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Personal Growth

Optimize Your Downtime: The Complete Guide to Learning via Podcast

If it's hard for you to find time to read, try focusing instead on learning through audio. While awkward at first, with some practice (and the right apps) you'll quickly become a pro.


We all have random gaps in our schedule, also known as time confetti—short, finite bits of downtime that we usually spend flicking through Twitter or email. I find myself in this mode often but a simple realization turned this challenge into an opportunity: I could spend this downtime learning through audio.

Most people think they know about the transformative power of audio, but few actually fully understand it. Even fewer take advantage. Audio (i.e., podcasts, audiobooks, audio articles) is a form of passive learning that we can do while doing other things like commuting, doing chores, or running errands.

If you’re used to learning through reading, listening to audio can be awkward at first. Your mind wanders. You don’t retain a lot. This is where most people fall off. However, there are a few tools to help you maximize your downtime and become an audio pro. 

Step #1: Pick the right apps.

My five go-to sources for audio are:

  • Umano. Umano provides professional narration for articles from top media sites such as Forbes, The New Yorker, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, The Atlantic, and many others.
  • Podcasts. I use Apple’s podcast app, but if you have an Android device, you have plenty of options as well. What I love about podcasts is that you can still hear from your favorite authors in between publishing books. I also listen to author interviews before investing in new books. When selecting a podcast app, be sure to look for one that allows you to increase the listening speed (more on that later). As a bonus, look for ones that also have the silence removal feature, which takes out the pauses between speaking. This speeds it up even more.  
  • Audible. Audible gives you a free audiobook when you join its monthly membership at $14.95. Each month you get one free download of any book in their catalog (the $22.95 plan includes two books a month). A secret tip: you can return any book you’ve purchased in the past year with no questions asked. I’ve returned dozens of books that I thought I’d like, but never finished.
  • Youtube. Youtube isn’t only for video. If you’re accessing Youtube through Apple’s Safari browser on your iPhone, you can turn Youtube into audio-only mode. I use Youtube’s “watch later” feature to keep track of videos so I can listen to them on the go.

Step #2: Triple your “reading” speed.

Each of the apps I shared above give you the ability to double or triple the listening speed. Increasing the rate is hard at first. You’ll either miss or not understand what you’re hearing. I look at this phase as deliberate practice.

Here’s how I apply the principles of deliberate practice: Most programs allow you to increase the audio speeds in small increments (i.e., 1.5x, 2x, 3x). I increase the speed to just above where I’m comfortable. This way, I have to stretch myself, but I can still understand and retain everything being said. Over time, my mind naturally adjusts to the higher rate. Eventually, it sounds normal or at least close to it. Once this happens, I increase the speed again. (There have even been a few times where I went to increase the listening speed only to realize I was already listening to it at 3x speed — the mind is incredibly flexible.)

Lower quality audio is harder to speed up, and some people are easier to speed up than others. 

There are some caveats though. Slow down the speed when:

  • Listening to someone for the first time.
  • Listening to more complex content.
  • You just want to relax and be entertained.

Step #3: Take notes. Learning does not only equal reading.

As you’re listening, whenever you are struck by an insight or want to remember something, take notes. For example, if a book is shared, I go to my Audible and put it in my wishlist so I can research it later. If it’s an idea I want to immediately apply, I email myself using Captio. I’m also a huge fan of using the app Drafts to quickly take notes. It makes it incredibly easy to create a new note and then send it to whatever app (ie – Evernote) that you want to send it to. 

Audible has a great bookmarks feature where you can bookmark your place and add a note (you can add notes through your microphone too, which is nice if you’re driving). Those notes are then saved to the Cloud. I often go back and type up my notes just so I can really process the big ideas, and so that I can easily remember quotes for future articles or social media posts.  

Tripling your reading speed means reading a book in two to three hours. At this rate, an extra hour per day of reading is the equivalent of a 46-day vacation per year, where you spend eight hours a day reading. That’s nearly 150 books you wouldn’t have read otherwise. So go put Bill Gates’ yearly reading vacation to shame.

Comments (31)
  • Javi

    I’ve recently discovered a few podcasts that have piqued my interest, 99U | The Podcast included… I’ve yet to try audiobooks, but as a natural born book nerd with less and less time to dedicate to reading, I’m just about ready to make the jump.

    • Michael Simmons

      Yes Javi. Make the jump.🙂 Audible is amazing and their selection is really skyrocketing.

      • Javi

        If only I could catch up on Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History!

      • Michael Simmons

        🙂

  • clover

    I was with you up until you got to the triple-speed section.

    Podcasts and audiobooks have seen me through hundreds of miles of walk-commutes and light-rail rides and marathon training runs and spring cleaning sessions and pockets of time confetti (love that term!), and I’ve gained so much useful knowledge from these sources.

    But triple speed? Really? At some point, isn’t the maniacal quest for efficiency just . . . well, maniacal? Are we really on such a quest to cram information into our overcrowded craniums that we must cram three times as fast as I’m currently doing?

    I don’t want to cram faster. I want the voices in my earbuds to sound like human voices. I don’t want to lifehack my way to triple podcast absorption productivity. If this makes me a podcast underachiever, so be it.

    • Michael Simmons

      Clover – I hear you. If I want to relax or I’m listening to stories, I like to slow down to normal speed. At the same time, there are other times when I’m really excited about learning and I want to absorb everything as fast as I can. Also, as you get used to it, 3x speed can actually sound normal to your brain.

      I guess what I’m saying is that I think both qualities (efficiency and savoring) are both important.

  • http://nomadmanager.com/ Jen Horn

    Great post, Michael!!🙂 Really helpful, especially for newbies in podcasting like me, who are fully aware of the infinite possibilities and productivity brought by podcasting!😀 The link for the list of podcasting apps for Android is really helpful too!🙂

    • Michael Simmons

      Awesome! Happy you found it helpful @nomadmanager:disqus.

  • Brad
    • Michael Simmons

      Thanks for the heads up Brad. Will get this link removed.

  • A Boy Called Ric

    For Design and creativity I listen to these podcast on a regular basis.

    Otherwise youtube is a great source for Audio and teachings from inspiring guys such as Alan Watts, Tony Robbins, Les Brown and Abraham Hicks.

    • Michael Simmons

      Cool! I will check these out @aboycalledric:disqus. Are there specific episodes of any of any of these that you’d recommend?

      • A Boy Called Ric

        Personally I like The Collective the most as the interviews give alot of insight into a broad range of contemporary creatives at the top of their game doing stunning work and beyond that has a beautiful website and reading material for you to dig deeper.

        Plus the curator generally has a decent synergy with the people he talks too.

        The others two links feel more formal and mainly design orientated..

        I listen to Sean Wes from time to time http://seanwes.com/podcast/ for business/design but sometimes he does take a while to get into the podcast. Hope that helps.

        p.s I realise I didn’t answer your question lol but check the hashtag of The Collective podcast and just listen to the one’s that tickles your interest. Personal favs are EP.85 with Johnny Hardstaff and EP. 78 with Saman Kesh,

      • Michael Simmons

        Thanks @aboycalledric:disqus! WIll check it out.

  • Jonathan Cutrell

    I’d like to humbly suggest my podcast, Developer Tea. (http://developertea.com) – the goal is to utilize a short format, about 10 minutes long, and learn something of value in that short period.

    There’s quite a few of these short format shows out there, as well!

    • Michael Simmons

      @jonathancutrell:disqus – Looks interesting! However, I’m not a developer, but I like understanding software better. Would it still be relevant for me?

  • Chloe Eva

    Play Dates and Power Lunches

    is only a platform which provides you all the interesting stuff about Family fun, family adventure, fashion, food, healthy lifestyle, things to do and media so be with us

    http://www.christinebachman.com

  • http://jonhume.co.uk Jon Hume

    If you are on iOS and you aren’t using Overcast (by Marco Arment) for podcast listening then something is going seriously wrong. He’s nailed the ability to save time by removing silence and gradual speed adjustments so that the sound quality is maintained. The app tells you how much time it has saved you – 3 hours in the last 4 weeks for me!

    • Michael Simmons

      @JonHume:disqus – I already listen to podcasts at double speed in the main Ios podcasting app. Does Overcast do double speed too?

  • Wesley

    It should be important to note that many podcasts have already created notes by the time the podcast is released. When I’m listening to a podcast while I’m driving I can’t stop to jot down or record a note. So after I listen to a new episode, I try to go to the podcast’ see site and take any notes from that.

    • Michael Simmons

      Wow! Great idea @Wesley! That had never crossed my mind to do, but it makes complete sense.

  • Christal Earle

    Thanks for the article. Great tip on returning books to Audible. I think that is what has made me hesitant to keep up my monthly membership there.
    Also, to add to the mix, I am currently a big fan of Stitcher for podcasts. I find it super easy and intuitive to use.

    • Michael Simmons

      Awesome @christalearle:disqus! I’ve probably return 20+ books over the past year.

      That’s cool on Stitcher. I’ve never used it before. If I have an iPhone, is it better than the normal podcasting app?

  • mdawd123
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