Anki: mistakes to avoid and tips to regain control over your deck

I have spent the last few days trying to regain control over my Anki deck. The problem is that I added much to many new words in a fit of overconfidence in my mental capacities and I ended up with a huge study plan every day that took me hours to put down to zero. I finally made a sort of Anki burn out and didn’t study my deck for a week. I have now more or less restored a “normal” deck but I am still facing 500 cards a day.

These are some thoughts about how to keep a smooth relationship with Anki.

Mistakes I made

Too many new words per day

I wanted to believe that it was possible to learn 40 words a day and challenged myself with it. The result is: I can learn 40 new words a day but it’s not a good idea. The thing is, learning 30 or 40 words a day for a short period of time is possible. Let’s say you are cramming for the JLPT or another exam. The problem, at least to me, is that I cannot keep that pace on the long run. I will eventually get bored of spending so much time studying Anki, or life will bring something new and I won’t have so much time to spend on it anyway… The problem is: Anki has a force of inertia. If you throw it in a direction, it will keep on going in that direction, even if you want to stop it. The moment I will get bored or discouraged with my deck, is precisely the moment Anki will overwhelm me with words and I will find myself with 800 words to study per day at a moment when I am tired of Anki. The result is that I eventually give up.

I am lying to Anki…

Another mistake was to overuse the “difficult” button. When I had so much words to study and knew that I will have the same amount of words waiting for me the next day, I often couldn’t bring myself to say to a word “come back in 10 minutes and then, come back tomorrow”. So I used the “difficult” button instead of the “again” button. As a result, words I wasn’t sure about or had forgotten wouldn’t come back until weeks or months. When they would eventually come back, I surely will have totally forgotten them. On the long-term, my deck appeared like a dreadful thing full of words I was uncertain about. My studying was marked by a guilty conscience every time I “lied” to Anki, and I had an overall unpleasant feeling that my deck was studying me instead of me studying my deck.

Too many synonyms with one common kanji

I entered words from my kanji book. This was really a big mistake… I know that it is easier to remember words when we can attach them to a context. It’s better to enter new words learned from an anime, a book or a conversation than from a vocabulary book presenting a list of words without any context and sometimes, without examples. But adding words from a kanji book is the worse thing you can do, in my opinion. For a time, every time I learnt a new kanji, I would also entered every word attached to it in my Anki deck. The result is that I had to learn a lot of words 1. without context, 2. which meaning I was sometimes not even sure about, 3. that will share the same kanji, 4. that would be synonyms and sometimes, very close synonyms. This filled my deck with tons of words with almost exactly the same meaning and it really drove me crazy. To give a concrete example, when I learned the kanji 図 I also entered in my deck : 図形、図表、図面. They have some slight difference in meaning but remembering them at the same time is hard. If I had encountered them in different context and learned them progressively it would not have caused me so much trouble.

I can’t study my deck at midnight…

Not studying my deck first thing in the morning. The best moment for me to study Anki is when I wake up and can drain all those words with a hot and comforting coffee. While knowing I should start my day with it, I sometimes, in a malignant and masochist scheme of sabotage, keep it for later, which usually means pressing any button like a zombie before going to bed.

Tips to regain control over Anki

No new words

First, obviously, suppress all new words.

No lies

For ten days, I never used the “difficult” button. This is a double-edged strategy. The goal was to get rid of all those words I knew only once I showed the answer. I was tired of uncertainty and bad feeling. I thought to myself that if a word was either known or not known I will at the end feel at ease with my deck. The problem is that it will bring a lot of words the next day and it can be discouraging. On the other hand, all those words should be “easy” words, fresh in the memory because studied the previous day. Finally, I think that I prefer to have 100 words that I know well, am confident with, and can study quickly, than 10 words I will struggle with. So this strategy works, but one has to be patient and persist with it because the short-term effect will only be to bring more and more words the next day.


Use hints. Every time I didn’t recognize a word I actually knew, I completed my card. Either by giving more information on the “English” side or by adding a word of context in the “hiragana” side. For example, I would say in which context this word can be used like “education”, “food” or “work”.


Study per sessions of 100 words. At the present, Anki wants me to study around 500 cards a day with 30 new cards (which only means 10 new words because every note is generating 3 cards in my deck: English (for active recollecting), kanji (for reading), and hiragana which is actually read by the Awesome TTS plugging (for listening practice). I only make sessions of 100 words and do something else for some minutes. A little like the Pomodoro system, but with number of words instead of minutes. I don’t apply this method every time, but it’s great when I am not that motivated.

Things to keep in mind

  • Learning 40 new words would be possible if we were only a brain with no feeling at all. But one has to take into account loss of motivation and other mood variations. Instead of learning a lot of new words and then nothing for months to regain control other Anki, a reasonable but steady number of new words per day is much wiser.
  • The “difficult” button should replace the “good” button, i.e. words I knew but were difficult, and never the “again” button (words I didn’t know but don’t want to see again in 10 minutes or tomorrow or in my entire life).
  • Only enter words from context or words I am sure I know how and when they are used. Quality over quantity.
  • Stop thinking that Anki is a boring thing that as to be done as quickly as possible to finally devote myself to more interesting things like reading a book. Learning words is the core of the learning process. At the end words are the most important and challenging part of learning a language. When I open a book and can’t even start to imagine the scene in my head, it is never because of the grammar but because there are 3 or 4 unknown words in one sentence. So, never rush Anki but give it time and be sure to be concentrated when doing it. Using the Pomodoro system is a way to stay focused.