Ten Tips for “Getting Things Learned” with Anki, Skim and Cognitive Productivity

David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done (GTD®), provides many useful productivity tips. I use several of them myself. However, it’s not specifically tailored for cognitive productivity.

The last principle of Steven R. Covey’s excellent book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is to “Sharpen the Saw®”. This is a matter of preserving and improving ourselves, including the mental dimension through reading great literature. Covey’s book doesn’t delve very deeply into learning, however. It was written before the web, when cognitive science was much younger.

So, I wrote Cognitive Productivity: The Art and Science of Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. This book is designed to help you use technology and cognitive science to “get things learned”. For example, it describes how to use a free powerful PDF reader, Skim, and a powerful flashcard app, Anki, to master knowledge gems. (The desktop and Android versions of Anki are free. The iPhone version is not.)

This post provides tips to unlock the potential of Skim and Anki for learning stuff that matters to you.

1. Don’t just read, delve

Skimming is fine for a lot of content. But you need to spend some of your time deeply processing information, i.e., delving it. Skim.app should have been called Delve, because it’s a great tool for delving.

2. Capture knowledge gems while delving

Whether you’re watching a video, listening to a podcast, reading, or processing information in some other way, you need to be sensitive to “knowledge gems” — Useful, high-caliber information that may be worth mastering.

When you encounter a knowledge gem, consider capturing it. This might involve tagging the information in a PDF reader, as I describe in Part 3 of Cognitive Productivity. Or adding it to a meta-doc (a document about the knowledge resource).

GTD deals with information capture for basic productivity. But using knowledge to become more effective calls for additional cognitive processes.

3. Don’t just delve, practice

Cognitive psychologists have amply validated your personal experience: simply reading and re-reading a document, let alone a profound one, does not guarantee that you will learn from it. Beyond reading, you need to practice using the information.

Several popular books in recent years have emphasized the power of practice. For example: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code. (I assess some of these books in Cognitive Productivity.) However, none of these books covers the process of practicing with technology.

Yet the majority of workers don’t seem to have a systematic way to capture and practice knowledge gems. The systems they used at university aren’t appropriate for self-directed learning. Cognitive Productivity is designed to address the needs of knowledge workers and other self-directed learners.

Cognitive Productivity describes how to use Anki, a powerful flashcard system, to master knowledge gems.

4. Create knowledge “instillers” with Anki’s “notes”

With a typical flashcard system, you create decks of flashcards. A flashcard has a question and an answer. Anki, however, organizes its learning objects into notes. You can package multiple flashcards on the same knowledge gem into a note. For example, if you want to master a new concept, you can create one question that asks you to define the term, one that asks you for the term given the definition, and another that asks you for examples of the concept. Anki provides type and template objects that automate the process of question flashcards about related information.

I prefer to think of Anki’s notes as simple “knowledge instillers”. (The term “note” is too general, because outside of Anki, you can have notes about all kinds of information that you don’t need to master.) They help you to master knowledge gems.

5. Create challenges with Anki’s “flashcards”

The term “flashcard” is appropriate for two-dimensional physical cards. But Anki flashcards are much more sophisticated than them.

I prefer to think of flashcards as “challenges”. This concept aligns your practicing with all kinds of training beyond traditional flashcards.

6. Think of flashcard decks as instiller kits

If the terms “flashcard” and “notes” must go, then so does the term “deck”. Why have a deck of notes or instillers?

It’s better to think in terms of an “instiller kit”. That is a collection of data structures that you create to instill knowledge (or more generally “mindware”).

7 Practice productively

Flashcard users typically speak in terms of “reviewing” decks of flashcards. Cognitive psychologists generally consider re-reading to be a form of reviewing. Reviewing has been shown to be a poor way to instill knowledge. Practicing involves effortful recall and several other mental processes that are seen in typical re-reading.

So, I suggest you think of yourself not as “reviewing” with flashcards but as “practicing” with them.

This is not just a matter of terminology. In Cognitive Productivity, I’ve developed a new concept of practice that goes well beyond traditional use of flashcard systems: Productive Practice.

Productive practice is based on several large bodies of literature in cognitive psychology, including

  • recall practice,
  • test-enhanced learning,
  • deliberate practice,
  • expertise, and
  • many others.

There is much more to cognitive productivity than efficiency. Productive practice is aimed at becoming more effective.

8. Develop competence (and underlying mindware)

Productive practice is not about rote learning or merely being able to answer questions. It’s about practicing in a way that develops you, your mind, and your competence. The goal is for you to:

  • view the world in terms of the knowledge gem,
  • feel inclined to apply the knowledge when it applies,
  • know how to act when the time comes to apply that gem,
  • develop the “mindware” (mechanisms) to understand and use knowledge gems.

“Mindware” refers to the mental mechanisms that develop as you learn. (The term was coined by cognitive scientist, David Perkins.) I coined the expression mindware development to draw attention to the fact that deliberate learning is a matter of mental development.

9. Know thyself: Use cognitive science

Part 2 of Cognitive Productivity describes (at a high level) the mechanisms mentioned above. If you’re not interested in cognitive science, skip or skim that part of the book. But if you’re curious about the mechanisms underlying your learning, read it to learn about:

  • the architecture of the human mind,
  • the mental changes underlying expertise: e.g., with respect to long-term working memory, motive generators, and re-representing information,
  • the role of practice in learning factual information, developing cognitive skills, and developing expertise,
  • the importance of being reflective at work and deliberately applying what you’ve learned.

Cognitive Productivity takes a conservative look at this research. It does not overstate results, over-simplify or peddle snake oil. You’ll see, for example, that although I believe in the power of deliberate practice, I am critical of the simplistic claims about it in popular books and the media about practice.

Rather than load you down with facts that you would soon forget, Cognitive Productivity focuses on important concepts to help you understand yourself and your learning.

10. Beyond Anki and Skim

If you’re new to flashcards, then the concepts I’ve provided in this post might help you see their potential. If you were previously a flashcard user and dropped practice after graduating, then these more modern concepts might help you to see their potential.

Given the demonstrated cognitive potency of practice, you might see fit to use productive practice to master knowledge gems. Let software automate some of your learning. Preparing for a major presentation? Immersing yourself in a new domain? Gearing up for a new role? Cognitive Productivity describes why and how to practice productively.

Cognitive Productivity also provides suggestions for tools beyond Anki and Skim. For example, it conveys:

  • tips for evaluating potential readings (to help you focus on key information),
  • suggestions for using OmniOutliner to create meta-docs,
  • ways of assessing knowledge resources in terms of caliber, utility, potency and appeal,
  • ways to tag information and search for tagged information (e.g., using Ironic Software’s Leap),

and more…

Cognitive Productivity is available on Leanpub.com


Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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