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SRS and Self-Determination

Agent J asks:

“On the contrary can’t this whole “delete delete delete ambivalence ambivalence ambivalence” mentality be used as a band-aid fix to un-attraction to studying in general (and not lack of interest in the language) to the point that there’s, like, nothing to SRS?

I think the biggest reason people dread Anki (or SRS in general) is not because they’re so terrible at picking out content, but simply because SRS feels like a chore to a lot of people.”

First of all, I want to thank you — Agent J — for posing a contrary idea with so much respect and friendliness. You’re perhaps one of only a handful of people on the entire Internet who can do this right now 😛 . I love pushback and friendly opposition that spares my fragile, delicate, lace-frillled 1 ego. Not even joking. Anyway, to the ideas at hand:

“can’t this whole “delete delete delete ambivalence ambivalence ambivalence” mentality be used as a band-aid fix to un-attraction to studying in general (and not lack of interest in the language) to the point that there’s, like, nothing to SRS?”

This is a very good question. My current hunch — and I may be partially or totally wrong — is that the exact reverse of that statement is true: deletion isn’t band-aiding, it’s fixing a root cause issue, namely that most people have: (1) been schooled and thus (2) forgotten how to do self-directed learning. Rampant deletion: taking decisive control of content, is fast, direct, concrete way to restore some of the self-determination that schooling suppresses and destroys. Make no mistake, the real lesson you learn in school is: follow the follower; do not screw up; do not decide for yourself: do not go off the farm.

Besides, why would there be “nothing to SRS”? That’s like saying that a nice, minimalist household is “lifeless and empty” just because it isn’t a candidate for an episode of Hoarders. There would be nothing crap to SRS, but there’d still be plenty to SRS. As the good doctor Maxwell Maltz once…whatever another word for “said” is…”wrote”…”pointed out”…When you have a fever, the focus needs to be on dropping the old body temp, not on fears of hypothermia. When you have hypothermia, the focus needs to be on raising the body temp, not on fears of causing a fever. There is more content in the world than any of us will ever see in our lifetimes, especially in a prolific language like Japanese. This fear is thoroughly misplaced.

“I think the biggest reason people dread Anki (or SRS in general)…is not because they’re so terrible at picking out content”

Ah, but they are terrible. They so are. In at least two ways:

  1. They pick things they “should”; things that are hard and boring and look erudite and respectable. They “should all over themselves”, repeatedly making the un-funnest possible choices in terms of content.
  2. They pick things that are fun now, but hang onto them even after they’re not fun any more. This is future blindness at work: just because something seemed like a fun thing put into your SRS at the front end, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily gonna stay fun on the back end when you’re doing reps.
    1. Now that I think about it, perhaps “future blindness” is the wrong way of putting it…maybe it’d be better to call it “consistency bias” or “past bias” or simply “doing something that isn’t fun any more just because it used to be fun”.

Repping bad content is the chore, not the SRS itself. If you had majority fun stuff in your SRS and you did your reps in a fun way (a timeboxed, selective, MCD-like way as opposed to an exhaustive, exhausting, boring way)…only fun could be had. Fun is not in the what of SRS but in the how of SRS: with fun content in a fun way. SRS itself, the tool, is largely neutral.

Would that I could serve you better. Would that I could express myself better for you. But my vocabulary is too weak. I cannot put into words how simple and powerful throwing stuff out is. But I know from personal experience the intense internal resistance people have to doing it because I myself had this resistance. I tried everything but deletion, I had an almost moral revulsion to it, like a middle-aged woman who can’t let go of stupid trinkets and mementos that won’t bring anybody back from the dead, or those literal and figurative grandmas in Japan who try to get you to eat every grain of rice. Screw you and your rice, woman! Half the family has a weight problem and you’re still force-feeding us?! Are you kidding me?!

Now, fortuantely, Anki and Surusu both have reversible deletion options (IIRC Anki calls it “suspend”; Surusu has a “traschcan”), so it’s not like deletion is even destructive: you’re not throwing things away, you’re just getting them out of your way.

Richard Koch and Timothy Ferriss have made me a true believer in the Pareto principle, a principle which suggests that there’s something small out there that you could do right now that will have a massive effect on your outcomes. There is a magic bullet. You may have to through a bunch of un-magic ones to find it, but it exists, magic, silver bullets exist (contrary to something I once said). There’s a mere handful of these small, game-changing things, and even just one of them would and will rock your world. Well, deletion is that thing. It’s one of them, at the very least.

Thanks for reading this and thanks to Agent J for his powerful, pointed questions. I think I got a little excited and combative in my response and I apologize for that. With the benefit of hindsight (it’s been several weeks since I first started writing this), I suspect Agent J may well be righter than I give him credit for. Anyway, I looking forward to hearing from everyone on this 😛


  1. is this a real word?

  13 comments for “SRS and Self-Determination

  1. July 2, 2013 at 01:03

    As Woody Allen said, “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” And so it is with language learning: “I want to learn another language, I just don’t want to actually do any *learning*.”

    You’re never going be able to manage a basic conversation if you don’t know a few hundred words. You’re never going to be conversational unless you know a few thousands words. And maybe you need to know 10,000 words to be ‘fluent’ (whatever that means). Basically, you have lots of learning to do.

    I prefer to use Anki & SRS – I’ve tried so many ways, and this is by far the best. If you’re not using SRS, if you think it’s a chore, then what are you using? If you’re reading books, or studying textbooks, and learning lots of vocab that way – awesome, then maybe you don’t need SRS. But if your vocab isn’t constantly growing, then you’re not learning enough – maybe ALL learning feels like chore to some?

  2. emk
    July 2, 2013 at 03:19

    I can think of two big reasons why people don’t delete enough:

    1. They don’t have enough faith to let a word go. Seriously, if it matters, you’ll see it again, and you can make another card then. And if you never see it again, why would you put it in your SRS?

    2. They spent a lot of time and effort making cards, and hate to throw them out.

    I understand (2). I’ve got some French sentence cards that I typed in by hand, and I hate to delete them. Even worse are my Egyptian hieroglyphic cards. You ever tried to typeset hieroglyphics? It’s hours and hours of staring at 14 identical bird symbols, trying to guess which alphanumeric code to use, and messing with LaTeX. I have over 500 these cards, and they all look something like this if I select “Edit Card”:

    m-a:k sw-w Hr:1 i-p-Y1\R270 mn:n-mn:n:t-E1:Z2 I1:t-Z3

    There’s no way I’m going to start deleting those cards. If that makes me a hoarder, so be it.

    I didn’t learn to delete enthusiastically until I started using subs2srs. I took my favorite movies, ripped them, and turned them into Anki cards. This gave me about 1,000 cards per movie (with sound!). But most of those cards were garbage. So I learned to delete. I’d set goals like “delete 50% of all cards on the first review, and another 50% during the next two reviews.” I learned to delete bad cards, boring cards, hard cards, easy cards, and anything that wasn’t completely awesome. And sure enough, after a few review cycles, I had almost nothing but awesome cards left. Then some of them became boring, and I deleted those, too.

    To really learn how to delete, you need to learn how to make 1,000 cards in a few hours. Start with awesome materials, and boil them down mercilessly via successive waves of deletion. By the time this is done, you’ll believe in the power of deletion.

    • Hetingson
      July 3, 2013 at 04:15

      “To really learn how to delete, you need to learn how to make 1,000 cards in a few hours. Start with awesome materials, and boil them down mercilessly via successive waves of deletion”
      This is what I do…only to girls

    • Livonor
      July 6, 2013 at 23:47

      I come up with a different idea, I was used to SRS stuff from the web, but now I starting falling in love with mangas and only want to get stuff from them, but I obviously need to type everything on my own, with takes me a hell of time, so while I type I try to “pre-learn” the words by focusing on them and try to make some memoncs for the kun-yomi and related them with the context of their meaning instead of typing and looking up them mechanically without even looking to them like I used to do, and it’s working, now I go thorough the “new” cards in one go cause I already know them.
      This is my “magic pill”, a simple, easy-to-apply idea, which is just one between several other but when applied changes everything.

      • July 8, 2013 at 18:34

        Excuse me if I sound harsh, but I believe that your previous attitude with SRS (throwing new stuff at the SRS without learning it previously) is the reason why so many people is unable to use SRS efficiently. As I understand it, the SRS is not a learning method, it is just a tool that help us to retain an already learned info in our long term memory. Learning methods based in our preferent learning styles are a whole different thing (basically what you started doing recently, kind of).

        About the whole “let it go” thing, theorically it seems a great idea, but it’s unattractive at first sight. In any case, there is this guy ( which has his own language learning method where he also uses it (the “let it go” thing). I like his explanation about the benefits of doing it more than khatzumoto’s (even while his writing style is less dynamic than khatzumoto’s).

  3. Romuś
    July 2, 2013 at 07:06

    It’s scientifically proven that people are bad in letting go of things. They need to be repaid multitude of what they paid for something in order to let go of that thing.

  4. July 3, 2013 at 04:30

    What can you say about the text to speech feature of ANKI? Honestly I enjoy that-

  5. Ian Price
    July 4, 2013 at 01:44

    Anki has a feature whereby if you fail a card too many times, it calls it a leech and suspends it. These are the low hanging fruit of the deletion tree – grasp them 🙂

  6. gankoo
    July 5, 2013 at 13:50

    When I experimented with SRS across a period of about a year I found myself repeating the following pattern: Take interest in a method (i.e. cloze), or a subset of the language (i.e. a specific drama, or dramas in general, etc.); create anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred cards; work with them for a period lasting somewhere between a week and a couple months; find myself growing so disinterested with working on every card that I would delete the whole deck and start again.

    After a few iterations of this, I felt like all the time spent gathering and making these cards was disproportionate to the amount that I was learning, because I was wiping the slate almost, if not completely clean, too frequently.

    I leave the analysis to you, fine ladies and gentlemen of the internet.

  7. 魔法少女☆かなたん
    July 6, 2013 at 22:36

    Okay, the inner economist pixie inside me wants to speak. There is this concept called “sunk costs”, where you’ve already invested (time) in something, waiting for a future payoff. And then when it doesn’t come, well, it’s natural to feel that your work must have been for something, and stubbornly cling to an investment that brings nothing but loss.

    If you want profits (language acquisition excellence), then each individual entry needs to give you more than it takes away (your precious time). I think it takes making a few (translator’s note: few means a lot of) mistakes to comprehend this, as well as seeing that, yes, you will see that word again in a much better sentence. Sometimes, the entries can be fixed; sometimes, if the shoes look like feet, you must delete! … well, kick that rascal to SRS purgatory, anyway.

    So, what I’m basically saying is that from an economics standpoint, this advice is pretty sound.

    • Agent J
      July 8, 2013 at 20:06

      Shut up nerd.

  8. Amphy64
    August 27, 2013 at 11:19

    There’s some stuff you have to get through one way or another, though. Like my RTK cards – they can be boring as hell when there’s a lot to get through, should I delete them all even though I KNOW they’re helping my Japanese? RTK isn’t the only method and doesn’t suit everyone (it does suit me), but if you want to be able to read Japanese, you have to learn kanji somehow or other. I like kanji, I’m happy with my stories, but I personally think it’s placing an unreasonable demand to expect everything to be totally fun, all the time, regardless of your own mood, current situation, or anything else. It can be a burden in itself as a requirement, it’s faster if I just deal with it and do the cards rather than mess around wasting time sticking shiny pictures on all them (I’ve tried this) to try to make them more exciting. And faster means I can more quickly move on to something more exciting, anyway.

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