It is slightly surprising to me that some things that are clearly incredibly valuable and useful aren’t more popular. Anki (a flashcard program that helps you remember things)is probably the most obvious example to me here - when I started using it, it was just obviously so much better than other ways of studying for exams. It required a bit of effort to get started, but if you put in that effort, the returns were huge. If you look through my university transcripts from my undergraduate degree, you’ll notice that my grades on some modules are much, much better than others - there are modules in which I did exceptionally well in (i.e. much better than anyone else I knew) and modules in which I didn’t do particularly well at all. There is no obvious similarity between the modules I did extremely well in - they weren’t all quantitative modules or anything like that. But they were all exam-based, and Anki is useful for exams but much less so for essays. I cannot overstate how much impact Anki had on my university grades.
The evidence for Anki’s effectiveness is very good: Gwern has written about the evidence for spaced repetition here, Ali Abdaal has a very good video about how to do well in exams here that covers some of the relevant literature, Guzey has written his experience with it here (he writes: “I discovered Anki and started getting good grades even in dull, rote memorization-based courses. Actually remembering things feels like a minor superpower!”). And yet, not many people know about Anki. If you polled university students on whether they had ever used Anki, I would wager that fewer than 5% of them would have - although the number may be higher among medics and law students. But why? It’s an incredibly effective tool, it’s not especially difficult to navigate (besides the effort to get started), and I even find it fairly enjoyable to use.
It feels like some secret that only I and a select few have access to - a tool that gets you the best grades and lets you memorise anything with minimal effort that nobody uses. But it’s an odd sort of secret because I tell everyone about it, and still people don’t use it. Initially I thought that the reason that people don’t use it is because it looks sort of tricky to use, it isn’t beautiful and simple like Notion or whatever people use instead. But Quizlet looks pretty good, and even when I recommended that because I was used to people nodding and then ignoring my Anki advice, nobody ended up using it.
Apparently Dominic Cummings has also recognised the value of Anki and laments how few other people seem to care - he writes on his substack [paywalled]:
Apps like Anki do the admin of organising spaced repetition for you and make it simple to remember vast amounts. If we valued learning, then such things would be widely taught to children. If those responsible for education policy were interested in learning, then such things would be discussed in SW1. They are not discussed there. They are not taught.
But enough about Anki. I don’t really care about Anki, because I already know about Anki and I already use Anki. The reason I bring up Anki is that, as I’ve mentioned, I find it fairly surprising that it isn’t incredibly popular (at least among university students). I could come up with some post-hoc explanation, but if Anki was some small start-up and I had seen the data and used it, I would’ve invested a ton in Anki expecting it to be much more popular than it actually is. But that makes me think that there are tons of other ‘secrets’ that I don’t know about. So, please tell me them. If there is something you use that is clearly valuable and useful and not that many other people seem to notice or care about, please tell me. I promise I will look at it. I made this plea in my last post about Anki, but nobody took me up on it. In the last post I also linked to this profile of Peter Thiel, in which the author claims that Thiel’s success as an investor is largely a result of a worldview wherein he thinks lots of people are aware of secrets that other people aren’t aware of. I’m not sure if this is true, but it could be. And if it is, please tell me your secrets. Comment, or email me, or message me on Twitter.
One other secret I know is that this substack is worth subscribing to.
In a previous post where I mentioned Anki, I saw some Reddit comments saying they thought I might be paid by Anki. That speculation isn’t unreasonable - I am gushing about Anki in a way that is slightly suspicious. But I am not paid by Anki, it is free open-source software and although I do hope you use it because I want it to stay alive and people to benefit from it, they have never sent me a penny.
Am I wrong about this? Do normal people use Quizlet? There are some dubious claims floating around the internet that 2/3rds of High Schoolers use Quizlet, but nobody I know uses it.
Explicit, written checklists.
I use one every morning. I think the reason they are not used more often is similar to Anki. It feels weird and effortful, and it’s easy to convince oneself it’s overkill. The book “the checklist manifesto“ is a little bit of an eye rolling self-help/business book (lots of anecdotes, a little conceptually vague) but that’s what started me on this path and it does have a few non-obvious tips.
"I tell everyone about it, and still people don’t use it" I resonate with this, Sam. My line of thinking falls along "personal memory systems are seldom used, because they create multiple layers of incompetence."
1. There's the incompetence of "making it work". Personal memory systems often have steep learning curves. Because they're simple, they require skill. It's also easy to mess them up — for example, you won't feel confident using the default settings, and so you may think that the settings is the problem, when in fact the real problem is how you've created cards in the first place. Often, though, the problem is in how the person encoded the idea behind the card *before* card formulation.
2. There's also the incompetence w/ respect to the material. The difficulty of putting items straight from memory easily reveals mastery or lack thereof.
So from there it's kinda easy to predict that people won't be attracted to it even remotely if they don't experience short-term results.
Actually, people usually tell me that they often skip either the understanding part or the review part because "Anki takes so much time". Sometimes they give up Anki altogether. But often they miss the point (due to time pressure, can't blame em) — encoding and retrieval need to go together. When you encode well, you can afford to make fewer cards and you tend to recall better. When you retrieve consistently, you can encode future lessons very well because of prior knowledge advantage.
Anyway, some other "not-so-secret" I've been using that's similar to Anki is the Zettelkasten Method (been at it for 2 years now). But I'm sure you already know that by now.
Al - leananki.com