Anki for non-nerds - Getting Started 🌠

Anki is great. You probably have that one friend that will not miss a chance to tell you about our new lord and saviour in the form of this magnificent flashcard app. However, Anki is a complex beast that comes with countless features such as card types, learning intervals, custom decks, lapses, addons and all that mumbo-jumbo magic jazz that you don’t care about in the slightest. You just want to press buttons and make flashcards appear. This is the guide for you.

Table of Contents

Why should I care?

If you are already convinced that Anki is the second coming of Christ: Great! Skip ahead to the next section.

Otherwise, this comic beautifully explains why flashcards are just that effective for learning. You will also get hooked on the idea of active recall and spaced repetition by reading the book Make it stick. If you are still not convinced, this 50-page paper shows that scientists (the smart people) found a lot of evidence for the effectiveness of active recall and self-testing.

Why do I choose Anki in particular? It’s free and has the best community support of any flashcard app. Got that? Nice! Let’s get the thing installed.

Downloading and Installing Anki

You will need to do these steps on a PC or laptop. Head over to AnkiWeb and create an account. Doing this enables Anki to save your settings and sync your flashcards across all your devices. Next, download Anki and follow the installation procedure.

When opening Anki up for the first time, after you create a profile, you will need to do two things:

  • First, click Sync and log in using your AnkiWeb credentials (when prompted, choose Download from AnkiWeb).
  • Next, in the box telling you about the new 2.1 scheduler, click Update, Yes, and then No when asked about the AnkiDroid version.

Anki and your Account are now set up correctly, which means we can move onto the basic settings you will need to use Anki effectively.


Current Anki Versions (>= 2.1.45):

Anki’s default settings for card decks are not that great. Luckily, we are here to fix that. Click on the gear symbol next to the Default deck, click Options, click on the arrow next to Save, and add a new preset. Now, configure your new preset as follows:

  • Daily Limits:
    • New cards/day: 30 (or however many previously unseen flashcards you want to add per day)
    • Maximum reviews/day: 9999
  • New Cards:
    • Steps (in minutes): 10m 1d 6d
    • Graduating Interval: 15 (Days)
    • Easy Interval: 10 (Days)
    • Insertion order: Random
  • Lapses:
    • Relearning Steps: 20m
    • Minimum interval: 2 (Days)
  • Timer:
    • Maximum answer seconds: 120
  • Advanced:
    • Maximum Interval: 365 (Days)
    • New interval: 0,7

It is okay if you have no idea what most of these do. Our goal is to get you up and running as quickly as possible; we can worry about customizing your Anki experience later.

Older Anki Versions (< 2.1.45):

Anki’s default settings for card decks are not that great. Luckily, we are here to fix that. Click on the gear symbol next to the Default deck, click Options, click on Manage, and add a new option group. Now, configure your new option group as follows:

  • In the New Cards Tab:
    • Steps (in minutes): 10 1440 8640
    • Order: Show new cards in random order
    • New cards/day: 30 (or however many previously unseen flashcards you want to add per day)
    • Graduating Interval: 15 Days
    • Easy Interval: 10 Days
    • Starting Ease: 250%
  • In the Reviews Tab:
    • Maximum reviews/day: 9999
    • Maximum Interval: 365 Days
  • In the Lapses Tab:
    • Steps (in minutes): 20
    • New interval: 70%
    • Minimum interval: 2 Days
  • In the General Tab:
    • Ignore answer times longer than 120 seconds

It is okay if you have no idea what most of these do. Our goal is to get you up and running as quickly as possible; we can worry about customizing your Anki experience later.

Creating Cards

We are done with all the setup and can finally start adding cards. First, we need to create a deck to store our cards in, so click Create Deck and give it a fitting name. Now click the name of your newly created deck and choose Add from the bar at the top (alternatively, you can press A on your keyboard).

The following menu should be pretty self-explanatory if you have ever used flashcards. Put your “Question” into the Front field and your “Answer” into the Back field. Click Add and repeat. To speed up this process, you can use the tab key to switch between the fields and ctrl+enter (cmd+enter on mac) to submit the card.

Importing Decks

To import premade decks, go to File -> Import and navigate to the .apkg you have downloaded. Then click Close on the next window, and you are good to go. Some decks might be nested, so if a + sign appears next to the deck name, click on it to reveal any subcategories the deck might have.

Be sure to apply our newly created option group to decks that you have imported! Click on the gear next to its name and choose your own option group from the dropdown.

Studying 1 - Routine

The daily long term learning with Anki is a fairly straightforward process. When opening Anki, it will tell you what cards need to be studied today next to each of the decks in the form of New and Due cards. In the beginning, all of your cards will be classified as New, but as you study your new cards every day, they will start to reappear as Due cards for revision.

Every time you get a card correct, it will take longer and longer to reappear. If you get the answer to a card wrong, this time will shorten. This concept is called “spaced repetition”. It is excellent for learning and also teaches you a lesson in persistence, as those 176 biology cards you just powered your way through will be back to torment you further next week.

To study, click on a deck and use the cleverly named Study Now button that just appeared. Again, the following process should be pretty much self-explanatory: Think about the answer to the question shown and press Show Answer. Press Good (3) if you got it correct and Again (1) if not. You do not need to worry about the “Hard” or “Easy” buttons for now. Repeat this process until there are no more cards to study for the day (or until you run out of willpower to continue, whichever comes first).

If you are doing this on multiple devices, be sure to always press the Sync button after you finish studying.

To summarise, your overall workflow is super simple:

  • Create or download cards for the topic you are learning.
  • Every day, study whatever Anki throws at you until there are no New or Due cards left for the day.

Studying 2 - Cramming (aka. How do I just go through all the cards?)

Okay, so there is an exam coming up next week, and you have not looked at your flashcards since the semester started (or have just downloaded a 300 card deck made by a lovely fellow student). Don’t panic, we can fix this.

In this situation, the schedule that introduces cards daily set by the Anki algorithm will not help you, as it is too slow and inflexible for cramming.

What we need are Filtered Decks. To create one, click on the deck you want to cram and go to Tools -> Create Filtered Deck. Follow these steps:

  • Name it whatever you like.
  • Remove the “is:due” option from the search field.
  • Change selected by Oldest seen first to Random.
  • Limit to ? cards :
    • If you want to just go through the entire deck, put 9999
    • If you want to split the deck up into multiple chunks, just choose a chunk size (e.g. 60 cards). When you create a second filtered Deck, cards present in this deck will not be selected again.

Repeat this process for as many chunks or decks as you want. Note that cards will only go back to your regular decks once you have cleared the filtered deck. Also, once a card leaves a filtered deck, it will not return, so you will need to create new filtered decks if you want to have another cramming session.

(Some Anki fanatics would yell at you that “this is now how Anki was intended to be used!!!”, how “cramming is evil!!” and how “long term spaced repetition is the only way to go!!”. We do not talk to these people.)

Where to go from here

The objective of this guide was to get you to the point where you can use Anki for your exam prep with a basic setup. Once you are comfortable with your workflow, you can look into a range of different resources to unleash the full potential of Anki. Tweaking and optimizing your Anki setup is a great way to procrastinate on actually doing your card revisions, or so I have heard.

If you want to fill up some waiting time on the go with Anki, there are options for Android and iOS. The iOS app is quite expensive, so an alternative is to use AnkiWeb on your phone’s browser to do your revisions.

To get more out of Anki and leverage things like card types and plugins, I recommend giving the official docs a visit.

If you prefer a more handheld approach, have some time to spare and have not used your free trial of Skillshare, I wholeheartedly recommend Learn Anything With Flashcards - The Ultimate Guide To Anki by Ali Abdaal. A lot of my workflow is inspired by how he uses Anki, so I think this is a great resource to learn more about Anki and spaced repetition.

A big part of the Anki community swears by the 20 rules of formulating knowledge. While not applicable in every scenario, the article gives you a great frame of reference when creating cards.

If you are into the idea of internet-nerds telling you what to do, the Anki Community on Reddit is also a terrific place for discussion, advice and memes.

Finally, if you have any further questions about Anki or the spaced repetition process, you can always send me an e-mail or contact me on one of my socials. I will be happy to help anyone ascend to greatness with this magnificent app, as our great ruler Ahn-kii commands. Thanks a lot for reading!