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Optimize Your Downtime: The Complete Guide to Learning via Podcast

Optimize Your Downtime: The Complete Guide to Learning via Podcast
Published February 3, 2015 by Michael Simmons
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.

More about Michael Simmons

Michael Simmons is a serial entrepreneur who writes at To receive more articles like this one, visit his blog.

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