world plus US states (DelaWHERE?), Italian provinces, US presidents, wilderness first responder info…
  1. The NATO phonetic alphabet (alpha, bravo, foxtrot, yankee…no more embarrassing moments trying to spell my name to a customer service rep!)
  2. For book quotes from Kindle highlights, I use the fantastic service Readwise, which also uses spaced repetition, but syncs with my Kindle. I review a handful of my favorite quotes each morning, which adds up to thousands of quotes per year that I remember instead of wondering “did I even read that book?”

Wow, just putting all that in one list gets me fired up to continue using Anki! Such a powerful tool. I can’t tell you how motivating it is to have a system I’m confident will allow me to retain these concepts long-term. 

OH, did I mention it’s open-source with no monthly fee?! (iOS users do have an upfront $25 cost.) Get it here.

Back to habits-master James Clear, who says:

 “The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.”

In the same way practicing piano scales is paves the way for musical success, studying Anki is a foundational daily practice for me. From music to reading to writing to language fluency to helping injured people with my first aid skills (it’s happened numerous times), Anki supports many of my goals.

For anyone considering using Anki, I can only say that I wish I’d started using it back in elementary school. It would have been magic for all the memorization we had to do. (Like it or not—I don’t—school still primarily operates this way.)

For anyone looking to learn and retain new concepts, I can’t recommend it enough. If I were a parent with a kid, I’d 100% have them add concepts from school into Anki. I’d be such a fun dad… 

Hey, I’d take them biking too! 

But only after they finished their Anki study.

Dig this post and want to level up your life? I write about learning and life hacks in my 2x/month Traipsing About newsletter.

making soy yogurt

Sharing the Mental Load

At some point in the past decade, I read an eye-opening article about how mental load, the invisible labor involved in handling a household and family, is usually carried by women. It suggested that for those of us without it, mental load is the water we swim in, unseen and natural, the actions helping the household hum along without a hitch. 

My initial reaction was, “That’s not MY situation. I love my wife and value her time the same as mine. I’m a woke-ass 21st Century Man! I read Brené Brown!”

How wrong I was. 

Looking at my to-do list versus Chelsea’s simply astounded me. Mine was simple; hers ranged from shopping lists and thinking about Christmas cards and gifts to cleaning the house and writing departure checklists prior to trips. The sheer quantity of things on her mind scorched my brain. (It still does.)

I won’t describe mental load further: this brilliant cartoon does it perfectly. 

Taking the Red Pill

In the classic movie The Matrix, Neo is offered The Red Pill, a dose of unalloyed truth that exposes reality. It ain’t pretty.

Realizing I was swimming in the water of Chelsea’s mental load was my Red Pill. Luckily, I immediately understood that and jumped right in to help.

NOT. My first reaction was defensive and bristly, pointing out allll the things I helped with. “I take out the trash, I fix stuff, I… ummm.” 

Like many men, I overestimated my contribution and it took many conversations and personal honesty to scale that wall and see the truth behind it: I had gotten lazy and accustomed to the comfort created by someone else. 

Sure, I’d created a business that supported us. I worked out and DID stuff, but I did it all outside the house. At home, I was actually quite useless. Sure, I’d install a bookshelf or change a bike tire, but Chelsea contributed far more in terms of who did most of the necessary house chores. 

No surprise that I had this mindset. Looking back, I noticed this widely accepted uneven task distribution everywhere: in the books we read, the popular culture references we absorb. For me, it was even present in my grandparents’ relationship as my grandma served my grandpa hand and foot as he read the newspaper.

This isn’t medieval times: we Westerners are in relationships built around love, not the need to heal a political rift with a neighboring kingdom. If I valued Chelsea’s life energy equal to mine, things needed to change.

Don’t Ask “How Can I Help?”

Surprisingly, asking “How can I help?” without offering suggestions didn’t actually help. It simply made me an unpaid, unskilled intern wandering around asking for projects. This made everything harder on Chelsea, who had to spend MORE time on each task because she had to talk me through it. It wasn’t even worth having the free labor!

I’d joke about being terrible at doing dishes/cleaning/cooking, but I was dodging the simple reality that I wasn’t willing to carry my weight or put in the time to learn simple, useful tasks.

Now I can see why some women throw up their hands in frustration and let their partners sit around and be served. Learning is messy and slow and watching ineptness is difficult to stomach.

Instead of asking, “How can I help?” start by paying attention. The best interns observe, learn about their field via research and talking to employees, and then show up with a list of ideas for how they can contribute. They see a pain point, then ask if addressing that might be useful. The same applies on the home front.

People currently carrying the mental load, take note: your partner is going to fail miserably at things. They’re going to make the kitchen look like a Jackson Pollock painting when washing the dishes and wander around grocery stores like a poorly-programmed robot when they first start doing their share of the shopping.

Although you’ll be justified in a few exasperated sighs and an occasional “I’ll just do it, get outta here,” your help and patience will maintain enthusiasm during their learning process.

It certainly did to me. With Chelsea’s help—and lots of patience—I expanded my skills. I noticed things the house needed, started refilling toilet paper when it ran out. I made bad meals, bought the wrong kind of broth at the store, and did a terrible job cleaning our bathrooms.

But I improved!

Fundamental Levels of Adulting

At some point, our mommies stop wiping our butts. We get jobs and pay our own car insurance, but somehow some of us forget there are other understated skills involved in adulting, skills that make us more independent.

Part of my transition to adulthood, the one I didn’t think I needed, consisted of learning how to shop and cook for myself and how to be totally fine if Chelsea had a family emergency across the country. (Without her needing to leave me food in the fridge.)

I’ve been contributing much more. From adding household staples to Anylist and throwing sheets in the laundry to handling food shopping and cooking more, I try to anticipate household needs. I even clean bathrooms, and they don’t need to be (re)cleaned after me!

I made mistakes and asked Chelsea a lot of questions early on—especially in the kitchen—but now I can hold my own.

I’ve learned that household tasks are skills, not just demeaning labor that’s below me. My appreciation deepens when I spend the time and effort on them. Especially cooking! These days, I can host a four-course dinner party for six and all Chelsea has to do is set the table and prep some beautiful flower arrangements.

It’s empowering! Now I’m oh-so aware of the imbalance I see in relationships around me, which makes me admire my male friends who are bucking the trend and cooking, handling childcare, and contributing in other ways.

Of course, anyone not experiencing mental load wants to maintain their kingly status, whether mindfully or without thinking. Hot meals, a clean house and not worrying about life logistics? Sign me up. Wars are fought over maintaining power and the status quo. 

Do I prefer cleaning bathrooms to playing piano or going for a bike ride? Not a chance.

Still, if we value our partners and want to support their best, most-fulfilled life, we owe it to them to step up to the plate and swing at some curveballs, even if we whiff at first.

I’m not ready for my own cooking show yet, but making delicious vegan soy yogurt sure is fun.

The Benefits of Sharing the Mental Load

It’s easy to think, “oh, that’s beneath me…” But someone in your house is doing that work, and you’re choosing to be in a romantic relationship with that person. 

Why is your time worth more than theirs, regardless if you earn more or do “more important” work with your time. An hour is an hour is an hour. What dreams is your partner side-lining—or unaware of—thanks to carrying a large share of the burden? 

In our case, the answer became painfully obvious once I started doing my share. Chelsea now commits to animal protection and social justice causes. She helps organize conferences and retreats, host potlucks and women’s groups, does political canvassing. She gardens and hikes up a storm with friends.

She also feels comfortable lying on the couch after a long hike while I make dinner and clean up, because she doesn’t feel like she has to use all her free time productively. As a result of me being less of a child, she can kick back and use the time that’s rightfully hers to work on her dreams as well as to relax.

And that gives a whole new meaning to doing those few tasks, no matter how “beneath me” they might subconsciously feel. The way I look at it now, not doing my share is akin to actively stopping Chelsea from doing something she likes. 

I wouldn’t do that, so scrubbing toilets remains on my weekly to-do list. Figuring out the logistics isn’t always easy, but the idea of giving each other a gift of time by consistently showing up for the mundane moments as well as for the shiny, fun ones makes it all worthwhile.

Taking the First Step

Sure, I could survive on my own before—on a diet of burritos and stir fries—but now I’m capable in the kitchen and helpful with household tasks. It didn’t happen overnight, it wasn’t easy, but what’s the value in supporting your spouse while gaining life skills for operating confidently and independently? Priceless!

I started small. I considered how I could help out. I got shooed out of the kitchen. Trust me: the help will eventually be appreciated.

Excuse me, gotta go. Time to go load the dishwasher. Which I still suck at. (I try, really!) But I’m not giving up.


Dig this post? Get more like it via the free bi-weekly Traipsing About newsletter

bikepacking colorado trail

Sayonara, Instagram: Why I Left Social Media

I remember the glee and rush of dopamine from my first hits of Instagram in 2012. People cared about what I shared! (And not only my biggest fan—hi, Mom.)

Beyond travel blogging I cranked out in 2005 during a world trip, Instagram was my first foray into sharing creative work with strangers. It encouraged me to put my own personal touch on a place, an experience, a vista. Filters, yeahhh.

Our three-year van trip coincided with the platform’s rocketing popularity, so although I was new to the ‘Gram and Chelsea wasn’t comfortable with the look-at-me approach, any photo with a van, a #vanlife and a pretty view yielded hundreds of likes. AND LOTS OF DOPAMINE.

On top of this like-induced rush telling me to love it, I also thrilled at the opportunity to meet driven, compelling people. The possibility of meeting intriguing people in-person initially hooked me.

And yes, hooked is absolutely the right word. Instagram felt irresistible. My good intentions to set boundaries with the app and post in the mornings and respond to comments (aka check likes) in the evenings spilled into, no, flooded, any free moments I had throughout the day. 

Perhaps you know the compulsion to pull your phone out during any pause, or while wandering around the grocery store? (Chelsea calls me frozen when I stop mid-activity with my head buried in the phone.) What about pausing a conversation at a party ostensibly for a bathroom break, but really because you haven’t looked at your phone for an hour? Yup. I’ve done that. Sigh.

Coming Down

Gradually all these moments added up to significant screen time. When my iPhone time tracker started alerting me to an hour a day, sometimes a worrying 10+ a week, I started thinking of all the skills or knowledge I could have gained in those 500 hours a year instead. Learn piano? Speak another language? (I tried not to think about all the video games I played in my youth.)

Surely a path existed to deal with this like an adult? I experimented with digital minimalism and setting boundaries. App timers, deleting the app…all of it. I took three months off the ‘Gram one year, six months another. Like an addict, I kept coming back.

I also struggled with the ephemeral nature of Instagram. Google doesn’t index IG posts, so I was creating short, useless information relative to writing long-form blog posts. When I blog, some of my newsletter audience reads and shares what I’ve written. The true power is the cumulative build of people finding my site via search, where posts get ongoing traffic years later. Because of that, the time and effort I put into blog posts feels useful and far more satisfying. In comparison, writing Instagram posts felt like a blip; a #LOOKATME moment.

I want to be clear: I don’t think Instagram (or social media in general) is wrecking humanity. It features beautiful long-form work and astonishing photography. Social movements surface on it, people get discovered, businesses grow. Friendships blossom. 

This is simply my reaction and experience, although I don’t seem to be alone in thinking this way. Popular self-development writer Steve Pavlina actually walked away from a large social media following with an explanation that resonated with me:

The thought of investing another decade in those services made me cringe. I feel that these services were interesting to try, but I don’t expect that continuing to use them would be a serious growth experience for me.”

And if that’s not a good reason to leave, I don’t know what is. Do I want to be good at posting on Instagram or foster other skills?

By the way, dig these kinds of posts? Sign up for the free Traipsing About newsletter for posts like this, plus future outdoor adventures..that I won’t be posting about on Instagram.

Making the Cut

What it really boiled down to for me was asking myself WHY I used Instagram vs. what it was COSTING me.

If you think of what something is costing you vs. what you’re gaining from it, you might decide not to use one of the newest kitchen gadgets that are launched every 12 seconds and stick to stirring soup with a spoon. Or, in more general terms, you will not use a tool just because it’s new and everyone is talking about it. Whatever the example, a cost vs. gain analysis is illuminating. Here is mine for Instagram:

  • Why I used Instagram
    • Positive first: a creative outlet for my photographs, short videos and tidbits of writing. Inspiration. Entertainment. Opportunities to connect in-person with inspiring people (unrealized most of the time, whereas I’ve met and befriended many blog readers).
    • Negative: Validation that I was doing something interesting or worthwhile. Easy to feel falsely productive creatively.
  • The cost of Instagram
    • Hundreds of hours consumed each year with no tangible skill development.
    • Prioritizing “friends” with large followings over “normal” people.
    • Distracted by my phone while around Chelsea, my family, friends.
    • An out-of-control feeling. Those software engineers are smart AF and know how to keep us jacked in.
    • Pulling creative time away from longer-form projects for quick, easy hits of dopamine.
    • Loss of downtime for my brain to spin, dream, create new thoughts. Instagram, the great solitude killer.
    • No control over the platform or its algorithm changes. When I blog, I own my work.

After this, the only argument standing could theoretically be that I could miss out on meeting captivating people if I left. Except there are so many other ways to do that. When we first moved to Bend, I played ping pong with and befriended the inventor of the Quik-Clamp systems that I use all the time for projects. That doesn’t happen via Instagram.

Similarly, I met my friend Martin outside a sustainability conference in Portland, bought him lunch, and he became a close friend. If I’d merely asked for his Instagram handle and then liked his photos for a few years, we’d likely still be acquaintances and he wouldn’t leave lasagne in my fridge when I return from a trip.

The way I look at it, there’s an opportunity cost for any time we spend connecting with people, no matter how we do it. The ultimate decision is whether we want to go wide but shallow, or reach fewer people and have a deeper connection with them. I used to go with option A and spread myself incredibly thin with friends, maintaining a dizzying communication load with social media in the mix. I “knew” a ton of people I’d likely never meet in person, at a cost to my personal time and deeper connection with people around me.

My experience with Instagram (and all social media) echoed what Sherry Turkle describes in Reclaiming Conversation: “Technology gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”

I’d rather encounter the demands of friendship than suffer something shallow (at best) or fake (at worst).

The Other Side

Pulling the plug wasn’t easy, but I left Instagram in fall of 2019. Then I stopped posting publicly on Strava, followed by leaving Facebook. No more social media for me. Tear off one Band-Aid and the others are easier to remove.

The result? Better connection with fewer people, of course. Also, more time for new hobbies. I learned how to play the piano and speak Italian. I’m dabbling with drawing. (It’s all mind-bending difficult, and yet so satisfying.) Even better, I’m spending time on things I care about without wondering what others will think. I do it for me, not for an audience. Sure, I blog about trips and share thoughts via my newsletter, but the intention and long-term usefulness feels different. It suits me.

Do I occasionally feel a pull to share a moment? Of course. However, leaving social media helped remind me that I already KNOW when a view is beautiful or a bike trip is badass. I don’t need a thumbs up or a heart icon to tell me that.

These days, I prefer dopamine hits from a sunset on a bike trip or by laughing uproariously with a friend over a dumb joke. For me, that’s #incredible.

One of my happy places: a sunset descent while bikepacking the Colorado Trail.
columbia gorge storm

Dealing With Emotional Lightning Strikes

A moody day overlooking the Columbia Gorge.

When I get hit in the head, I morph from Calm Dakota into Dak the Destroyer, Wannabe Viking Marauder.

Take the time a college roommate (Chelsea’s brother) tagged me in the head with a rubber ball as I studied for an engineering test. RWWWARG. Dak the Destroyer grabbed my chunky TI-89 calculator and angrily launched it for a direct, ship-sinking missile hit.

I instantly regretted it…like I always do when my brain short-circuits, overloads my reasoning facilities and proceeds to impulsive action.

Of course, we don’t want to do this. Yelling at a friend, reacting strongly to a partner’s comment, creating a rift at work – ideally, we avoid these things like they’re thirsty 12-pound mosquitoes.

Training for Lightning Strikes

I love Brene Brown’s rule for these situations: if her face is hot from anger or shame, she doesn’t “text, talk or type.” No interactions while she’s flooded and the filters between brain and mouth are broken. (Oddly, she doesn’t mention chucking calculators.)

In electronics, capacitors are devices that soak up a spike in current when things go awry. Rather than melting wires and arcing all over the place, it’s an energy vacuum cleaner. SHVOOOO, dangerous energy sucked into safety.

I think of Brene’s “no texting, talking or typing” as a technique to load a personal capacitor. It allows us to absorb emotional lightning strikes, defuse intensity, and safely return to normal operation.

Whether we’re hammering a reply to an inane Facebook post (“I can’t even believe this?!”) or unloading on our partners before we fully process a situation, remember the capacitor buried deep inside us.

First, we safely store that energy until we can release it without burning ourselves – and others. Then (and only then) we air the hard conversations that are worth having.

But aim for mild shocks in those conversations, static electricity style. Not vicious lightning, the scorching, hateful kind. That we defuse, let it ping around in our personal capacitors before we release it on others.

The Good News: We Can Improve

I haven’t thrown a calculator for years, but I still make mistakes.
One (lame) excuse is that I worked construction in high school. Let’s just say that calm, calculating behavior is an uncommon approach to dealing with feelings on job sites… Swearing or destroying a wall? HELL YEAH.

Still, how we deal with personal lightning strikes isn’t the important thing. What matters is having some plan for when things go awry.

Here are a few things that build my personal capacitance as I soldier on, chipping away at old habits and reactionary ways:

1. Meditation

After five months straight of daily meditation (<–not-so-humble brag), I still can’t levitate for an hour or slow my heart rate to 10 bpm. However, I like the concept of non-attachment to thoughts – hey look, a thought, neato – without diving deep into it. (For great meditations, check out the app Insight Timer.)

2. Practice Tough Conversations:

As Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.”

You probably aren’t an emperor (or are you?!), but it’s powerful to recognize that people will do frustrating things. (Check out The Daily Stoic for an easy entree to Stoicism or the book Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

3. Calm Role Models

Seek out quiet, powerful leaders who teach us to be better. For example, Yvon Chouinard’s book Let My People Go Surfing inspired my approach to business. For a comprehensive take on leadership, I also recommend The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.

Personal Capacitors For The Win

Next time lightning strikes your romantic relationship, during a work meeting, via a tough friend conversation, or just someone on Facebook who you immediately want to throttle, pause for a second.

Silently repeat NO TEXT, TALK OR TYPE as your personal capacitor diffuses the lightning strike. Take a deep breath and let the red color drain from your face. Let reason return. THEN engage.

Just don’t hit me in the head. Because then all bets are off.