Here’s to you Rachel Nichols: high speed audio playback as an accidental mindfulness practice?




Podcasts my boy, podcasts. And audiobooks. Played back at high speed.

Rachel Nichols might not have invented the idea of high speed playback but she evangelizes it more than anyone I’ve encountered so I’m giving her the love in the headline. She deserves it.

There’s a very good reason to think about high speed playback of audio and it has nothing to do with mindfulness. Whether for business or pleasure you can either consume more content in the same amount of time or spend less time consuming content. Either way that’s a gift: more content or more time. Bonus: if you’re doing it for business, either side of that might help enable you to outcompete your peers who listen at normal speed. 

If you came here expecting analysis of the 6PM SportsCenter ratings it’s probably best to stop reading. This is of a more deeply personal nature.

2X playback = mindfulness?

Is listening to high speed playback of audio a mindfulness practice? I framed it as a question because otherwise it’s crazy speculative. But I really do wonder if in addition to the more content/less time wonderfulness there are some mindfulness benefits.  Even “be here now” is a little too mushy/gushy for me but I always liked the idea of being mindful.

The idea I liked, the actual practice not so much. I first came across it in the late 1990s, tried it and found it boring. Unfathomably boring! Younger me was not having any of that.

Around 2012 I caught up with all the behavioral economics/behavioral psychology research (I was very late to the game) and my first reaction was “*&^! I really wish I’d stuck with that mindfulness thing.” So I gave it another try. I stuck with it longer than I did in the late 1990s but still boring and also very uncomfortable and older me wasn’t having any of that.

Coincidentally, in 2012 I started migrating a lot of my non-live sports media consumption time to listening to podcasts and audiobooks. My path to high speed audio playback was not inspired by mindfulness or even the ability to save time or consume more content. Initially it was because some audiobook publishers seemed to slow even normal 1X playback down on purpose. I suppose the idea is to make you think you’re getting more value by padding the hours of audio. It would’ve been very annoying if I couldn’t have sped those up to 1.25X but fortunately I could and that’s how I got my start.

I really loved the idea of time compression though and gradually, over about three years, I moved up the high speed playback curve to where I could comfortably listen to pretty much anything at 2X playback speed.

What is a mindfulness practice?

1. focus on something (your breath, a mantra, or even how uncomfortable you are!)

2. keep the focus on that something

3. if you lose focus, don’t get mad about it, just bring the focus back

4. repeat

What is listening to a podcast or audiobook at 2X like?

1. focus on listening to the podcast

2. keep focusing on listening to the podcast

3. if you lose focus, don’t get mad about it, just bring the focus back (you can even hit the 15 seconds back button as many times as you want and listen to what you missed)

4. repeat

Note: on average I spend a minimum of 3 hours a day listening to high speed content.

Why I wonder if it’s a mindfulness practice?

Awareness. I started having some awarenesses in ways that were atypical for me.

Correlation isn’t causation and of course it’s possible those awarenesses are entirely attributable to other causes or just random. A lifetime of not having that kind of awareness randomly makes me lean towards guessing it wasn’t random. But that’s just a guess and I’m sure there are reasonable alternate hypotheses.

I’ve had a lot of experiences catching myself running with a thought I didn’t really want to run with and stopping. I’m only catching myself a small percentage of the time but I’ll take it regardless of how it came to be.

A big awareness

From Christmas 2016 to Halloween 2017 I dropped 65 pounds and have had no trouble maintaining my weight since then. I’d made up my mind to lose the weight (and to prioritize a good night’s sleep). I don’t find the mechanics of managing my weight elusive, it’s the right mindset and attitude — wanting to feel good, I suppose — that was hard for me to grab hold of. I managed to grab it in late 2016 and as soon as I did, I had some “this is going to happen and there is no doubt about it!” religion.

Never in doubt.

And it really wasn’t.

Except for that one brief moment in mid-March 2017 where for at least an instant doubt had me in its clutches.

Since selling TVbytheNumbers fellow co-founder Bill Gorman and I have had an annual founders reunion in Arizona. We had a very nice day in mid-March 2017. But Bill accidentally and briefly messed up the day after for me by sending me a picture of me from the day before:

March 15, 2017.

I’d already lost 25 pounds at that point and intellectually was well aware I still needed to drop another 40. But I didn’t have an intellectual reaction to the picture. I had much more of an “OH MY GOD! WHY EVEN BOTHER!? OH WELL, this is nothing that a family-sized box of Sugar Frosted Flakes and a gallon of milk can’t take care of” reaction.

I was in the midst of grabbing my car keys to head to the store when I caught myself asking the question: ‘Why am I so upset about still looking like someone who needs to lose 40 pounds when I ACTUALLY AM someone who still needs to lose 40 pounds?”

Why indeed!? The question stopped me and it’s fortunate. I can’t do justice articulating how precarious that moment was for me and how easily it might’ve gone the other way.

I did think a lot about my irrationality and came up with the following:

1. I know it’s irrational but there’s no point in denying that some part of me wanted 100% of the credit to show up in the picture despite having only completed ~40% of the work.

2. my eyes! they really couldn’t and didn’t see someone quite that fat in the mirror. The inability to reconcile the mirror with reality bugged me. I initially solved for this by moving to extra-schmedium-ifying all my t-shirts. I will definitely vouch that “the mirror don’t lie when you extra schmedium-ify.”

Here’s the 2018 update via Bill Gorman:

March 12, 2018

Subsequently I got several of these $26 cameras for indoor home security (remote cat monitoring is more accurate) and they do a fantastic job of allowing me to see reality if nobody is around to take a picture. I don’t miss the extra schmedium.

Postscript: accidental mindfulness leads to purposeful mindfulness

I know a few buddhists so I asked them what they thought of my idea and they said “If you are mindful about it, of course!”

What else is a buddhist going to say?

I’ll defer to science if the scientists ever feel like getting around to it. They can already do brain scans to see the ways that a traditional mindfulness practice changes the brain. No reason they can’t do the same thing to see if the 2X thing works similarly other than funding.

I’m curious, just not curious (or wealthy) enough to fund it. But I don’t really care because being able to consume twice as much content in the same amount of time was always a good enough reason for me to do it.

But I was curious enough to give a traditional mindfulness practice another shot. And motivated by the little bit of awareness I’d had (wherever it was coming from) giving me the idea there was probably still plenty of stuff I wasn’t aware of.

I’d hoped that by virtue of shedding weight I’d be more comfortable sitting crosslegged on the floor. More comfortable maybe, but not comfortable enough.

Several recommended trying it with a cushion. That made a huge difference. I got one of these* and liked it so much I ordered a couple more.

I do 5 minutes or more a day of traditional mindfulness focused on the breath in the morning and another 10-15 minutes a day at other times doing a mix of being mindful about my breath and being mindful about my posture. I’d gone many years not worried about my posture that’s probably a big reason why I found it so uncomfortable in 2012 – sitting like that forces you to be mindful about your posture.

That’s a good thing to be mindful about too, unless you’re not of a mind to think about it. I’m not judging, I know all about that feeling. But if that’s where you are, maybe I can interest you in working your way up to comfortably being able to listen to an audiobook or podcast at 2X speed?

*So many buckwheat cushions and maybe they are better and maybe all the one star reviews about bugs crawling out of those cushions are from Russian bots, but…I’m fine with cotton and no bugs.

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