Under-Appreciated Ways to Use Flashcards - Part II

By Tereza Ruzickova


In my first article, I outlined how significant flashcard learning has been for me and how I utilize it in many different - often unexpected - areas of my life. In this article, I will share some practical strategies for making the flashcard habit stick. Most of these I've learned the hard way over the past ten years (while accumulating more than 40 000 cards!). Here are my key takeaways from the article.

1. I make notes whenever something interesting crops up using a convenient note-taking app like Things or Thought Saver.
2. I regularly distill these notes into atomic, concise flashcards.
3. I have my decks loosely organized into Everything, ASAP, Therapy Skills, Spanish and German.
4. I built a daily habit using the Tiny Habits approach - just five cards a day.
5. The easiest times for me to revise are when I am not groggy/distracted by work.

How I create and organize my flashcards

For the past few years, the most important variable that determines whether I regularly create new cards is convenience. When I set up a super convenient information-gathering method for any facts with flashcard potential, I am much more likely to make and revise flashcards alongside everything else I do.

The Things app works for note taking and to-do's works really well for me. This way, I easily note down anything that I want to remember throughout the day - whether it's fun facts I hear on podcasts, gratitude moments I experience, or even life lessons that randomly occur to me. You can also effortlessly create cards directly into the Thought Saver mobile app.

About once a week, I go through all of these notes, filter out any that no longer seem interesting, and start creating new cards. I always aim to keep each card as simple as possible, which often means breaking things down into several cards and stripping the content to the essential bits of information.

For example, this might be one note I write down after reading a book:

Francisco Franco was a Spanish general who led the Nationalist forces in overthrowing the Second Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War and then ruled over Spain from the 1930s to 1970s as a dictator.  

And this is how I might break it into several cards:

Learning to make my cards extremely simple was a game-changer for me. Before that, my cards would contain lots of complex information, making it effortful to remember them and to motivate myself to revise regularly. When it's easy to feel successful, I'm much more likely to continue doing it.

How I organize my cards

Once I create a card, I then categorize it into one of several decks. My approach to this has changed over time; in the past, I used to throw them all into one deck, which I called "Everything." That simplified the whole process and made it easier to build a habit around it. I still use this deck but have also separated out other ones for specific situations. My current organization looks like this:

  1. Everything - most of my cards on any topic
  2. ASAP - only the cards that need to be revised in the near future
  3. Therapy skills - cards related to my work, which I often revise before I give therapy sessions
  4. Spanish - cards I revise before speaking Spanish
  5. German - cards I revise before speaking German

Of course, how you organize your cards is completely up to you - my most important tip is to consider what's convenient for you in relation to applying this knowledge in your life.

Now that we have learned how to create and organize cards let's dive into some tips for making flashcards a regular habit in your life.

How I built my flashcard habit

I'm a big fan of the Tiny Habits approach when establishing reliable practices. According to this paradigm, you ask yourself: "What's the smallest version of this habit that I can manage even on my hardest days?" This tiny version becomes the only thing you have to do regularly. If you feel inspired and motivated, you can always do much more. Though keeping the daily requirement tiny makes it easy to consistently succeed at completing it, and bringing positive feelings of accomplishment keeps the habit going.

For me, the smallest amount of flashcards I could go through is five cards a day. It takes me about a minute and requires no real effort (because I keep my cards very simple). Not only is it very easy to achieve this, but it also makes the practice extremely flexible. I can do it while I'm standing in a supermarket queue, commuting, or even when it's 10 pm, I'm half asleep, and I just realized I haven't done my daily flashcards.

Now, you might be asking: 5 cards a day? That's nothing! I can relate; my perfectionistic brain would prefer it if I went through 300 cards daily. However, I have tried and failed at that many times. And each time, it would leave me so disappointed that I wouldn't even want to look at my cards for a while. So I've concluded that this isn't realistic long-term as my commitments and energy levels change. When I set the bar low, I feel successful every day, no matter what else I'm doing. I often revise much more on particularly good days (or particularly boring times on public transport). Overall, this leads to sustained motivation and more total revisions than if I pushed myself into something straining daily.

Thought Saver follows this idea, too, encouraging you to only quiz on a small number of cards per day to build up the habit, normally around five daily cards.

One thing that motivates me in these tiny steps is to see them gradually add up. For the last few years, I've been using an app called Tally to track this. That way, I can see that, for example, I have gone through more than 8 000 cards in my Spanish deck this year by continuing (and, on good days, expanding) my tiny flashcard habit. This has been a great way to stay connected with my Spanish learning hobby during my busy schedule.

Another way to improve habit-building is to find the right time and context where your flashcard learning "fits." For example, in the past, I tried going through flashcards while eating breakfast or during breaks at work. However, neither of these habits stuck with me very well. In the post-mortem investigation I conduct for every failed routine, I realized why it didn't work for me. I'm often still groggy at breakfast and want to do something relaxing to ease into the day. On the other hand, I may be stressed or cognitively overwhelmed during work breaks, so I prefer to clear my mind with meditation or a walk.

Ultimately, the best time for my flashcard practice is during evening relaxation or if I can't fall asleep at night. However, this will be unique to everyone based on your circumstances. Experiment and find out what's best for you!

I hope this article gave you some useful pointers on making flashcards a convenient part of your life. It all gets easier with practice - and if you have any of your tips, please share them in the comments below!

This post was written in collaboration with the team at Thought Saver to teach you more about how to use flashcards in your day-to-day life.