Cover Photo Credit: Pixabay
It’s funny. We live in the age of unlimited available information, and yet, it seems to me that our reading attention has been falling through the floor during the past few years. Don’t get me wrong. Nowadays, we obtain more information on a daily basis than ever before. Thanks to the Web and mobile revolution, the world’s knowledge now fits into a tiny block, the size of your pocket. Reading is easy, you say. All I have to do is open up Pocket, and the 5-minute train delay gets fulfilled with scrolling trough the latest and hottest Medium articles. Yet this is still not my point. What I am hinting at, is long-term reading. When was the last time you really, really felt so engaged into reading, that you forgot how the last few hours slipped away?
Yes, I know, who has the time to invest in long-term reading nowadays? We are busy — always on the go, hectically switching between means of transportation, or at the desk, heavily focused on the current activities at hand. The last thing on one’s mind at the end of a tough day at work or school, is yet another couple of hours of intense eye strain.
Much of what we do on a daily basis does involve reading, but of a different sort. We read with lesser intensity, a lot of interruptions, and switching of sources. While reading, we are less involved into the detailed descriptions, but rather focus on getting the gist of what we are reading, in the shortest period of time. This form of reading, also known as “skimming”, has been preached by schools and universities across the world for several decades.
From a practical point of view, skimming seems like an efficient way of getting things done quickly, and is therefore praised by the modern world. Our generation’s almost innate ability to skim through different sources of information, is probably one of the lesser known reasons why we have adopted mobile technologies so quickly. Mobile devices, with their limited display form factor, were designed for conciseness of the interaction, which app makers were quick to explore to new heights, and consumers instantly fell in love with.
Yet, as much as we tend to convince ourselves that modern inventions have made us more informed, the opposite is true. In fact, we are switching through sources faster than ever now, spending mere seconds on each one, before moving away. This has a negative effect on our thinking, leaving the brain in a constant state of confusion and alertness, which forces us to keep switching the context. No wonder why multitasking almost never seems to pay off in the long run.
Time to take a break, move your eyes off your phone’s screen, and listen. Literally! What if I told you that you can be just as informed and up-to-date, if you switched to obtaining information by listening rather than by reading? At the same time, your attention and concentration will improve, but not at the expense of your mental exhaustion. In fact, the more information you manage to obtain by listening, the more relaxed you will feel. Once you free your eyes from the constant focus, you might discover a whole new world of opportunities to check out, while listening.
This can’t be possible, right? Well, it actually is, and I have experienced it for myself. I have been practicing active listening for about a decade now, and I try to recommend it to everyone I know. It works! Ironically, the main reason it actually works, is because listening lacks the one thing that we have been taught to perfect over the years of schooling — skimming. Unlike reading a text, while listening, your brain is focused on what is happening in the particular moment. Your ears can’t hear what has been already been said, neither can they foresee what is about to come.
I know that this sounds a little limiting, as if you’re being forced to slow down the pace of your brain. In fact, though, the opposite is true. After just a few hours of practice, your brain will get used to the pace. For the first time in years, it will actually start paying attention to what is being said, without instinctively trying to force you to skip forward or change the topic. Don’t be scared if you start asking yourself questions and immediately formulating their possible answers. Increased curiosity is a positive sign of a fresh and focused mind. Remember, it is not about how deeply your mind focuses on thing. It is all about how often it switches between unrelated things.
Though the amount of audio content available online is nowhere near that of written text, it is seriously getting there. The following sections are supposed to give you a few tips on how to start. If you have a natural aversion to listening anything other than music during your morning commutes, I’d really recommend you to give podcasting a first try. Once you bring the back the habit of obtaining information by listening, audiobooks are the next step. Lastly, to completely break you away from any limitations of available audio content, my secret tip for advanced listeners: text-to-speech (TTS).
Podcasts are the easiest to start with, because they are readily available, short enough to start with, and cover a large variety of topics to choose from. When I say large, I mean, literally thousands of great shows to choose from, and tens to hundreds of new ones coming up every day:
Podcasting has had its ups and downs, but it has definitely matured during the past couple of years. It has outgrown its traditional garage roots, and come to a point, in which professional journalists and radio hosts have helped evolve the media, and bring some shows to a Hollywood-level state of fandom. Unless you have lived in a cave for the past two years, you must have at least heard about Serial. You may as well have followed Alex Blumberg’s first steps in building a profitable business model out of podcasting. His hard efforts in the first season of “StartUp” have been rewarded with the birth of Gimlet Media — his own podcasting startup, currently producing tons of great audio content. Last but not least, I can’t help but mention Leo Laporte and Jason Calacanis for their ongoing efforts to establish podcasting as a de-facto standard in reporting tech news over the years.
My current TOP 10:
- This Week in Tech (TWiT)
- This Week in Startups
- Fragmented — An Android Developer Podcast
- a16z Podcast
- TED Radio Hour
- The Unmistakable Creative
- Song Exploder
- Note to Self
- The Pitch
and many, many more …
Once you have made the first step, it is time to put you on the lengthier track — audiobooks. Unlike podcasts, audiobooks are way lengthier and might require a few interruptions until you finish the books. Generally, they will require a fair bit more attention from your brain, but hey, consider the actual benefits of listening an audiobook. You are actually “reading” (yes, I know) a full-blown book! Taking aside the ones you’ve barely skimmed through, and the ones you could not finish due to eye fatigue, how many books did you really manage to really read last year? An audiobook is being read to you by a professional narrator — usually a voice actor. Sometimes the narration is so engaging that your brain plunges back into the fictional story line mere seconds after you have pressed “Play” again. Yet, unlike reading an actual book, your eyes are free, so the opportunities to enjoy an audiobook are much more. I figured out for myself that I have started walking much more, ever since I discovered audiobooks. I hope that it works for you in mutually positive ways.
Granted, professionally-made audiobooks are not free, but doing the math, they are not that expensive either. Companies like Audible already offer more than 150.000 titles, and thousands of new ones coming every month. Sometimes, even before their printed editions. In all honesty, I’d love to see a little bit more competition in the market (Audible has pretty much dominated it for years), but I’m sure that this will happen as well.
TTS All The Things
Now, my advice for those of you, for whom listening has already become an essential daily activity. Text-to-Speech Synthesis (TTS). Wait, what, the dorky, metallic robo-voice generator? For those of you, who have last heard TTS, when it sounded a bit a-la GameBoy soundtrack, I have some news. The technology has long since evolved, and with it, the monotone, 8-bit sounding. Today’s voices vary not only in pitch and intonation, but also also capable of speaking with a particular dialect and show emotions depending on the mood of the text being read. If Siri has not been able to convince you, you should check out the Google Assistant’s voice, or my personal leader in the genre: IVONA. Sadly, to my knowledge, IVONA is only available on Amazon devices, though if you are an owner of a Kindle tablet or Alexa, you already know what kind of quality I am talking about. Besides being cheap as hell these days, the only other reason I got myself one of the Kindle Fire tables, Amazon has been so eager to get rid of, was IVONA. Being able to listen to my hundreds of books in text format, has been lots of fun so far.
If you want to try the power of TTS first hand, I would recommend checking if your favourite reading apps already support it. Many even do it, without you having the slightest idea about it. Pocket is one great example. In fact, for the past year, I have almost exclusive TTSed most of the articles I’ve got on my Pocket reading list (unless they contain some source code). Just as with podcasts and audiobooks, TTS may take some time to get use to, but please try it. After the first few minutes of slight confusion, you will afterwards not even notice that a machine is reading you an article, and not a human being.
Does your morning routine consist of checking emails, browsing Facebook, downing coffee, heading to the train while Googling one last idea, checking notifications, more coffee, and going through your work email? The myriad activities crammed into your morning, and the constant switching between them, is likely making you very tired.
I have an admission. A declaration, maybe. I’ve had to step off the world for a few weeks. It’s all spinning too fast, and there’s no place to rest, no island, no solace, nowhere to spare a few hours passed out between a battle to fall asleep and being woken again long before dawn by a tornado child.
Information is being created and disseminated faster than any of us can absorb it. Google estimates that humans have created more information in the past five years than in all of human history – 300 exabytes of information (300,000,000,000,000,000,000) to be precise.