People are addicted to podcasts. Most of the population listens to them seven hours per week. The promise of a podcast is irresistible: become smarter easily while you get on with your life. It’s a shame that, generally, they don’t work like that.
Niklas Göke pointed out several flaws of audio-based reading in his wonderful post about audiobooks. Here’s his conclusion:
Reading a book and listening to one are not the same thing. Not even close.
Podcasts have the same problem. Passively listening to that latest episode of NPR’s Fresh Air is less effective than reading it. Way less.
Although podcasts aren’t a magical shortcut to learning, they can still be helpful. When my stomach fell apart at age 24, a podcast saved me. But, just like reading, learning from podcasts requires a proper strategy.
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Use a Mnemonic Device While You Listen
This is something I learned from a podcast. Jim Kwik, the host of Kwik Brain, is a learning expert. Mnemonic devices sound complicated. They aren’t. Essentially, you organize information in a way that is easy to remember.
My favorite is the alphabet trick. You repeat what you’ve learned, except you tie each takeaway to a different letter of the alphabet. Here’s an example:
This forces your mind to revisit the information. As a bonus, you must rearrange what you’ve learned so that it fits the letter you need.
The alphabet trick isn’t the only choice. Acronyms are also effective. If you’re listening to a podcast about finances, maybe you can use the acronym “money” to capture what you’ve learned. If you’re learning about health, maybe you use the acronym “fitness.”
Your brain is on your side. Help it learn.
Listen for Actions, Not Details
Unless you were looking to become an industry expert in what you’re listening to, odds are you don’t have to know the details as deeply as the host. You can just take action.
Check out this transcript from a podcast episode featuring neuroscientist Daniel Amen.
“I talk about the dragons from the past that breathe fire on your emotional brain, and there’s 13 from the past, and one of them is the Death Dragon. If you have a parent who dies when you’re young or a sibling, death is always with you. Well now, death is always with everyone. Whenever you pop on your computer or turn on the news, we’ve lost 150,000 people in the US, and more than 5 million people had this.”
What does that tell you? Watch less news. That’s it. That’s all you need to know. You don’t need to remember the stats analogy. Remember the action.
Imagine how different your world would look a year from now if you took one recommendation from every podcast you listened to and put it into action in your real life. You’d be looking at a completely different person in the mirror 365 days from now.
Take Notes Throughout the Podcast
“But Todd, doesn’t taking notes interrupt the passive nature of podcasts?”
Yes. It does. And that’s the whole point. Learning is not a passive process. Every new concept you learn has to be built on a concept you understand. You probably aren’t just listening to podcasts in the car anymore. Consider sitting down with a notebook each time you listen. Jot down the lessons you learned.
Since you probably won’t do that (I am a realistic writer), at least make the effort to pause your podcasts every five to ten minutes and say aloud what you’ve learned.
This will teach you something interesting – not all podcasts are created equal. What can be said in an hour cannot necessarily be learned in an hour.
A motivational podcast can get your energy up, but you probably won’t be flooded with new concepts every episode. However, if you’re learning the details around Elon Musk’s life story, your brain might be overloaded quickly.
You might have to pause a certain show more often than others. This doesn’t make you slow. It just means you know less about one subject than another. Better to take three days to get through a heavy podcast than to “make the most of your time“ and end up forgetting it all anyways.
Become a Writer
I became a writer so I would have an excuse to read books and talk to people. In this case, writing for a living simply combined two things I loved to do anyway.
You don’t have to be a capital-W writer to write about what you learn. Post LinkedIn updates. Join conversations about the topic on Twitter. Hop into a Facebook group and update your new friends about what you are learning. At the very least, start a journal where you write down what you learned each day.
When you get in the habit of writing, everything you consume organizes itself in your mind. Podcasts are no exception. While you’re listening, you’ll be asking yourself, “How can I teach this to someone else?” This automatically makes you more alert.
Writing is essentially learning lessons where people can see them. This is a good thing.
Follow the Podcast Guest on Social Media
Back when I started listening to podcasts, a weird phenomenon occurred.
I would spend an hour soaking up the wisdom and energy of my favorite podcasts. After listening to an episode of the Legacy podcast, I would step into my office ready to take on the world. Then, I would open my phone and every single piece of content filling my feed was dumb or mean or both.
All of the information that fed my well-being was locked up on only one platform, while the rest of my internet experience deteriorated.
The next time you finish a podcast immediately, head over to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to follow that person. Odds are if they could teach you a lot in an hour, they could teach you even more if you gave them the chance to be in front of you daily.
Reviewing all of this, I can’t help but be reminded of a universal truth. It applies to podcasts as well.
You reap what you sow.
Podcasts aren’t a magic source of information. Are they more portable than books? You bet. Are they useful for learning while you do the dishes? Sure. But as with everything else, podcasts require a proper strategy. Sow the seeds of proper learning habits and there are no limits to what you can learn.
Sow the wrong thing and you may as well have Miley Cyrus playing in your ears for seven hours a week.
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