I love podcasts and audiobooks. I can learn interesting things while doing activities that would otherwise feel like wasted time, such as commuting, doing house chores, or waiting in line.
I always have my AirPods in my pocket, ready to be put on to make the most of every idle minute. I've been listening to podcasts or audiobooks when putting out the rubbish bin, walking from the car park to the train station, even shaving my head.
Up until recently, I felt pretty smart for how efficient I was being with my idle time by using it to staying up to date with tech news or reading non-fiction. Then I came across the idea of solitude in Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism.
Solitude doesn't necessarily mean being alone in the woods or being alone at all. In their book Lead Yourself First, Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin define it as a state of freedom from inputs from other minds.
That is, we can be in a state of solitude while on a busy public transport ride, as long as we are in our own head. Tip, noise canceling headphones and white noise tracks help. I listen to this or this on repeat.
Our brains have a physiological need for solitude. We didn't evolve to be always connected and busy. Only in the past decades, the technology we have invented has made it possible for us to basically never be alone with our thoughts.
Never giving our brains the time to wander and process the inputs they gathered, the ideas they came across, the experiences they made, results in an overall lack of retention of all that material.
What's the point of listening to a mountain of books at 2x speed if we then don't retain what we learned?
The more we avoid solitude, the harder it is to reach it. I've been experiencing this first hand as I'm trying to build more of it in my days. The craving for inputs is hard to resist, sometimes I slip and take out my phone, other times my mind doesn't give in on solitude and tries to convince me to entertain it with a podcast.
The inability of being comfortably alone with our thoughts is a great danger for knowledge workers, and in particular software developers. The problems we are tasked to solve require uninterrupted focus, often for long periods of time. In other words, we need to work in a state of solitude.
Podcast Addiction Rehab
When I realized I was addicted to audio stimuli in the form of podcasts and audiobooks, I knew it was time for a change.
I still have my Audible subscription, and PocketCast is in the first screen of my iPhone, but I'm being more intentional about when I'm listening using them. I'm not filling in every idle moment with audio inputs, definitely not when taking out the trash.
These are the operating procedures I put in place to consume podcasts, audiobooks, and other content.
- When commuting, only listen on one of the trips. If you listen to a podcast on the way in, be alone with your thoughts on the way home.
- Define "consumption-free" zones. I won't be listening to a podcast or audiobook while bringing the trash out, queueing at the shops, or while walking to places that are close by.
- Skip one. I sometimes intentionally miss a good occasion to listen to something and cultivate solitude instead.
I'm under no illusion of being off the hook. It might take months if not years to really be back in control, if such a thing is actually possible. Still, the progress I'm making is rewarding in itself.
In these times of solitude, I get the chance to work through new ideas and reflect on the things I've been learning. I might be reducing the quantity of my inputs, but the quality of what I make with them is going up more than linearly.
There's another benefit I'm seeing. Many times I would keep myself busy to avoid thinking about my (first world) problems. As I'm getting reacquainted with my own thoughts, I started digging through my issues and understanding what's really important to me.