Month 22 — Reflections on using Obsidian & Anki Combo for 6 months

Given the pace at which I was learning new technologies and a variety of topics, I knew it was inevitable that I would forget some of it. So, from the time I started on this programming journey, I was taking notes and creating flashcards to ensure that I don’t fill a leaking vessel — as you are pouring in more water, due to the hole in the vessel, more and more water is going out. So, you need to fix the hole first if you want to be productive. This analogy highlights a key point in situations like learning programming where one has to study a plethora of tools, technologies, commands, exceptions, quirks, etc.)

As the famous saying goes `No plans survives the first contact with the enemy`. As the real-world demands was taking over, I skipped note-taking, I did not write flashcards, I did not have time to review all the flashcards I wrote, etc. — then a few months back, I realized that I was hitting a plateau in learning. So, I took the time to stop, explore the options and settle on Obsidian and Anki as a combination to proceed further, which I blogged about 6 months back here.

Now, my reflections on using this new-found wisdom and magic tool-box for 6 months:

Taking notes is such a beneficial step, especially if you watch videos — somehow, YouTube has put this bad habit in — watch video after video without stopping — Not stopping to reflect, not stopping to practice. When I decided to take notes on any resource that I consider would be worth summarizing, now I put a speed-breaker on this unproductive fast-forward cycle. This itself is a good thing as it reduces the amount of water I would pour into the leaking vessel of my brain.

Since I am in Obsidian where there is already a bunch of notes, I need to think about where to place this note — is it a totally new topic? Is it a sub-topic of another topic that I have? So, I need to go through some of my old notes.

This forced, unexpected jumping back into the past notes was jolting sometimes — As I read some of my old notes, I realize that I don’t remember everything clearly and hence the notes are not really very helpful. What I thought was obvious a few months back is not obvious anymore. The notes that I was very happy about suddenly looks a jigsaw puzzle — it is almost like refactoring someone else’s code — you don’t know who to blame — yourself or the other party. So, was my old self smarter or my current self smarter? Anyway, at least it forces me to delete a whole bunch of notes I have taken before, making me realize that that all notes are not valuable. And I won’t know what would be valuable unless I step in the future :)

In Obsidian, I have 2 ways of taking notes — some notes are just linear and some are direct flashcards that gets created in Anki for spaced repetition. For example in the notes below, I have listed a number of aliases I have noted down from the new oh my zsh plugin that I have installed. Though it had so many shortcuts, I just culled out a few. But even then, I just wanted to take only a few to my SRS system as I do not want to overload it. Here, only the highlighted items get created as flashcards — rest of the commands are just there for reference if I want to review everything again in a top-down fashion.

Only the highlighted items get created as flashcards — rest of the commands are just there for reference if I want to review everything again in a top-down fashion.

The nice thing about this set-up is that I can change my mind later on easily. I could highlight another set of commands and remove the current highlighted ones, thus deleting the flashcards from Anki. This has been very productive to revisit, prune and update the flashcards.

Now, on the problems/challenges I faced:

Even now, finding time to review all the flashcards was difficult. I tried to do 1 pomodoro of doing Anki as the first thing in the morning. The consistency brought a lot of joy to the process. But this was not enough.

Then, I tried to review the cards on the technology that is associated with the current project I am working on. For example, if I start a project on NodeJS, I would review my deck of cards in JS. If I start a project on Python Pandas, then I would review my deck of Pandas cards.

But still a long way to go — but what I like about the setup, the more I review the cards both in random fashion in Anki and in a linear fashion, the more joy I get when I get the card back. When I find an error in the flashcard or if I just want to improve some aspect of the Question or the Answer, I just click on the Obsidian File Link I have on the Anki Flashcard, and then I immediately edit in Obsidian, sync it back to Anki and proceed. Short-cycles like this encourage me to revisit notes and keep rewriting them.

This is how a sample card looks in Anki and Obsidian side-by-side:

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Siraj Samsudeen

An entrepreneur who is coming back to coding after a gap of 16 years due to love of coding.