The Lifehack

Originally published February 19, 2016. Some of it is out of date; see Audio Content at Grognor's Nook for updated recommendations.

It is called "the" lifehack because it is the only useful lifehack.

For a long time, I couldn't listen to any spoken word. Audiobooks, podcasts, and their ilk just didn't work for me. I would lose focus and think about other things, and have to go back in order to listen again to what I'd missed, and this was deeply frustrating because I had no idea how far back I needed to go and the whole point of listening to things is not having to interact with the source of the information.

Now I am always listening to podcasts and audiobooks. Whenever I'm in transit or walking around. The difference is a genuine One Weird Trick: speed up the audio.

Why does that work? Introspectively: it seems to have to do with having too much spare brainpower when listening at normal speed. My brain gets antsy, and wants to use all of itself. It tries to think about other things in the gaps between the speakers' words. In doing so, it loses focus. By speeding it up almost to the point where you can't keep up anymore, you can eliminate those gaps. It forces you to concentrate on the input. There's some loss of information this way, but what can you do? It's way better than having to go back constantly.

The above is just speculation. I don't know why it works.[1] The important thing is that it does.

Needless to say, by doing this you can also listen to more things in less time.

In case you're convinced it is worth a try, here are some recommendations:

Podcast Addict
The podcatcher I use. I tried a few, and it was the best. Crucially, it has the ability to speed up what you're listening to, with gradations of 0.1. I usually listen to things at around 1.7x speed. The exact speed isn't important, but speeding it up to the point where you have to spend effort to keep up, is. Most people who use the lifehack listen at higher speeds than I do.

The Hopwag
This is my favorite podcast. It is educational, often droll, and true to its name covers its entire subject matter! As of this writing it has hundreds of episodes and I'm almost caught up. Speeding this up is especially important because the host talks very slowly; I listen at 1.9x. It's also important to realize that you should skip episodes that bore you. There is no virtue in letting air waves beat against your eardrums if they stop before entering your brain. The whole point of the lifehack is preventing boredom. Boredom is the enemy. Slay it at great cost. I've skipped several interview episodes, and probably should have skipped a couple of the non-interview episodes.

Repeating for emphasis: you don't want to build a habit of not paying attention to the podcasts you listen to. That is the whole thing we are here to fix. Don't keep trying to listen if it's not working. Skip episodes if you must.

Hardcore History
I hesitate to recommend this, because while the actual content is informative and entertaining, it commits the sins of charging for most episodes and having advertisements within them. Episodes only come out once every couple years or so. So it's a good thing podcatchers can auto-update when new free episodes arrive.

LibriVox audiobooks
All the books are read by volunteers, so the reading varies widely in quality[2], but the selection is enormous. Anything in the public domain, they either have or eventually will. Literary classics, old works of history, economics, philosophy... It's impossible to ever run out of good stuff to listen to. Every book has its own RSS feed, so it's easy to add them to podcast addict and listen to them like any other podcast. Podcast addict's search doesn't always find them, so make sure to use LibriVox's catalog.

other educational podcasts
EconTalk, You Are Not So Smart, and Rationally Speaking are the only other decent ones I've found. For various reasons they are not as good as the above ones, but still better than all the competition I've seen[3]. I welcome new educational podcast recommendations.

non-educational spoken word prose
I don't listen to any of this, but there's a lot of it. LibriVox again has a lot to offer. Welcome to Night Vale is a popular fiction podcast. Lots of podcasts are of the form "two guys chatting about whatever", and those can be fun.

But it doesn't end there
Human, your mind is limited, and so you may not have realized another use for the lifehack. You may have a reading list whose items have been languishing for years. Many of these items will have audiobook editions. Do you see it now? Perhaps not. Things that you want to read, but which are especially difficult to get yourself to read, benefit from the double stimulus of reading and high-speed listening at the same time. This takes up even more of your spare brainpower. This is how I read Superintelligence; I used podcast addict to listen to the audiobook while using the android kindle app to read the book. It worked splendidly[4]. Not only did I find it much easier to stay focused and engaged, I think the extra stimulus helped me remember the content better.[5] An unexpected benefit was that having to close two apps made it inconvenient to stop, which made me more able to continue.

I've encountered knee-jerk skepticism about the idea of reading something and listening to it at the same time. I encourage you to try it and see if it works for you.


[1] Allow me some more worthless speculation. Reading is an unnatural activity, requiring eye movements foreign to our ancestors. Beginning readers read line-by-line, very slowly learning to associate the strange shapes on the page with words they know, stored until then only as sounds. Once they do that, they still read line-by-line and only slowly learn to look at pages like a picture, eyes darting around for pieces of structure and still somehow reading the words, often accidentally skipping them. As a way of gaining information, it is less (to speak very loosely) "inherent" than listening is. Listening to other humans is something that humans have been doing since the dawn of humans. Learning to listen to speech that is much faster is merely quantitatively different from something you already know how to do. I've heard that some blind people learn to listen to speech at insane speeds like 6x. That's impressive, and makes perfect sense if listening is "easier" than reading. Another observation is: you are constantly blinking, but your ears are never "shut off".

[2] In addition, unfortunately, most larger works are read by multiple readers, so if you get to the middle of a book and there's a reader you can't understand, you have to turn to the original text to continue where that reader left you off. But that obviates LibriVox for that section. They are terribly 'understaffed' and have no ability to do anything about this. I assure you that plenty of the readers have good voices and good audio quality. There are plenty of works with solo readers as well.

[3] Many podcasts are absent from this list simply because I haven't listened to them. Sometimes I haven't listened to them because I haven't gotten around to them. Sometimes it's because I'm not interested in the subject matter. I know this isn't fair. But it's not like my recommendations are the end-all.[6]

[4] It had downsides. Plowing through passages that would have been better digested slowly and pondered. Infeasibly difficult to look at the endnotes (this is true with the ebook alone, let alone ebook+audio). But the realistic alternative was not reading it at all.

[5] Reading Katja Grace's summaries and external links after each chapter also helped.

[6] I probably lean toward explaining myself too much with pointless digressions. To me it seems everyone else leans toward not explaining themselves enough. Humans don't live anymore in a world where everyone knows everyone else really well from a lifetime of interaction.


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