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  • Writer's pictureKelly Adams

How to Learn from Audiobooks

Many listening to audio using headphones he is looking at the beach

I wasn't always a reader. When I was in middle school I was against reading books for my age (young adult books). I wanted to keep reading simple chapter books. I had no desire to expand my knowledge. My parents were heartbroken. They tried to do everything to get me to read. My dad took me to the library every week. They were persistent. Their persistence worked. It wasn't until I found the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz that I became a reader. I fell in love with the story of 14-year teenage spy, Alex. I went through the series as quickly as I could.

After that I self identified as a reader. I kept up my reading habit until Sophomore (2nd) year of college. After that I dedicated less time for reading and barely read a book a month. If even that. I tried an Audible membership but I rarely used it. This continued for years until this past year I got back into my habit of reading. One of the ways I've gotten through so many books is listening to audiobooks.

I had the idea that audiobooks were only worthy for fiction. That you couldn't learn anything by listening to non-fiction. Reading is a better way of absorbing material. But that last sentence misses the point. It's a way to compliment reading in other areas of our life. It also doesn't account for people with disabilities/neuro-divergent people who need audiobooks to consume written content.

Since taking Audible seriously I've finished 5 books since June. A mix of fiction and non-fiction books. Fiction books were easier for me to absorb because it's a story. It was easy to start and stop. But I also wanted to listen to non-fiction books. I struggled with getting into these. It was hard for me to get the concepts down. I felt like I couldn't learn anything from audiobooks.

How I Learned How to Learn from Audiobooks

Until I watched a video from Ali Abdaal, who is one of the most productive people I know. His video called, My 4-Step Framework for Learning with Audiobooks, goes into detail how he learns from audiobooks.

He first goes into the benefits of audiobooks:

  1. Speed - we can generally listen faster than we can read

  2. Quick Sampling - you're able to sample a book before you decide to buy it

  3. Reduce Friction - allows multitasking, you don't need to dedicate time to listen to an audiobook, you can do it while doing other tasks

The Framework:

Step 1: Intention

What is the intention behind listening to this audiobook? Am I listening to the audiobook for pleasure (fiction)? Or am I listening to learn something (non-fiction)? As a note one is not better than the other. I listen to audiobooks/read books for pleasure all the time. It's necessary to have both.

If you want to start with audiobooks he recommends listening to fiction first. It's easier to digest and doesn't require as much attention as non-fiction. It's as simple as hitting play on your audiobook and listening. Now if you want to read non-fiction there's a bit more to do.

Step 2: Selection

Now assuming you want to listen to non-fiction for the sake of learning. We want to make sure we select the right book . His philosophy is to have a very wide net, but a narrow filter.

  • By this he means his criteria for getting a book on Audible or any audiobook is low. If he gets a recommendation from a friend or hears about it he will buy the audiobook version of it to get a sample of the book. This is the wide net.

  • Then moving on to the narrow filter, after about half an hour of listening he decides if this book is worth his time. Is this he wants to listen all the way through or does he want to abandon it?

For non-fiction, generally the author is trying to introduce the good stuff in the first few chapters. If you don't get a lot of value out of these chapters you probably won't get value out of the rest of the book. And that's okay.

Step 3: Consumption

Now we have an audiobook that we want to listen all the way through. He gives four main tips to help learn more efficiently from audiobooks:

  1. Choose the right kind of multitasking activity - you want to choose an activity that you can completely do on autopilot (like washing the dishes or cleaning the house). Because once you start to do anything vaguely cognitively demanding that's when the learning goes out the window. We want the learning part of our mind to be focused on the audiobook, not on the task at hand.

  2. Find the balance between speed and comfort- you want to choose a speed where it's fast enough (not to be boring), but also comfortable enough to be able to absorb the information and to learn it effectively. This depends on not only the speed of the narrator but the complexity of the topic you're trying to learn. Here's his learning speeds for different types of books:

    1. Self-Help (trying to gain principles or strategies and tools to apply to your life) 1.5x speed to 2.5x speed

    2. General Interest Book (an interesting topic you want to learn more about but not necessarily interested in absorbing every single detail) - 2.5x speed to 3x speed

    3. Deep Learning (you're so interested in the topic and you want to absorb everything you can from the book, potentially explain it to others) - 1x speed to 1.5x speed

  3. Recognize when your mind starts to wander - whenever you find yourself wandering. When you're lost in the book and don't know what's happening. You can either: rewind or if it happens more than once or twice then you stop listening and do something else.

  4. Guilt-free abandonment - if you find yourself wandering more than once or twice in a listening session, and this continues. Usually you can abandon it without feeling guilty about it. This book may not be for you. Life's too short to read books you can't get into.

Step 4: Processing

The main downside of audiobooks is it's hard to take notes if you're trying to learn stuff. This may be one of the reasons people prefer reading rather than listening. You can take notes easier while reading. But the key he finds to learning from audiobooks is to find a way to take notes while listening. There's a few different ways to do this:

  • Use the bookmarking function that's built into Audible, which saves that 30 second period you snipped out. You can also add your own notes. He personally doesn't like this method.

  • Take your own notes while you're listening to the audiobook

    • If he's listening to the audiobook in a place he can pause it and get out his phone. Then he pauses the book and in his note taking system (Apple Notes) where he has a book notes folder. Each book has a note where he write down a few things on his phone. A few bullet points.

    • If he's listening while driving or any other task he can't take out his phone. He will use his Apple Watch to dictate his note. Something like: "Hey just listening to Nine Lies About Work. I think it's chapter 4. And they're talking about blah blah blah. Etc. Worth revisiting". Then whenever he feels like it he can take that dictated note and copy and paste it into his actual notes for that book.

  • Beyond note taking, if he wants to learn from the book. He will end up buying the physical book or the Kindle version (better for syncing highlights). Or he will turn the book into an episode of Book Club. The series on his channel where he talks about books and summarizes the book. This is similar to the idea behind learning while teaching.

My Own Process

Like my blog posts: How to Focus Like a Border Collie and How I Broke My Addiction to My Phone, It Wasn't About the Hacks. I will be going into how I've implemented this framework into my life. Below are three tips I've implemented into my audiobook listening.

Tip 1: Casting a wide net with a narrow filter.

I've adopted a similar mindset of adding books to my Wishlist if they interest me. I'll listen to the sample to preview the narrator and make sure I can listen to them for the entire time. I also abandon (guilt free) books I know I won't gain any benefit from. This has freed up my time for books I do enjoy. Accepting I can abandon any piece of media has been a game changer.

Tip 2: Choosing the right multitask activity.

Before I listened to audiobooks whenever I felt like but often my mind would wander to another task. Because the task I was doing was cognitively demanding. Now I am aware of when I listen to an audiobook and choose tasks that I can do on autopilot. These are tasks like: washing the dishes; driving to work; and walking. This has helped me get through non-fiction books easier. I'm not trying to learn while doing more difficult tasks.

Tip 3: Take notes while listening to audiobooks

Depending on what book I'm reading I have two different note taking styles.

  1. Self-help books or general interest books - I do use the bookmark feature on Audible. When I'm reading if I hear something that sparks interest or I want to note. I take a bookmark and include a note to summarize the point. I include these in my summary for each book in Notion (see detailed article on this process) in the "detailed notes section". I only use Notion for this process. This system allows me to get value from the book and write down key insights without taking as much time as detailed notes (the section below).

  2. Deep Learning books - I take notes in my note taking app (Evernote) while listening to the book. For each of these I have a note for each book. I only listen to these types of books when I can either bring out my phone or laptop to take detailed notes. I also slow down my listening speed to around 1.25x.


Now I'm back to reading several books a month. I haven't completely abandoned reading print books. But using audiobooks has let me finish more books than I could before. I'm about 60% audiobooks and 40% print books. I would recommend audiobooks to anyone else like me who wants to get back into reading.

If you're starting out I suggest going with fiction books. They are easier to get into than non-fiction books. But if you do want to listen to non-fiction books I would recommend sticking with self-help and general interest books to get used to the flow of non-fiction. For books I consider "deep learning" I almost always buy the physical/Kindle version of the book.


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