Reading books is one of the best habits you can build into your life. In terms of ROI on your time spent, it’s hard to find a better practice than reading. The more you read, the better stuff you find to read later.
I’ve always felt tremendous pressure to make more time to read books — to sit down and page through them. But I struggle with both a short attention span, high distractibility, and a lifestyle that pulls me in several different directions across a very constrained schedule.
I’m the father of two small children. I have a demanding full-time job that requires frequent travel and meetings. I write articles like this one and a weekly newsletter on the side. I own a home and a rental property, and serve as the CFO of my wife’s company. We don’t have child care, and do all of the housework ourselves. But I still manage to get through about 1 book (or more) a week.
To get done as much reading as I want to, I’ve turned to audiobooks. They’ve changed the game for me.
Below, I lay out how to get the most out of audiobooks, free and low-cost ways to get plenty of books to listen to, and ways to make listening (and learning) a habit.
Audiobooks are Game-Changers
Audiobooks have been a game-changer for me. And while bibliophiles may be quick to remind me that listening to audiobooks isn’t technically reading, I find that I no longer care. I’m reading for the knowledge and insight, not for the sport or bragging rights.
The fact is, audiobooks are a great way to keep learning and growing from books when your schedule makes it difficult to set aside substantial time to read. It has taken me a while to stop feeling ashamed that there are other things more important to me than sitting motionless and devoting my attention to text. I found a way to get the same enrichment by listening to books, and I say without hesitation that it’s improved my knowledge and skills.
Some people learn much better through listening. In Peter Drucker’s classic work On Managing Oneself, he describes two different types of leaders — readers and listeners. Readers, well, read to learn and make sense of things. They read in order to make decisions and prepare for action. Listeners need to hear things in order to process them fully. They may need to stop, converse, or ask for something to be repeated. One isn’t better than the other, they’re just different.
Some of us are listeners. A large part of me is a listener. I can and do read — and will absorb information that way in certain situations. But in many cases, I do very well listening to someone relay information and a story to me. I stay engaged for much longer, and the longer I’m engaged, the more I stick with a book. The more I stick with it, the more I learn.
Great Resources for Getting Audiobooks
Audiobooks are great, but not always as easy to come by, compared to regular books. If you’re not well-versed in how to get audiobooks cost-effectively, here are some resources. Most of theme are low cost or entirely free.
(Somewhat Costly) — Invest in Audible
I’m a big fan of Audible. For $14.95 a month, I highly recommend an Audible Premium Plus subscription. You get one free audiobook per month of your choice, plus access to a whole bunch of exclusive free content.
I’ve had Audible for 2 years now, and though I scoffed at the cost at first, it’s well worth it. It’s added a ton of value to my life. But if Audible’s price tag is too steep for you, there are other free options.
(Free) Your Local Library: Books on CD
Your local library has books on CD and cassette tape. Are these the best option? No. But there are some books that are difficult to find on audio software that you can find on CD or cassette at your library.
It’s also worth it to just walk through the audiobook section of your library, simply to see what’s there. Each time I’ve done it, I’ve walked away with something that I never would have thought to look for. This is a great option for car listening, unless your vehicle is so new that you don’t have a CD or cassette player in it.
(Free) Library Smartphone Apps
While going to the library and searching for books on tape may be a familiar option, there’s another one that many people don’t seem to know yet. Nearly every local library has a bunch of content available through apps you can download to your smartphone for free.
You simply download the app, input your library card number and email address to create an account, select your library, and boom! You have access to hundreds — or even thousands — of audiobooks, e-books, and even music and movies.
The apps have come a long way from their initial forms in the early 2010s. They’re fun to use, allow for speeding up narration, bookmarking, and borrowing multiple books while saving where you left off on each of them.
What’s more, even after you return then re-borrow the same book, the apps remember your place — so you can pick up where you left off. I’ve used 2 different libraries since smartphones really became good at playing audio media. And as a result, I’ve had the pleasure of using a few different apps for renting audiobooks through my library. They’re all great:
Many libraries are using more than one app, so if you reach your 4 book limit in Hoopla, Libby is an option to get even more books. I’ve done this during a few months where I had more time than usual to listen to audiobooks.
Librivox is another great free option that has a decent smartphone app. It features a large selection of books, but they’re ones that are by and large no longer under copyright protection. As a result you get an eclectic collection of stuff to choose from — which can be great. However, the search function can be a bit wonky at times.
Librivox works through volunteers reading books chapter by chapter. As a result, you get two things that can sometimes be a bit bothersome. First, each chapter is a track, so you need to download all the tracks of a given book, and listen in order. That’s not hard to do, but if you don’t do it, there can be issues with smooth playback.
Secondly, because Librivox recordings of books are done by volunteers, you can get a huge variance in the quality. Some recordings are crisp and easy to follow. Others can be hard to understand due to various factors. It’s not my favorite solution, but it works well enough for books you can’t find elsewhere.
(Free) Project Gutenberg
Project Gutenberg has been around since the early days of the internet. Their goal is to get as many books as possible available to people for free on the internet. They have tons of books, from classics to obscure ones — and in various formats. You can download pdfs, epubs, Kindle versions, and even HTML versions of books.
There aren’t as many audio versions of books as there are other formats. And some of the audiobooks use computer-generated speech, rather than live narrators. Luckily, you can go to their search page, and narrow down your type of book or audiobook by using the “advanced search” options.
And if you find Project Gutenberg useful, consider donating to help to keep them going.
(Free) Open Culture: A Mixed Media Treasure Trove
There was a time early in podcasting when some books were read aloud and released as podcasts. There was also iTunesU — which also featured lectures from universities. For books, each chapter would be an episode. Years ago, I listened to The Iliad this way (don’t worry, I also read it in book form in high school!).
It’s hard to find many of those podcasts these days. But the folks at Open Culture have done a great job pulling together various audiobooks captured through these unconventional means. You can find streaming audiobooks, mp3s, and YouTube videos of books being read. It’s yet another treasure trove for the curious and thrifty consumer of audio learning.
Find More Time for Books (When You Thought You Had None)
With all these free and low-cost audiobook options, all you need is to find the time to absorb them. That might be easier than you think.
My strategy has been something I call task-pairing. I find mundane tasks that I don’t like doing, but need to get done, and do them in a longer session while listening to audiobooks.
Here are some examples from my own life that you can use to build your own time to listen to audiobooks.
Lawn and Garden Work
I have a huge lawn and a small riding lawn mower. All told, it takes me about an hour and a half each week to mow, weed-whack and trim. That’s to say nothing of any kind of random weeding, gardening, watering, raking, etc. that needs to be done.
All that drudgery is made enjoyable by a good audiobook. I get the benefits of manual labor, as well as mental enrichment.
The wireless earbud has been great for those of us who like venturing out into the world and being around people, but still like to listen to something. Grocery shopping with one ear-bud in my ear, and an audiobook playing has helped me get even more audiobook listening done.
I’ve got the grocery list on my phone. I know the layout of the store, and the list is arranged around that. So I just pick everything up while listening to a book. I get about an hour (sometimes more if the store is crowded) of solid listening in each week as I buy our food.
I hate cleaning the house. But ever since I’ve begun listening to audiobooks while doing it, I’ve actually looked forward to busting out the old duster or toilet brush. My sinks have never been cleaner, and I’m also learning a lot. To me, that’s a double bonus.
Driving or commuting
Any time I drive, I’m listening to audiobooks. My kids are not always fans of this, so we have to compromise and listen to their stuff as well. As they grow up more, I’ll most certainly get them into the habit of audiobooks.
The point is, driving to familiar destinations is a great time to get some audiobook listening in. I wouldn’t recommend it for when you need to use GPS to navigate. Your focus tends to be pulled away from a book on those occasions.
Listen at a faster speed
Key to getting more time to read audiobooks is to get through them more quickly. A trick I’ve found is to listen at higher speed.
I know this sounds a bit too life-hackey, but try it, and you’ll see. Once you’ve listened to a book at 1.25x or 1.3x — even 1.5x, depending on the narrator — going back to 1x speed is difficult. I’ve found absolutely no degradation in my engagement, enjoyment, understanding, or retention from listening at speeds up to 1.5x. Again, it depends on the original cadence of the narrator.
I wouldn’t recommend any faster that 1.5x. I’ve tried 2x, and it’s insane. I couldn’t comprehend it for long, and I got lost. If you’re listening to a particularly difficult book on a tough subject, slow it down. But by and large, you can got faster. It’s no different than when people read quickly.
How to Get More Out of Your Books
Read and Listen — to Different Books
I still read paper books (I’m not a monster!). But I like to pair paper books with audio ones. I don’t necessarily read the paper copy of the book I’m listening to, but rather, I find a book on a similar topic.
This helps me get different points of view and different insights about the same topic. Usually, that opens my mind to things I haven’t thought of. I tend to be more engaged with both books, or I figure out which one is more on point and focus on it.
Sometimes, I feel the need to bring in another book, and I may end up dumping the others in favor of that. Or, I’ll play the new one against the others. It can be a lot of fun if you don’t get attached to a single book.
Don’t Finish the Book Just to Finish it
I don’t believe in finishing books just to finish them. I never did for text, and I don’t for audio either. Is it easier to finish an audiobook that’s not good than a text one? Sure. But no matter how easy it is, don’t finish a book that’s not interesting anymore. Life’s too short for that.
I get it, if you paid for the book, you probably won’t want to give up on it. I leave that up to you. But I’ll remind you once again that life is short. Don’t waste time on a book that isn’t giving you a return on the (very valuable) investment of your time and attention.
The list of books (yes, even audiobooks) that I haven’t finished is just as long as the ones I have finished. It might even be longer. But so what? That just means I’m curious and I act on it. Don’t be afraid to both be curious and to act on it. And don’t let the guilt get to you. You’re gathering knowledge and testing different intellectual waters.
Go Forth and…Listen
Above, I’ve laid out strategies for reading (and listening) to more books. In the end, it all comes down to a few key things:
- find resources where you can access free or low-cost audiobooks
- identify times when you’re doing necessary (but mindless) work, and pair that with a good audiobook
- listen to (and read) many different books at once
- stop listening to (or reading) a book when it’s not engaging anymore
These 4 things have helped me immensely. I now go through a book per week — sometimes more. I have learned a great deal, and been able to make great connections with people based on things I’ve read (or listened to) in those books.
So identify your next boring chore, download one of the free apps above, pick out your first book — and get to it!