How to Listen to Audiobooks More Effectively | Tips for Improved Retention and Learning

Get More Out of Every Audiobook

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Am I really about to teach you how to listen? Yes, yes I am...I wish I'd had this information when I first started devouring audiobooks. Too many of us just throw on our headphones and let books saturate our brains. I've listened to countless books in my life, but have only really listened to a fraction of them. You don't have time for half-assed learning.

Here's the problem with audio vs visual reading.

Reading a physical book keeps us engaged in ways that audiobooks simply cannot. It is incredibly easy to lose focus during an audiobook.

Studies performed by Frontiers in Psychology in 2013 confirmed this (although anyone who has ever listened to an audiobook probably already knew it).

Audiobook vs. Reading

The sheer convenience of an audiobook, though, makes it worth learning how to make the process work. Your mind is more likely to wander when listening to audiobooks, but by applying the methods and suggestions I am about to share, you can become an outlier and separate yourself from your competitors who are not able to fill idle time with learning.

This is particularly important to those readers who are still working a day job. I was fortunate enough to work for a couple of years at a job that allowed me to immerse myself in non-fiction audio. You may or may not have that luxury, but for the time-crunched wantrepreneur, audiobooks may be your secret learning hack.

Even if your job doesn't allow you to have headphones (or earbuds) on, you can listen to books on the commute to and from work (that should be at least 30 minutes for the majority of people). Creating your own business while working for someone else's isn't easy, but with some dedication, focus and creativity, it is far from impossible.

These tips will help make every minute count.

#1 Listen in 20-30 Minute Increments and Take 5-10 Minute Breaks for Reflection

It's important to take a time out and actually consider what you're listening to. If you don't, you run the risk of sleepwalking through the process. You're hearing words but not understanding concepts.

Stop every 20-30 minutes and reflect on what you just heard. If you can't recall, listen to it again (if it was worth listening to in the first place). Try to picture how what you just heard applies to your life or business.

#2 Invest in a Great Pair of Headphones

Headphones for Audiobooks

You can listen to an audio book with really any type of headphones, but if you can swing it, I recommend grabbing a nice pair. Get something that makes you want to put them on...

I think that music, podcasts and audiobooks are too important to skimp on the medium for listening to them. 

If you like headphones, the pair that I recommend are the QC35 Bose Bluetooth noise canceling headphones.  They are very expensive (relative to other headphones), but they are amazing.  There is no doubt in my mind these are the best headphones I have ever put on.

If you're an iPhone user and want in ear buds, the Airpods are fantastic. I just upgraded to the Airpod Pros and they are absolute game changers. Way expensive and unnecessary, but totally awesome.

Distractions are everywhere when listening to an audiobook, so cutting out the sound of the outside world will help minimize this.

You're going to want to make sure you don't have the noise canceling on at all times, because it's borderline dangerous how good they are.

If you're looking for something a little less expensive but wireless, I have had two pairs of Jabra Wireless Headphones that can be found for under $80 most of the time somewhere online.

#3 Take Notes and Bookmark Clips.

You can take notes manually (pen and paper), within the Audible app itself or on your smartphone (in an app like Evernote). Even if you don't return to these notes, jotting them down will aid in retention. 

Audible has a lot of features that you should check into. The Audible clipping feature is a lifesaver when I am gathering information for blog posts and need a direct quote or one-liner I wouldn't remember properly otherwise.

My guess is that not a lot of people are using this feature to its full potential. 

Audible clipping notes

I was hesitant to use the clipping feature at first because it seemed clunky and mildly confusing. Eventually, I realized that the feature was too cool to not be using in every book I read. 

Take clips regularly will also keep you engaged as you listen. 

If you prefer to take notes manually, I really like to a Moleskine notebook and G2 pen. The notebook itself doesn't matter. I just like the feel of the Moleskine brand.  As for the pen, I like the .7mm one. It is just a great writing tool, and I feel like I'm more inspired when I'm writing with it. Is that in my head? Yes, it's 100% mental, but it works.

#4 Don't Be Afraid to Re-Listen to a Book

To assume you can get every bit of information out of a book on your first time through it is unrealistic.

In internet business, things change so fast and I change my businesses so fast that re-reading certain titles is the smartest use of my time. Once you get to the point where you are really digging for the latest non-fiction book, you may find it to be a better use of your time to re-read (or listen) to a book you know is world-class rather than try and listen to the latest person's spin on things. 

If you started out and you read the 4-Hour Workweek, for example, and it meant something to you then don't think you're done with it forever. If you read the book, maybe you listen to the audiobook next time or vice versa. Audible has a great feature called Whisper Sync, where you can do both at the same time. 

#5 Adjust the Narration Speed 

You can speed the narrator's voice up to 3x in Audible. You can shrink a 9 hour book into 3 (crazy) hours! Now, it doesn't matter if you aren't retaining what you're hearing.

Audible Speed

I do recommend that you do raise the speed as much as you feel comfortable, and hell, even if you need to slow it down, go for it. I can't imagine doing that. It would drive me nuts. I'm too high strung for that. I usually keep it at 1.25x-1.5x.

Sometimes I go up to as much as 2x, if I've had a lot of caffeine and I'm really wanting to plow through something. Definitely play with that filter. It's pretty cool and it's awesome that we have that ability.

I recommend you start with a speed faster than you may want to keep. Much like a baseball player using a weighted "donut" to create the feeling of "lightness" and heightened bat speed; setting your reading speed as high as you would possibly go is much more advantageous than setting your speed low and increasing it.

I find with Whisper-Sync that I read much faster than the narrator speaks at regular speed. Usually, you will as well. Take a look into that and I highly recommend you consider increasing those speeds.

#6 Utilize Meditation Before Listening

I'm no expert on meditation. I recently got very seriously into it, where I do it every day for 20 minutes, which is very serious for me.

I didn't like the process at first. It was uncomfortable. It was long and boring, but now I do it and I find it does aid in my clarity of thought. 

Head Space

I use HeadspaceThe have a free "Take Ten" program I recommend you check out. I pay for the full service (runs around $90/year).

If you are interested in some meditation before or after reading, I can't say from a neurological standpoint which is better. Personally, I would do it before. If you do that, you can certainly benefit from a little bit of added clarity of thought and mind before you read.

#7 Discuss or Teach What You're Reading (Listening) 

By sharing what you know with someone else, you can reach the highest level of long term learning and retention.

learning pyramid

Studies show that we maintain about 90% of what we teach, so if you teach someone something, you are going to retain that information at a 90% clip, whereas if you just read, the numbers are more like 10%.

By listening or reading and then teaching, you are going to get more lasting value out of everything you digest. You are going to remember it and it's going to mean something.

You can reread less often, like we mentioned earlier in the steps. Rereading is key, but if you can teach it, that's even better.

If you have other people that are reading the same book, maybe you can get a book club going on Facebook. It could be just one or two other people that you decide to listen to the same books with at the same time and then chat about them. It doesn't have to be anything formal.

That's part of the reason why I write this blog: I share what I learn and I learn it better.

#8 Listen before Bed

Listen while you sleep

"I don't have time."

I try to not be a dick to my followers, but when someone tells me this, it takes a lot of effort to not roll my eyes.

I can easily point out increments of time when you can sneak in some learning. One of the most opportune times (one that we all have) is that brief period when we are lying in bed before sleep.

You may be the type of person that falls asleep before your head even hits the pillow, but if you're like most people, you have 10-20 minutes from pillow to dreamland.

There is an added bonus to learning before sleep. According to studies conducted in 2010 at the Harvard Medical School, researchers concluded that dreaming may reactivate and reorganize recently learned material, which would help improve memory and boost performance.

Can you learn in your sleep? As much as I wish this was true, it is not. Charles W. Simon and William H. Emmons debunked this way back in 1956 and others have tried to revive the myth because, well, it would be freaking awesome! Save the battery power, Just get some sleep. The people who push this are the same people who would sell you that shock vest for ripped abs while you sleep. Dumb.

Audible has a built in sleep timer so be sure to set that so you don't lose your place in the book.

#9 Put What You Learn into Action!

I have touched on ways to hack our reading experience beforeand putting what you do into action is still paramount.

Without action, we forget.

Without action, why are we learning?

#10 Consider Blinkist Instead of Audible

When you have a book that you aren't sure is worth hours of your time, Blinkist is a fantastic option.

Blinkist is a web and mobile app that summarizes books in 10-20 minutes. It isn't a perfect substitute for a full book but it is great if you:

  • Aren't sure a book is worth your time.
  • Want to get a better understanding of the book you are about to read.

I love it. Click here to start a free trial of Blinkist.

#11 Get Active!

Exercise and audiobooks are a match made in heaven. This is one of the few "multi-tasking" combinations I actually recommend.

An hour of walking at 2x reading speed will get you 2 hrs worth of uninterrupted reading AND will burn around 200 calories.

Studies show that light exercise increases our cognitive functions as well. Maren Schmidt-Kassow, a professor at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany was quoted in the New York Times discussing the relationship between exercise and learning:

Exercise and Audiobooks

"Light-intensity exercise will elicit low but noticeable levels of physiological arousal, which, in turn, presumably help to prime the brain for the intake of new information and the encoding of that information into memories."

At the end of the day, the amount of learning you do is based on how much focused effort you put into it. You now know what to do, now it is a matter of, will you do it?

I think you will!

You might also want to replace the news with podcasts (read why here).

  1. “Listen in 20-30 Minute Increments and Take 5-10 Minute Breaks for Reflection” Love how this is the first on your list! Figuring out ways to stay focused on audio books is a must! This is a great tip!- Ryan

  2. I also struggle with remembering what I have listened to. I think taking notes is a great way to remember things and I will start doing it now. I also think those notes could end in awesome lead magnets or blog posts 🙂 I see so many people talk about meditation, but I find it strange.

    1. They definitely could be great lead magnets! Actually I’m using one right now with my Traffic Secrets notes and it gets a lot of opt-ins each day.

  3. Great blog post, You have shared some interesting tips to get the best out of audiobooks. I have already bookmarked this blog post and will share it with my colleagues as well.

  4. Pingback: 24 Gift Ideas for Entrepreneurs [2018 Edition]
  5. Awesome! I completely agree with these points and have already discovered many of them for myself!

  6. Thank you. I appreciate the time and effort this must have taken. I am a fan of audible but can only listen to short bursts of anything non-fiction or I just get no retention. I do like it if its a book I have read and just want to remind myself of some specific points.

    1. Thanks Bill! I agree, I like audiobooks for going over past books I read already. A different perspective can help find something you missed the first time in a good book.

  7. Good article Nate, and thanks for the link to Headspace I´ve just signed up for their free 10 minute mediation. I have read about so many of the really successful people who advocate using meditation but I have never really got to grips with it, or always been able to find the time for it – did I just see you roll your eyes then Nate? But anyway this year I have decided to try and do a lot more meditation, visualisation and exercise plus find more time to really grow my business.By the way Nate, I see you are going for the new trendy bushy beard. Take it from someone who had one thirty odd years ago, they are very very annoying. You will find yourself unconsciously sticking your finger in there and twirling it round and round in your beard and pulling on it over and over again. Since then I have had a well trimmed beard that is far less annoying and my wife and daughter won´t even let me shave it off at all.Food for thought.

    1. Thanks for reading Nigel 🙂 Meditation is not easy (ironically) but I find it super valuable. Hilariously, I was twirling my finger around my beard when I was reading this lmao

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