How I Spent 8 Years Together with Anki

I talk about Anki a lot on this site. Too much probably. I’ve been with it for almost 8 years, all the way back to one of its earliest versions. Lately people have been curious with how I use it. How I relate to it. How I have walked side by side with it over the years. This isn’t a how to guide (there are enough of those on the site). This is a “how-I-did” and “how-I-do” story.

8 Years Of Learning Japanese With Anki 2

Discovering Spaced Repetition And Anki

SRS (spaced repetition system) made instant sense to me from the beginning. I think it’s an easy to grasp concept to anyone who has ever…well studied anything before.

When people review with physical flash cards (those ancient days), most people never reviewed them statically. You review difficult cards more frequently, and easy cards less frequently. As difficult cards become easier you review them less frequently. And if you start to forget easier cards, you start to review them again more frequently. SRS removes the manual process of timing this, making your study life easier.

There were only a few choices for SRS when I started. Anki was clean and intuitive, and most importantly could be used without an Internet connection, so the choice was obvious for me.


I started Anki inputting Japanese sentences with Japanese definitions (until I created Jalup Beginner years later, I had never done a J-E card). In the answer field I included the Japanese definitions of all the words I didn’t know, no matter how many there were. I quickly found out this was bad and overwhelming and made these cards a pain to review. Because of this, I had a bit of a rocky start with Anki.

Adding cards was a slow, slow process, because as I was adding them I was branching. I was completely new to this, and testing out how things worked. I would often branch until I hit a dead end and give up on that branch, throwing away all the work up to that point.

Review time was also sluggish. And justifiably. Here’s what it looked like:

1. Read the sentence out loud.
2. Gauge my understanding.
3. Write the full sentence out.
4. Look at the definition and read it out loud
5. Grade myself. I think there were 5 grading choices then, but to me I decided I was either right or wrong, which was choice 1 or 3.

My grading was incredibly strict. If I missed one sound, couldn’t read one kanji, or was grey on any area, I would mark it as wrong.

Gearing Up

8 Years Of Learning Japanese With Anki 3

My adds were high for the first month simply because I had a 2 week vacation from the school I was teaching at, and I was determined to get to 1000. While my reviews were also high, they weren’t that bad, simply because with a new deck you don’t have that many cards to begin with, leaving your reviews comparatively low.

My eyes were getting tired from using Anki so much these past 2 weeks I decided to try a different color setting based on discussions online of the best background/text color for your eyes. Dark blue with yellow text was a popular choice, so I implemented that into Anki. I’m still using that color scheme today.

I started liking Anki, but still wasn’t sure if it was doing anything for me just yet.

RTK and commuting

At the thousand mark, I made a switch to RTK. I held off on all new sentence card additions, and decided that I wanted (needed) all the kanji now. With my job starting back up I dove right in. Luckily, one of the first pre-made decks for Anki was RTK. Whoever made the original, big thanks! I reviewed kanji similarly (minus reading out loud, definitions, etc.) to sentences. I had a lot of commute time (walking and train), and since Anki was accessible by phone even then through its primitive version (2008), I started doing reviews outside.

Two major changes

1. I read out loud everywhere. People looked at me a little strangely at first (picture some guy reading out random sentences out loud). But for my goal it was worth it.

2. I wrote using my finger, instead of a pen (as standing on the train didn’t allow for this). Eventually this became just a visualization of writing in my mind, as often times I couldn’t spare a hand. I found that using these substitutes were often just as good, and still use them today.

Competition and a quick finish

Everyone knows the beginning of RTK is fast, and slows down with time. I wasn’t a beginner with kanji (easily knew over 1000 and could write several hundred), so I already had a huge speed advantage. But even then I was going too slow. I think around 500-1000 is where you start to feel the drag. At the same time, I was starting to notice the positive effects of those 1000 J-J cards I was continuously reviewing. I was still enjoying native media, and that Anki knowledge was easily being transferred to everything I was watching/reading.

In other words, the amazing magic of Anki was now apparent.

This caused a burning desire to get back to adding J-J sentences. I was growing impatient, so I decided that I would increase my speed, and slay this RTK beast as soon as possible.

The solution was to stop being so strict on myself with Anki, which turned out to be invaluable.

– I stopped writing out sentences.
– I stopped reading the definitions out loud.
– I gave myself a little slack.

1. If I missed a sound, but this was due to a careless miss, I would still mark it as 3.
2. If I somewhat understood the meaning, but was a little hazy, I would mark myself a 3.

Things picked up quite a bit. At the same time, I had a teacher co-worker who also started RTK. The thought of him catching up to me made me go even faster. We quizzed each other in-between classes (one gave a random keyword and the other wrote out the kanji on a whiteboard). Towards the end of RTK I was kind of skimping on the stories and was a little sloppy. But it got me through it.

It took me 1-2 months to get it done. After finishing, I found a balance between my original strict Anki and and my new more laid back Anki, as speed was no longer a major concern. Eventually laid back Anki would become dominant, and if it wasn’t for this experience of trying it out like this, I may have always thought strictness was required.

Hardcore Anki mode

8 Years Of Learning Japanese With Anki 4

I was finally free of RTK, and having waited so long to get back to sentences, I went into overdrive. This is where I reached my peak of adding 40+ cards a day over the next few months. Since I did an ultra rush job of RTK, I was also paying the price. The faster you go through anything on Anki, the bigger a later price you pay in reviews. My average review count from both was easily 300-400+ a day.

How did I do it? Who knows. This was my short power leveling phase I often refer to, where I probably spent 3-4 hours a day just on Anki. I had various motivation that was driving me (maybe one day I’ll talk about this), but I think one major force that made a difference was not doubting myself and looking for the right answer in others. I didn’t want to see a single negative thing that might knock me down. I had to believe in myself, regardless of right or wrong. Analysis paralysis would have been devastating here.


My hardcore phase ended, and my pace of adding new cards dropped in the following progression over the months/years:

1. 20-30 a day
2. 10-20 a day
3. 50 a week
4. 50 a month
5. A few hundred a year (now)

My reviews also dropped. In matching the above, they went as follows:

1. 200-250
2. 150-200
3. 100-150
4. 50-100
5. 1-50

How much time does this amount to (reviews + new additions)?

1. 〜2-3 hours
2. 〜2 hours
3. 〜1-1.5 hours
4. 〜30-45 minutes
5. 〜5-15 minutes

How I do Anki today

8 Years Of Learning Japanese With Anki 5

The way I review and add on Anki has changed so many times over the years, which is why I always emphasize figuring out your own personal situation and adjusting accordingly. I’ve ︎mixed and matched elements, increased/decreased focus areas, and have experimented endlessly.

Here’s what it looks like today:

1. Read the card (I stopped reading out loud)
2. If I understand/can read the card and am somewhat confident, I don’t even look at the definition/pronunciation to check and just mark 3 (this means there is a possibility of mistakes going unnoticed. I let native materials fix this)
3. While reading, if I know I am unsure of a pronunciation or word, I check the definition. If it was a careless “of course” moment, I still hit 3. If I was hazy I still hit 3. If I was wrong and it was a genuine mistake or I really don’t know it, I hit 1.
4. I still visually write out kanji. If I miss a stroke or so but for the most part got it, I mark it as 3. If a careless mistake causes me to miss the kanji (for example misread the keyword), and is an “of course!” moment, I mark 3.
5. If I get it wrong, when it comes up again in 10 minutes I mark it 3 regardless of whether I get it right or wrong the second time (pushing it off until at least tomorrow)
6. If I know a card well (it’s an obvious feel the further you go), I’ll mark it as 4.

Momentum is key

Anki works better when it’s used faster. The more you use Anki, the quicker you use Anki, and ultimately the less you have to use it. Anki plays a bigger role in the beginning, but native material eventually dominates that role.

Said in a different way: Anki fades away.

Some people worry about percentages, graphs, stats, etc. The first time I ever saw one was several months ago when someone posted about me. Until then I had no idea about how my pace was or what I was doing. My recall rates started off as very low in the 70% range (I once found this feature in the beginning, and decided I would never look at it again), which apparently isn’t an “acceptable” rate. What am I now? Who knows (what you though I was going to check?) But it’s irrelevant to me on so many levels.

Overall message

Anki is not a precision instrument. You aren’t performing a delicate operation. I was incredibly tough on Anki, changed tactics frequently, and didn’t care about doing things right. The worst thing you can do is overthink it. My goal was to always just move forward, keep the momentum, and let everything sort itself out. And it did. Anki is a tool. It isn’t you.

That’s my messy story about Anki. I wrote it like I use Anki.

Related posts:

The following two tabs change content below.


Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


How I Spent 8 Years Together with Anki — 32 Comments

  1. “1. If I missed a sound, but this was due to a careless miss, I would still mark it as 3.
    2. If I somewhat understood the meaning, but was a little hazy, I would mark myself a 3.”

    I really really needed to hear that. Thank you so much for this article Adam, it has made me feel so much better about becoming more lenient regarding reviews. Up until a few days ago I was at the ‘beginning Adam’ style of strict reviews. Even a single mispronunciation or hazy definition would mean a fail. was getting 500-600 reviews a day as my J-J One deck nears the 2000 mark. I was already at 140,000 reviews at 5500 cards, which com paring with my other Anki, seemed a lot higher. This strictness was never a problem with your Jalup series, so I had a rude shock when I saw my reviews skyrocket as I approached the less intuitive and more chaotic One Deck. The way that each card builds off the last in the JALUP series means that being strict simply didn’t matter, as cards would normally become correct in groups rather than singularly. With the one deck a lot of my cards are single standing and are unique concepts maybe relating to 2 or 3 cards at the most in a row. Despite being easy to understand cards with few unknowns, the retention in the exact manner i had with the JALUP series had vanished. My pile of reviews was growing out of control and something had to give. This is easily one of my top 3 articles now, alongside your personal Story.

    I really enjoyed you sharing your Anki Journey with us. I feel inspired and ready to continue on to what hopefully will become fluency.

    I’d also like to extend a special thanks to Matt, who helped me realise that there was another more realistic way to learn on Anki. I think his words were quite moving, and helped spur Adam into writing this Article. I’m very happy with the answers I’ve received, so I thank you two very much :)

    • Thanks for inspiring the creation of the article. It’s great that you are finally finding the best Anki route that works for you.

  2. It really does take quite a bit of experience to use Anki ideally. I was super strict as well in the beginning. But you have to find a balance and realize that most of the time it’s better to ‘mostly’ know a card rather than take the time to ‘fully’ know a card. I think Anki is more of a reminder tool than a teaching tool. Native material becomes the best teacher, Anki is just there to keep things in memory.

  3. I’ve always really been the same with Anki. I primarily use 3 (good) or 1 (wrong), seldom 2, and almost never 4. I don’t know why, but it’s been like that since I started day 1 with RTK, probably because I thought it’d be better for memory if I saw it sooner, while still marking it right, and it still continues to this day.

    It doesn’t even matter for a lot of my old cards though. Whether I mark a 3 and see them in 7.4 years or mark a 4 and see it in 11.2 years, the difference is so great that whatever I mark, it won’t even make a difference likely, but I still always mark for the lower number.

    As a matter of fact, when I do my reviews, I have a writing pad and pencil in my right hand, my index finger on the 3 key, ring finger on the 1 key, and thumb on the space bar, so I just fly through only marking 1 and 3 really, no need for a clunky mouse either.

    • that’s impressive that you were able to keep up with your J-J reviews even just using 1 and 3 keys. I got myself in quite a slump as of recent adding at a similar pace to your peak from just using those 2 keys. Maybe you had softer criteria for ‘good’ though. I’m trying to be a bit softer on myself for seldom using 1, its helped a lot with reviews so far. I hope it doesn’t hurt my retention too much, but I guess at worse it’ll just slow down the speed I remember. Eventually it’ll end up the same as using just 1 and 3, I assume.

      • For me, it’s mostly either I get it or don’t, which is why I mostly use 3 and 1. Lots of cards that I mark 3 should definitely be a 4, but I just zoom through them and mark a 3.

        Basically, if I get it right, it’s a 3. If I mostly get it right, like mix up the reading a little bit, but when I see the answer and go “oh, that’s what I meant”, I’ll still usually mark it a 3.

        If I get anything just plain wrong, I’ll give it a 1.
        Sometimes depending on how I feel, I’ll give it a 2 if I feel that I want to see it sooner (which doesn’t really make sense anymore since even putting a 2 on some cards I won’t see them for years)

        I’m not too strict with what I mark as right. If it’s 90% right, just a small mix up maybe because I was a bit confused or maybe I thought I read something other than what is actually written, It’s still a 3 for me, since I meant to do it the correct way. Sometimes I’ll give them a 2 as well.

        As for my pace, I usually go through 15-20 sentences per minute. Just say them fast, mark it, and go to the next.
        Kanji is around 10 or so per minute, since I like to write them out nicely. But I only get like 8 due a day anyway, lol.

    • Thank you for the suggestion on the hand placement for Anki. I just tried it out as you described and it seems to work really well for me, thanks!

  4. For me it’s less about literal grading, and more about “when do I want to see this card again?”. I have no problem selecting “Hard: 6 months” on a failed RTK review of a kanji I never use. When I learn a word that uses it, I’ll start to care more, but until then it’s kind of a waste to reset it and drill it dozens of extra times.

    On the flipside, I might Hard or even Again a card I just barely missed, because I feel like it’s worth the time to get it down really well.

    It sounds like you take a similar approach of being very flexible with your grading, so that’s good to hear. Thanks for sharing!

    • Yes this kind of flexibility is key. I like your concept of focusing on when you want the card to return rather than just a grade.

  5. A great read. It was very interesting to read about your journey.

    This has reassured me that I am going in the right direction at the moment. I have started worrying less about whether I am pushing the right button for each card. Instead I just see Anki as a structured way to practice the cards.

    The main point I am currently trying to improve is to spend less time on each card. I tend to slow down when I don’t get a card and can sometimes spend minutes on it. I don’t really learn the card from this anyway, and experience is showing me that I will get it soon enough, so I have started just either pushing Hard or Fail and these and trust that I will be better equipped to understand the card a few days later. So far this has drastically reduced my Anki time, which is allowing me to spend that time on other more efficient ways of studying instead. For instance, looking up grammar points that confuse me.

    • Yes, less worrying about Anki = more time enjoying Japanese. You do your thing, you let Anki do its thing, and all is well.

  6. Have I mentioned recently how much I love this website, or how awesome Adam’s sentence packs are? If you are having trouble with the beginner barrier, take a look at Adam’s beginner sentence pack. I would not be studying right now if it wasn’t for that. Uh sorry, anyway…

    When I first started hearing about this idea of just marking it as a 3 even if it’s a bit hazy, I was pretty darn skeptical. Recently, I saw a beginner card I hadn’t seen for like 3 or 4 months and as soon as it came up I remembered that my understanding of it was really hazy (and that I felt a little guilty after marking it a 3). So I read the card, and was blown away that I completely understood every part of that sentence, even though I hadn’t seen that same sentence for like 3 or 4 months! Then I understood, all the sentences that came after it (and my immersion) reinforced different parts of that sentence, and so when I hit that sentence again it all fell into place. Sure, I could have drilled that into my head over and over and over (and honestly I still do that quite a bit) but I learned that darn sentence anyway, so at the end of the day I guess it didn’t really matter if I hit 1 or 3.

    I’m kind of to the point where I don’t really give a darn how I’m doing it. All I care about is “am I going to quit?”. I adjust my study habits all the time, I only adjust them based on the likely hood of burnout, but never (am I doing this the right way?) screw the right way. I don’t care one bit about the right way. I just have to worry about not quitting and let everything else take care of itself.

    I know for a fact, if I truly and honestly study, for x hours per day, I will become fluent after x years. That is a fact. How we decide to study today is just a drop in the bucket when you add it all up.

    • Taking the dive into trying to do it definitely seems to have had great results!

      And I have a post coming up regarding your last paragraph about time.

  7. This article is very interesting. Your liberal Anki scoring means you see a lot more material. This reminds me of Tadoku (Extensive reading). One of the rules of Tadoku is to skip over parts and words you don’t understand. The sheer volume of reading helps you learn new words from context.

    Seeing the same sentence over and over because you keep getting the kanji (that’s similar to another) wrong is boring and frustrating. I am going try to be less strict in Anki scoring. Maybe this will make doing Anki reps less of a chore. Thank you Adam.

    • This.

      That’s exactly the reason I justified the change a few days ago. Not only was I was receiving an incredible amount of reviews, they were on a limited number of words. The entire point of anki and sentence method is to avoid that. It’s about exposure to new material and reinforcing it with native material. The point is to get as far away from the structured and small vocabulary pools you find in your local university course.

    • Anything to remove that frustration is valuable. There were times where I would hit some troubling cards that just kept repeating, and while I still wanted to learn the card I decided to push it off into the future anyway just to take a break from it. When it came back surprisingly the frustration was gone and I could finally remember it.

  8. I really needed this read, always nice to go back to these! I am having so much trouble not doing it so strictly haha. If I make any sort of mistake, whether it be a real mistake, or a “ah of course! I misread the card!” mistake, I mark it wrong. I only mark it 3 if I read it properly, and I understand it completely (although I have recently, with Jalup Intermediate, gotten better at marking 3 even if the meaning is hazy).

    There are still way too many words though that I just never remember the readings. It makes me wonder, I’m I doing New Cards the proper way? Up until now I have just been doing them as a review; see the card, press space to learn the reading & definition, mark it 3 and onto the next day. But maybe I should be checking them out in the browser before hand, and then using the new card “reviews” as an actual review of what I have just learned? I’m not sure if any of this makes sense, but I think I might have to experiment with this.

    • What settings are you using for New cards? When I see a New card for the first time, marking it “Good” pushes it back 10 minutes, so I get a chance to review it same-day.

      I definitely recommend at least one same-day review after your first encounter with the card. It’s really important to help it stick.

      • Really? When I see a new card it pushes it to the next day o_o how would I change that setting?? Sounds like I have it wrong indeed

        • It’s a setting available under Deck Options -> New Cards, called “Steps (in minutes)”. (the setting is per Options Group, so changing it for one of your decks may not change it for others)

          My current setting is “1 10”. I’m unsure if this is the default for the program, or just the default for the JALUP decks, but it’s been like that for as long as I’ve used Anki.

          • That was the problem; I can already see that this is going to be a lot more helpful haha. Not sure how my setting got changed. Thanks!

    • I’m glad the article is still helpful!

      Don’t be too overly strict on yourself, as it can impede moving forward at a pleasant speed.

      And yes, try changing it to the way Matt suggested. I believe this is the Anki default.

  9. OK, random Anki problem fix, in case anybody else runs into this same issue: I kept getting cards with multiple new undefined words, and it was driving me crazy. (I’m in the JALUP intermediate 1000.) My deck was properly sorted (by date created), so what’s the problem? Finally today I notice that in the *deck-specific* settings there’s a setting for “new cards” that was set to “random order” instead of “order added.” Once I changed that, everything became SO MUCH easier and faster. No idea how it got set to random, but man am I glad it’s fixed now.

    • Thanks for listing that here. I’ve heard of some people having that setting for some reason in their Anki and having the same issue so this definitely helps.

  10. Here is the secret to anki. Stop relying on it to get self-satisfaction. In other words, stop using it so much. Why? I’ve been using anki for several years now. I was doing 3 to 4 hours a day in the beginning, but now I touch anki around 30 mins a day tops. Treating anki like it’s the holy grail of language learning is the hidden killer I think every SRS flashcard user should come to realize. I bet the leitner box system fairs just as good as anki. The only thing I really rely on anki to do for me now is be a scheduler for reviewing conceptual stuff, immutable stuff(things that don’t change in the foreseeable future) and “high level” exercises. Do you really want to be fluent in a language quickly? Start speaking it with a native speaker. Not just any native speaker, but one that will be honest with you and correct you with any and all errors. Anki doesn’t admonish you for errors so you don’t have that fear of making a mistake. In real life that fear faces you everytime you open your mouth. That fear can be several things like embarrassment, inferior/superior complex, etc. The secret to overcoming these superficial things is get off your high horse and get humble. Move to that country if that’s what it takes. Anki only gives you 1 context of something. That’s why you can’t even hold a conversation with a native speaker even after several months, and thousands of cards of anki. You have no context and 1 link for your brain to rely on. Dialogue is creative and stems out of your thoughts and interests, so by conversation with people your brain will automagically start build a network of information. When they start talking back, which anki can’t do(yet), then you get ‘red’ faced and look like a dumbass. When you remove the fear from responding and open your mouth is when real learning happens. Yes the simple old adage remains true to language learning too, no pain no gain. So am I suggesting you get rid of anki altogether? Of course not, I still use it everyday. But keep it in it’s place: it’s just one tool in your tool bag(that’s full of tools right?). Here are some of things I do with anki that may or may not fit your needs:

    1) I often edit cards when I learn new information. eg. front:How are you? (response) back: I’m doing fine. How about you? (add new response: How’s your day?)

    2) Create cards centered around a concept or word, this is to build more links. A template for this is utilizing Tim Ferris’s method(google Tim Ferriss red apple)

    3) Build cards from material that you know you will be reviewing in the near future. eg. school lectures.

    4) Don’t let anki be the thing that keeps you from doing the more critical and hard things like TALKING TO SOMEONE.

    Keep it simple. Use other tools like duolingo, memrise. Have fun with the language(A tale tale sign is when you’re burned out and want to give up-you are not having fun with it). Some ways to have fun are to get together with a friend/co-worker whose interested in the language as you are and commit to speaking with them everyday. Watch your favorite movies w/subtitles. Listen to some music or podcast in a genre you like in that language. In everything you do make it a life long commitment, otherwise, what are you doing it for?

    • I agree that it isn’t the end all of Japanese learning. Which is why it starts off playing a big role, and then slowly fades over time. Immersion is what takes its place, and in a big way.

  11. This’ll sound silly, but just reading “Anki works better when it’s used faster” made a massive difference for me! I was reading the article because I was doing Kanji Kingdom and I wanted to remind myself of the kind of grading standards you held yourself to, and I switched back to Anki and just fired through both it and my Jalup Beginner stuff for the day far quicker than I usually would. It was a lot more engaging and I feel that it helped to eliminate English creeping into my mind during the latter deck. I think going far too slowly was contributing to my kanji fatigue.

    • Not silly at all. It’s hard to know till you try it, and once people try to go through quicker, they often feel significantly better about using Anki. I’m happy to hear it worked for you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *