Maximizing Learning – How Audiobooks Can Change Your Life

My Past Life as a Clerk

I have always been fairly obsessed with maximizing my life, I enjoy life and I would like to experience it to the fullest. Unfortunately, certain aspects such as money/jobs get in the way. For instance during high school and my first year of college I was part time clerk in a billing office and I would spend 10 – 40+ hours a week. My job consisted of scanning papers, pulling staples, entering records, and believe it or not there were actually people bad at this job. I thought to myself every day, how could I improve my productivity, how can I maximize how efficient I work. I would even change the layout of my desk to maximize the time it took me to move flip a paper, pretty lame I know.

To be honest, the time I spent there made me realize how little people attempt to maximize their abilities. For example, my first week at the billing office one large black man who worked next to me would literally complete half the amount of work I would complete in a day, even though I just started. After about a couple of weeks of me completing twice as much work as him I spent a day plotting out what he did (all while working mind you). As it happens he was not only simply slow and inefficient, he made no effort to maximize anything. He was taking extra steps to complete the same tasks as me and from time to time I swear he fell asleep. The next day I mentioned to him how he could improve his productivity and he asked me “why would I want to do that?” He explained to me how he was paid the same regardless and no matter how hard he worked he was not going to benefit. I said fair enough and moved on, to me maximizing the efficiency of a task is closer to a religion, I was getting paid to do a job and I was going to do my best.

Everything can be improved and optimized. However, the question is what to optimize for and the events with my coworker gave me an idea! Although I kept trying to optimize my work any way I could, it only takes minimal thought, if any, so I thought I should try to optimize my time by learning as well. The rest of my time at the billing office I made sure every day I would listen to a audiobook, lecture series, etc. and learn something new. I learned about physics, psychology, biology, history, listened to countless books, and even listened to famous speeches throughout history. Here are the figures:

  • I would spend ~800 hours per year working there (10 hours / week for 9 months, 40+ hours / week for three months). This does not include the hour drive each, during which I also listened to the audio book and lectures.
  • I worked there for two months shy of 5 years.
  • Totaling 4000 hours of audio book/lecture

This does not include any of the time I spent outside of work learning, but given the average lecture series and audio book consisted of ~10 – 30 hours (a few were much greater) at 1.2x speed, which sounds pretty normal believe it or not. Meaning:

  • At an average of 192 WPM (w/ 1.2x speed playback)
  • Assuming an average of 200,000 words per book/lecture series, this is likely lower, but I did listen to books such as the Bible (783,137+ words), Atlas Shrugged (500,000+ words), and several large lecture series.
  • I listened to the equivalent of 230.4  books
    (4000 hrs * 60 min / hr) / (200 000 words / 192 words / min)

How Much Did I Maintain?

It is hard to quantify exactly how much of this I maintained. Though I would argue that because I was fully engaged and interested in the book I retained far greater than the average high schooler or college student who likely either read the book rushed or spark noted the book. Further, I learned in an extremely relaxed environment. I was not required to learn anything, I was doing it at my own pace and would kind of escape my current boring predicament at work.

Stress can effect your memory to a great extent and because I was both less stressed[1] and interested[2] I would argue I probably remember more about what I learned throughout this time than most people would have[3][4]. There is also evidence that listening to something as opposed to reading it will improve the memory, at least in short term [5], though this is not conclusive. In many ways I believe this was the greatest optimization effort I could have done, and if we assume that I would have retained as much information via audiobook as I did from reading:

  • I listened the equivalent of 46.08 / year novels from audiobook/lectures during this 5 year period.
  • I read 82 textbooks/novels during this same time period or 16.4 / year.
  • Meaning Total I read the equivalent to 62.12 textbooks/novels per year.

This is far above the norm, from


and considering I potentially retained the information at least as well or better and definitely read/listened to a large number of technical books/lectures, it is fair to say that this method of optimization was successful.

An Interesting Note

As many readers may suspect, while performing most jobs you cannot listen to recordings. However, those who do have repetitive tasks to perform usually can listen to recordings. As it happens they are often low paying jobs usually requiring little to no education. Meaning, individuals who are in the same predicament as I was would be able to improve their lives. What I find even more interesting, is that because people retain memories better when they can link them to something[6] the more you learn the better you can remember. That being said, even if someone is uneducated and is completing a repetitive tasks, listening to audiobooks, they potentially can gain knowledge. Then if said person decides to go back to school (college) they could out perform many other students and improve their life significantly. Alternatively, their improved knowledge from recordings could help them invent something, start a restaurant or nothing. In any case, listening to recordings costs nothing, but it could have a large impact on your life, as I feel it has in mine.

Food for Thought

Here are just some of the times** I listened to audiobooks and lectures:

  • Driving to work: 1600.8 hrs, 5 days a week at 48 weeks and a 40 minute drive each way.
    (5 days / week) * (48 weeks / year) * (.667 hrs / way) * (2 ways) * (5 years)
  • Working out: 1750 hrs, 30 minute cardio and 30 minute muscle every evening or morning for 350 days of the year, for five years.
    (1 hr / day) * (350 days / year) * (5 years)

**I altered the numbers for someone who was working full time, as opposed to me who was working only part time, though the work out numbers are fairly accurate during that 5 year timeframe (I stopped working out at that pace the last couple of years).

11 thoughts on “Maximizing Learning – How Audiobooks Can Change Your Life

  1. Great write up. I’ve been doing this for the past year at my current job. I feel my knowledge has greatly improved. I would recommend listening to the 7 habits of highly effective people if you haven’t already.

  2. I will bet any amount of money that the people who answered that Gallup poll radically overestimated the amount they read. The median person reads 8 books a year? Right.

    Anyways, from my notes:

    “Fairbanks et al. found little difference in the comprehension of listening
    selections presented at 141, 201 and 282 wpm.”

    “Foulk et al. (1962) found listening comprehension to be only slightly affected
    by increasing the word rate in the range bounded by 175 and 275 wpm. However,
    in the range extending from 275 to 375 wpm, they found an accelerating loss in
    listening comprehension as word rate increased.”

    “Fairbanks et al. (1957c), Enc and Stolurow (1960), and Foulk et al. (1962)
    found that learning efficiency increased as word rate increased until a word
    rate of approximately 280 wpm was reached.”

    “The word rate at which a listening selection is presented has no special
    effect on the rate at which forgetting occurs.”

    “In both experiments, it was also found that practice in listening to
    accelerated speech resulted in an improvement in reading rate.”

    “The findings of these various research studies suggest that speech speeds
    somewhere near 275 wpm or more begin to negatively influence the dependent
    measures of interest (e.g., comprehension, recall, etc.) (Fairbanks, Guttman &
    Miron, 1957; Foulke, 1968; Reid,1968).”

    1. I agree with you on the Gallup Poll.

      If you check out the website I’m pretty sure the average person reading 8 books a year, comes from this poll btw…

      As for the wpm, I would not doubt that at all. I found 1.2x speed let me think about the book better. Sure, I can comprehend at 282 wpm, but somewhere between 180 – 200 wpm was more comfortable.

      However, you bring up an interesting point. Since I was discussing optimization this could have increased my “books/year” efficiency by 30% or so. Plus I am sure I would get more comfortable with it.

      That is pretty awesome.

  3. I did this for 7 years as a security guard, and a year before that waving a sign for a pizza place. For a while I had read every hugo winning novel from 1950 to present day.
    I need to start again.

  4. This is my favorite of all of the posts on this blog. I am happy I have found another “data junkie” – I too, listen to audio books while doing other things and have been looking for ways to improve my productivity.

  5. This was actually really fascinating. That is a lot of “optimization” that can occur.

    My one concern is the busy-ness of the mind. I feel it is valuable to learn to still my mind, to not require particular subject in front of me – to enjoy stillness and practice quieting myself. Do you think this is a good discipline? Would it be harder to accomplish this if you’re constantly filling your head up with information?

  6. I believe my way of thinking about the world is similar (when delivering newspapers as a kid I would cross streets diagonally to minimize walking distance). In recent years I have been stuck more and more between efficiency and effectiveness. This blog gives a great solution to maximizing words comprehended per year. I spend a lot of time (too much) thinking about which are the most useful words to comprehend. I have a large list of books to read which all come from book recommendations found online (reddit, hn) or in podcasts. I feel like the time spent finding interesting things significantly impacts the time comprehending interesting things. Have you thought about/solved this issue for yourself?

    1. Personally, I don’t try to find interesting things so much… I take recommendations of others and spend more time exploring. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut otherwise, may as well try to find interest in what is out there by relating it to my experiences or my other knowledge. That makes it more engaging to me.

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