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.

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Revisiting the same-but-not-boring

I clearly remember the first time I rode Tyler’s, a popular local bike trail. I walked some rocky uphill ramps, awkwardly landed jumps, and generally hacked my way down it like a noob.

I still had a hell of a fine time.

These days, I’ve ridden Tyler’s dozens of times and know every major feature. I fly down that sucker.

But is Tyler’s more fun/exciting/fulfilling now, or the first time? 

In general, is there a way to develop appreciation and deeper comprehension rather than boredom for a repeated experience?

Travel to the same places. Hobbies we’ve done for years. Meals we’ve made for a decade.

Or piano pieces I play.

(YES. Brought it back to piano!)

Navigating the creative gamut

Like a new bike trail, the first time I play a piano piece my brain scrabbles to survive, assembling information to jam the notes into my brain. I’m walking rocky sections and taking in turns, one measure and phrase at a time.

Take Schubert’s Serenade, a song I’ve always loved that I started learning in December.In my initial efforts, I pushed through the technical challenges of the piece and could “play” it. Then I tabled it for month, letting the music sink into my synapses. Cue round two, with more nuance and expression…and yet I’m barely getting started.

Bridging that gap between what I can DO and what I WANT to do is the hardest part. I listen to professional recordings and think, “yup, do that, fingers!” Then I sit down and create some monotone pabulum akin to playing bongo drums with wet laundry. *sigh*

I’m exaggerating, but the gap between my expectations and my abilities does feel frustrating sometimes. Like some truculent kid, I want to play it that PRO way, now now now!

After I turn my pre-frontal cortex back on, I can (usually) reframe things. Because truly, I find this so motivating: I’m going to grow not just with new pieces, but enjoy a deep satisfaction revisiting piano works for the rest of my life. Something fresh to discover, to experience.

And dang it, I AM making progress. Even if I’m roughly 9,000 hours shy of mastery, there’s magic in the journey and daily satisfaction in the learning. I don’t need to be pro to have fun.

Plus, pushing myself on challenging songs pushes me to greater heights on those I already play. It’s the same thing that happens when I ride rocky trails on my bike. I may not slip effortlessly through the toughest moves, but that difficulty makes technical trails feel even more cruiser in comparison.

Unlike during piano pieces, sometimes I pause mid-climb on a bike to eat…

As piano, as life

I love how this mindset so easily translates to other endeavors or pastimes. We’re a different person when we revisit a city or national park, reread a book, build a piece of furniture, or play an old song. Depth, additional context, a slower pace…it all modifies the experience and likely results in a deeper appreciation.

With this in mind, I’m continuing to actively push myself to share not-perfect work like my beginner drawings and music recordings. It’s tough because I want the work to be better, to make insane progress overnight. Sometimes I shake my head at how hard it is to take what’s in my brain and put it on paper or piano.

Whatever. There’s a reason every book on creativity decries perfectionism. I’ll probably always find blemishes and wish-it-were-different aspects of ANYthing I create.

The good news? It creates constant motivation to keep improving, growing, seeking.

That’s a beautiful thing.

As for Schubert’s Serenade? Maybe it’s not perfect, but I recorded it (Youtube link) and hope it resonates deep in your core the same way it does mine. I’m looking forward to a lifetime of it evolving beneath my fingers.

And if I get frustrated, I can always go rip down Tyler’s on my mountain bike.

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The less stressful way to accomplish your goals

It’s almost a new year, which means it’s time for random strangers on the internet to offer you unsolicited advice on setting big goals. Time to join a new gym! Lose weight!


Instead, here’s the low-key approach I take to achieve improvements in my life, calendar turnover be damned. It works for anything, be it financial, physical, or a skill I want to learn like speaking Italian or playing piano.

For me, it breaks down to a simple difference in mindset: daily progress vs. an end goal. That simple trick takes a pressure-laced situation and unfolds it into a pleasurable activity.

  • Relationships: Not “I want a great marriage,” but “I strive to be kind to my partner in the daily interactions.” (Yes, even when I’m hangry.)
  • Business: Not “I want to double revenue,” but “I will double the number of potential clients I connect with.”
  • Writing: Not “I want to write this many blog posts or gain this many new readers” but “I want to write most mornings about things I am enjoying or improve my life.”
  • Fitness: not “I want to lift this much or achieve this race pace” but “I’ll try to stick to this training plan most days.”
  • Language: Not “I want to speak at a C1 fluency level by ____ date” but “I’ll study my Anki flashcards consistently and take a weekly lesson.”
  • Piano: Not “I want to play the (devilishly fast) Liebestraume by Lizst” but “every day, I’ll try get my hands on a piano to practice technique and work on repertoire.”

What I love about this is that it takes away the pressure. Down with arbitrary deadlines to speak this well or play that song or send that rock climbing project or hit that business revenue goal.

As Chuck Close said, ““Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.” But screw that, amateurs can tap into the magic as well!

By focusing on what I can control—daily actions—I trust that I’ll make progress. No more gripping the reigns with white knuckles and gritting my teeth, just a daily practice that moves me forward. (It ties neatly into designing your perfect day.)

As a bonus, there is also far less recrimination attached to daily goals. If I miss working out or piano or Spanish study, I do it the next day! Consistency builds resolve, routines become rituals, and progress follows naturally. Journey, not the destination.

In other words, I just sit down and practice my scales. I enjoy it, even REVEL in the knowledge that note by note, pushup by pushup, and word by word, this is how songs are learned, muscles are strengthened, and books are written.

(Additional reading: my blog post about Boulders of Awesomeness.)

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Want to suck less at skate skiing? Get dragged around by your more skilled friend allll winter long.