(2020-03-21) Matuschak On SRS

Andy Matuschak is trying to use SRS in multiple ways.

Spaced everything

Spaced repetition systems can be used to program attention.

Unusual applications of spaced repetition memory systems

While a Spaced repetition memory system like Anki is primarily designed to help people remember facts, their flashcard mechanism can be used for a variety of other purposes.

Flashes of insight: what was the critical observation which unlocked a profound realization? What was the context?

Tough past decisions: what were the key factors that helped you make a call? How did you frame the decision? What were you surprised by in hindsight?

Visualization exercises to reinforce happy memories; e.g. front: “visualize your trip to Trapani with Sara”; back: photo(s)

Prompts to stay in touch; e.g. front: “visualize your friend Rob; is there anything you’d like to say?”; back: imessage:// URL to send him a message if you like

Spaced repetition memory systems can be used to prompt application, synthesis, and creation

A Spaced repetition memory system like Anki is primarily designed to help people memorize a lot of declarative knowledge, like vocabulary. But the same mechanisms can be used to create relatively unorthodox cards which prompt application, synthesis, and creation

One limit to these types of questions is that because you authored them, you have to leave the context relatively vague: “apply the lens of utilitarianism to a recent decision,” rather than “apply the lens of utilitarianism to the death penalty.” The latter question’s not very helpful if you wrote it: you would have already thought through the answer

Knowledge work should accrete

We should strive to design practices systems which yield compounding returns on our efforts as they accumulate over time. This is one huge advantage spaced repetition systems offer: when you find information useful, you can invest a little effort to make sure you always have it available

Spaced repetition may be a helpful tool to incrementally develop inklings

I’m often struck by an interesting question or notion in conversation or on a walk. In many cases, I can’t write anything terribly insightful on that topic in that moment: I certainly can’t write a good Evergreen notes. I don’t have anything useful to say about the notion yet—it just seems awfully interesting

Sit down to my morning writing and see a small handful of writing prompts for the day, drawn from my writing inbox I can choose to append whatever’s top of mind about any of them (perhaps they obscure what was written previously until I’ve added new material) Once I’ve done that, I can mark the prompt as “fruitful,” meaning it’ll come up again relatively soon, or “unfruitful,” in which case the system will increase its interval substantially.

Spaced repetition can lower the stakes around destructive inbox-maintenance operations

If you recast the destructive operations as “not right now,” they feel completely different. That browser tab isn’t gone—it’ll come back later. Maybe it’s a day later at first, then if I skip it again, a few days later, then maybe a week, and so on, until “not right now” is effectively “close”… but it doesn’t feel nearly so stressful. This notion can be applied to task queues, reading lists (A reading inbox to capture possibly-useful references), email inboxes, etc.

Evergreen note maintenance approximates spaced repetition

Because writing Evergreen notes with dense associative structure (see Evergreen notes should be densely linked) requires that we constantly reread and revise our past writing, this type of note-taking approximates spaced repetition.

the spaced repetition follows your present interests. If you stop reading or writing about a given topic, you’ll mostly never revisit it. If you’re regularly reading or writing about a topic, you’ll revisit that prior material fairly constantly.

Existing spaced repetition systems discourage evergreen notes

The questions float in an undifferentiated mist, detached from any intrinsically meaningful context and not linked to relevant neighbors (Evergreen notes should be densely linked), and not especially meant to be accessed except within the review experience

The mnemonic medium can be extended to one’s personal notes

Unfortunately, Existing spaced repetition systems discourage evergreen notes.

One can use the same approach to give structure to one’s personal spaced repetition prompts, within one’s personal notes. We can call this a {personal mnemonic medium}.

There are a few pre-existing implementations of something like this idea:

  • Mochi, which makes writing Evergreen notes impossible
  • RemNote, which has an overbearing formality


Mochi is a web-based Markdown-centric Note-writing system with an integrated Spaced repetition memory system... In a limited sense, Mochi attempts to deliver on the ideas described in The mnemonic medium can be extended to one’s personal notes.

Notes” and “decks” are separate objects in this system.

Unfortunately, the integration between the spaced-repetition system and the notes is not seamless. “Make cards from note” is a manual, non-idempotent operation.


RemNote is a web-based Note-writing system with a structured knowledge model and first-class operations for adapting notes into a Spaced repetition memory system, a la The mnemonic medium can be extended to one’s personal notes.

It tries to reify a highly opinionated knowledge model, but it’s much too literal: the model has an intense, oppressive formality. The resulting notes work for SRS prompts, but not so much for prose

My implementation of a personal mnemonic medium

The system works by continuously scanning a set of Markdown files for embedded prompts (see syntax below). Prompts are then considered part of my working set for spaced repetition reviews. I’ve also implemented a component which continuously syncs those extracted prompts to Anki.

Spaced repetition may be a helpful tool to develop or change habits

Imagine that you read an article which suggests something

You could memorize pieces of this with a Spaced repetition memory system, but you can also use the same system to help “install” this habit in your mind. Here are some example questions you might try:

How might we situate tools for thought within intrinsically meaningful contexts?

Explorable explanations and the Mnemonic medium are cool, but interactive articles and spaced repetition practice are miles away from where the actual meaning is

What if “practice sessions” for a Spaced repetition memory system could be excised completely, instead structuring one’s authentic environment so that “practice” naturally occurs through daily actions?

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