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May 10, 2011

The Power of Limits

One of my favorite tricks for learning Japanese is to set limits on how much I do at any one time. Instead of sitting down with the task of completing all reviews or adding all of my new sentences for the day, I set a limit and just work until my time is up or until I've hit the card number I set. In doing this, you can break a big task into a bunch of smaller parts that take very little effort to complete.

So now for some concrete examples! With sentence or kanji reviews, I like to set a limit of 25 cards. So I open Anki, begin reviewing, and after 25 cards I stop and go do something else. I typically like to spread my reviews out while I am reading, so I'll read a chapter of manga, then do a set of 25, then read another chapter, etc. Breaking reviews into smaller groups and spreading them out through the day will make it much easier to get started on your reviews, because you only have to do 25 cards at any one time – then you're done!

You can apply the same idea to adding new sentences to Anki or learning new kanji. Because learning and adding take more time than reviewing, I'll typically set a much smaller number for the limits on adding. Something like 5-10 words to look up and add sentences for, or 5-10 new kanji to learn via Heisig. Just as with reviews, breaking the task of learning new kanji or vocabulary into smaller tasks will make it easier to get started and to focus on those small groups.

There is another form of this limiting idea that focuses on time instead of the number of sentences of kanji. In this concept, instead of setting a limit of 25 or 5-10, you set a limit of 5, 10, 15 minutes and simply work to get as much done as you can during that period. Both methods will work wonders for breaking your reviews into more manageable pieces, so it really depends on your personal preference as to which you should use.

Another application for this same concept is to set daily limits for your learning. I really like to do this, because it will help to keep review numbers down and allow you to keep up a constant pace. It's the same concept as what I talked about above, but in addition to setting session limits, you also set a daily limit. For examples, I will often end up adding far more new sentences than I really want to handle in a single day, so I set a limit on the number of new sentences that actually get put into the deck each day. I also set a limit on the number of cards I'll review in one day.

The great thing about this strategy is that you can change the numbers to match your own style. For instance, I personally set an overall sentence review cap of 100-125 cards. Anything more than that and I'm just rushing through the cards to hurry up and get back to reading. I also set a cap of 25 new cards per day, because every new card you add today is a review card you'll see tomorrow – introducing cards gradually will help to prevent an influx of reviews. I'm only providing these numbers as a reference – you could set limits much higher or lower, it all depends on what you feel best with.

Finally, Anki is very convenient when it comes to setting these limits. Under the “Timeboxing” section you can set time or question limits for each session. This makes it extremely easy to make your limits and then not have to worry about counting cards or setting a timer. You can also limit the number of new cards per day by going to the “New Cards” tab.

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  1. Thanks for this. I hadn't even considered splitting up my daily reviews into smaller chunks, and I think it'll help me get through them without getting as distracted towards the end.

    Do you have an opinion on time vs. number of cards? I'd been setting a card limit for ages but I think I might try a time limit instead so I don't have the temptation to rush through the last few cards and finish.

  2. This concept of limits applies to many things. Hell, I'm using it right now!