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SRS: How NOT to Delete Cards

Those of you who read any AJATT at all will notice that I am a huge advocate of card deletion. I am a believer!…In the healing power of throwing away. It’s digital danshari (斷捨離=だんしゃり) for the SRS generation. But, as in all things, while there are many right ways to do it, there are also some wrong ways. Some ineffective ways. Exhibit A — also sprach ganko:

When I experimented with SRS across a period of about a year I found myself repeating the following pattern:

  1. Take interest in a method (i.e. cloze), or a subset of the language (i.e. a specific drama, or dramas in general, etc.);
  2. create anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred cards;
  3. work with them for a period lasting somewhere between a week and a couple months;
  4. find myself growing so disinterested with working on every card that I would
  5. 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.

EE-EEEN! WRONG! Bad! Which part? The part in red up there, step 5: “delete the whole deck and start again”. This is the wrong way to do it. A wrong way to do it. A very bad way of going about it. Here is a new principle, a rule of thumb, for your SRSing lifestyle: Point deletion good. Bulk deletion good. Total deletion bad.

  • Small deletion: GOOD
  • Frequent deletion: GOOD
  • Bulk deletion (e.g. Surusu’s statistical culling, leech-killing and other “decimation1 modes): GOOD
  • Total, clean-slate deletion (as above): BAD

As a general rule (to which there may be exceptions with which we will not concern ourselves today), total, clean-slate deletion is a BAD thing. A very BAD thing. Deletion is your first resort, yes. But clean-slate deletion is not! Take total deletion off the table of options, because it basically doesn’t belong there. 2

Why is total, clean-slate deletion such a bad thing? Surely, if deletion is good, and bulk deletion is good, then even more deletion — total deletion — is even better? Well, そうは行かないわ. It doesn’t work that way. It’s not linear. More is not always better. At some point, there is a need for some level of finesse, and this is coming from someone who loves quick-and-dirty, brute forcey methods — I literally burned my suits in protest at the world; I own no suits — so you know I mean it: when I say finesse is called for, it’s really called for. Recall that even in the flood story arc in that rather famous book of Semitic legends, there was carry-over — a whole human family plus two of every animal, kept on board a ship until things died down.

So, again, why is total, clean-slate deletion such a bad thing? Well, it’s the difference between annihilation and evolution. Total deletion is annihilation — destruction without learning, destructive destruction, if you will. It’s like they say on Hoarders, a show which I clearly watch too much, don’t judge me, I have Japanese friends over and we indulge — anyway! — you can’t just yank their (the hoarders’) crap and burn their house down, much as you might want to: they have to learn the lesson of throwing things away; they have to learn how to make decisions, because, fundamentally, it’s not their stuff that’s oppressing them, it’s their own minds(ets), their own habits, their own faulty decision-making processes about stuff.

My mum, who is, how you say…classist, nationalist and racist…would often say things like: “you can take a man out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the man”. Hippies would say: “wherever you go, there you are”. In SRS terms, this means that the same poor habits of card selection will haunt you until you learn how to select cards in a way that is right for you. And the way you learn that is not by simply burning the house down and running away to a new house where you’ll just repeat the same process (like those families in Hoarders that buy two houses and then fill them both up with sheet), but by sifting through, sometimes by hand (manual, singleton, “point” deletion), sometimes with a leafblower (bulk deletion) and all the while finding out what did work, what did go right, and building off of that.

When you delete in toto, you lose the lesson. You lose the bathwater and the baby. You lose the chance to truly see and learn not only what and how you went wrong, but also what went right! In virtually every deck, no matter how apparently bad, there are good cards. Delete, yes. Delete. Delete lavishly. Delete liberally. Delete pre-emptively. Delete 50%. Delete 90%. Dare I say it, delete 99%. Go to town. But hold on to the chosen few that work, the good cards, the righteous cards, for it is with these cards that you shall repopulate the Earth I mean deck.

These good cards, in format and content, are the seeds of a bright future. In all your killing, don’t kill your future. The temptation is to start afresh, to start clean. It’s like when people go back and do RTK all over again right from the beginning (another practice I do not recommend). No. Don’t start clean. Start dirty. Start where you are right now, with what you’ve got right now.

OK, let’s review:

  • Point deletion (singletons): GOOD
  • Bulk deletion (multiples): GOOD
  • Total deletion (annihilation): BAD


  1. It’s one thing to decimate your army, it’s another thing altogether to just go ahead and kill your entire population just because. Even Mao and Pol Pot didn’t do that.
  2. Have I myself ever performed clean-slate deletion before? Yes, I have. As in all things AJATT, I am the first preacher and the first hypocrite! I make the rule and break it at the same time. My last clean slate deletion was when I went from old school sentence cards to MCDs. Before that, there was also the time when I went from old school kanji cards to lazy kanji cards (although, for these, if I recall correctly, I didn’t actually delete any cards; I just flipped existing cards backwards…so technically this was not clean-slate operation).

    Why was it okay when I performed a clean slate op? Because:

    1. It wasn’t a first resort
    2. It wasn’t a true slate-cleaning — it came after (not before) extensive experimentation, evolution and development into MCDs from sentence cards. In other words, I evolved not just a new deck, but an entirely new species of card, populated decks with it, and repped them to maturity, before I ever finally went and killed the 10,000 sentences deck of legend. Evolution preceded and superceded destruction; it wasn’t just a blind kill.

  10 comments for “SRS: How NOT to Delete Cards

  1. Erik
    July 11, 2013 at 02:09

    Yeah I’ve been guilty of this…I think since I’ve started I’ve gone through 3-4 non kanji decks. I kept feeling like I wanted to tweak my method or cards to make them easier / more fun so when a new “version” of my cards would be made the old one’s just felt …idk..gross. I should have probably kept the ones that I didn’t have a problem with though. Still I don’t feel like sifting through old decks I guess I’ll just have to stop deleting decks.

  2. July 11, 2013 at 03:12

    Well… I don’t know. My last Kanji deck was so full of junk that it would’ve been too time consuming to pick out everything individually. So i had to delete it and start fresh so i could move forward.

    • July 11, 2013 at 03:20

      That was a year ago, and now i’m proud to say i finally finished RTK! I was slowly ploughing through it for about 8 years, and it was only after i wiped the slate clean did i get moving again!

  3. Jon
    July 11, 2013 at 06:24

    Recall that even in the flood story arc in that rather famous book of Semitic legends, there was carry-over — a whole human family plus two of every animal, kept on board a ship until things died down.

    Two of every unclean animal; the clean animals got fourteen saved each.


  4. Cam
    July 12, 2013 at 09:04

    I don’t feel that the issue is “deletion” or “addition”. It’s all about discernment. At anyone time, I feel like I am either adding too much, or deleting too much. It’s humanly impossible to know exactly what’s right for your studies 100 percent of the time. You have to try your best to keep the oscillation between “too much” and “too little” as frequent but as least severe as possible so that if you take a step away from the graph it just looks like a straight line sitting on “perfect”.

  5. ijp
    July 12, 2013 at 15:27

    I went through RTK 3 times, and I started from scratch each time. My reasoning being: “It was so long ago, I’ll never remember anything, and oh look how many reps I have to do”. I expect this is one of the common reasons for “kill em all, god will know his own” deletion.

    And the take home message of my last Japanese existential crisis was that it’s complete bull.

    You don’t have to do all those reps at once, take a few weeks. By the end of that time, your SRS will be back to normal, and the cards you’ve forgotten will have been rescheduled appropriately.

    As an aside, the Anki guy should sell “your SRS knows better than you” T-shirts, mine certainly knows better than me.

    • July 12, 2013 at 21:55

      But I bet if you input like a hundred phrases each day like Katz- you would end up needing to delete some no brainer cards.
      But personally I don’t delete yet- I haven’t got a thousand cards yet. When I do – I bet I’ll start deleting some

      • ijp
        July 13, 2013 at 06:34

        Sure, I was only talking about that one particular case.

  6. unholyburger
    July 20, 2013 at 03:41

    Yeah… this was something I needed to read. Especially with the RTK stuff. I was about to go through RTK for the third time but realized that it would be extremely inefficient. Thanks for confirming that Khatz 🙂

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