One of the reasons I was able to read more than 80 books last year is that I listen to audiobooks while commuting, and I spend a lot of time commuting. Also, I listen to everything at 2x speed.

This last bit may sound crazy, but hear me out. Many times in the past I have followed more podcasts than I reasonably had time to listen to. Far from being alone in this, my interest was always piqued when I heard someone say they listed to audio at increased speed. Every time someone discussed this, I would try it myself, and each time I felt like the relentless pace of the words was going to cause a panic attack. Finally, about 8 months ago, I’d had enough and refused to accept failure.

2x speed was too fast, and so was 1.5x, but surely I could handle 1.2x? Yep, I could. Pretty quickly (no pun intended), this speed began to seem normal, so I ramped it up a bit1 more. Within a couple days I was up to 1.8x and then 2.0x. Sometimes it makes sense to to dial it down a bit when comprehension begins to fail, as I recently did during the first volume in William Manchester’s Last Lion biography of Winston Churchill2. This is rare and usually temporary.

This new 2x lifestyle was great for feeling like I was accomplishing a lot during a commute otherwise wasted, but I discovered another, more important side-effect. Anyone regular audiobook listener has probably had the experience of suddenly realizing they have no idea what’s going on in their book. At some point the mind goes off the rails on another train of thought. Well, after a few days of faster listening speeds, I suddenly realized this had stopped happening to me. In fact, my recall and comprehension were higher than ever.

I have a twofold theory about this. First, even if you consider yourself a slow reader, you probably read much faster than you think. You certainly read faster than the narrator of an audiobook who is taking pains to speak clearly and well. The upshot of this is that your brain expects faster input and when none arrives, it decides to spend those spare cycles on refining your shopping list or planning an upcoming vacation.

Beyond this attention piece, I think the act of having to listen harder causes the brain to engage more. I first got this idea after reading about an experiment study in Daniel Kanehman’s Thinking Fast and Slow3. In this study, the experimenters gave two groups of students separate versions of the same test, with one group getting a copy that was harder to read. Turns Out4 this group performed better. The thought here is that when the mind has to work harder to read questions and potential answers, it breaks through its tendency to see what is expected.5. I think this is what happens when you’re forced to listen harder.

No matter what the underlying reason might be, and I wouldn’t care if it’s only the placebo effect, increasing listening speed has helped me do more with the time I do have. Even if you think I’m crazy, try ratcheting things up a bit, and see what you think.

  1. I highly recommend the Bound on iOS. It s is altogether great and perfect for easy granular changes. I use it for all the books I get from the library. Audible’s app does okay, but the jumps in speed are a little larger. ↩︎

  2. The combination of an British narrator and the fact that my library copy was obviously dubbed from a cassette tape was a challenge for the first few hours. 1.7x was slow enough until I adjusted. ↩︎

  3. In true Turns Out fashion, this study may have been debunked, at least when extending its application too widely, and Malcolm Gladwell, whom I unapologetically adore, is even implicated. ↩︎

  4. Past readers may recall I was having a tough time finishing this book. 2x speed to the rescue. ↩︎

  5. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011; p 65. Kindle link ↩︎