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Health

Speed listening: could this be the ultimate hack to achieve peak productivity?

In a world where burnout is on the rise, could the new trend for ‘speed listening’ be the ultimate time-saving hack?

It’s before 9am and audio is flooding Ruby Deyong’s brain as she walks – headphones in – through an awakening city, to her job at an advertising agency. Around her, in London’s Whitechapel market, stallholders hammering in frames ahead of a day’s trade, are mere background noise. Inside Ruby’s AirPods, a world of sound is ramping up, at pace. Voice notes from friends, a podcast, the end of a YouTube video… each plays at speed; a cacophony of life, sound, knowledge and culture – and all inhaled at 1.5x, our default tempo.

In a world serving up more content than ever, at a rate impossible to keep up with, speed listening – where streaming or social platforms allow you to toggle the playback speed of audio – is morphing from hack to habit.

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For Ruby, 28, it started by accident, last year. “I stumbled across it when I double-tapped a voice note, sending playback into double time,” she tells me of WhatsApp’s facility to speed-up audio messages. “I wish I’d discovered it sooner.” Now, she lives life in three lanes: 1.5x for voice notes, podcasts, documentaries and YouTube; 2x for professional use (online tutorials or work messages) and regular 1x for movies, music or ‘front row’ friends and family warranting full attention. “Patience is not my strong suit,” she says. “It’s about functionality. It’s basically a time management tool. Looking for the playback option is an efficient way to manage the information I consume, whether that’s for work or pleasure.”

Ruby is like millions of us who need information but crave both efficiency and time. With over 2 million podcasts (and 48 million episodes, gulp) in the world and more than 5,000 TV shows and movies on UK Netflix alone, compressing them into ‘takeaways’ through ramped up listening has become a way to maximise productivity, speed up work, dodge boredom or waning attention and avoid group chat FOMO. Essentially, packing more in means missing out on less.

“I’m a big YouTuber,” says Ruby. “I’ll watch entire episodes, blogs on reality TV or fashion or cooking tutorials, at speed. Documentaries are the best – you get all the key information without the cut aways and big build-ups. You don’t lose anything important listening at 1.5x.” It transfers to her work, too. “I taught myself how to use the Adobe Creative Suite entirely by racing through YouTube demos.”

Socially, however, speed listening or watching is less acceptable. “It’s a solitary thing,” adds Ruby. “When I’m with my boyfriend or friends, no one’s watching TV like that. It might be considered rude. But there’s often a long preamble to friends’ voice memos so it’s a way to quickly understand what they need. Sometimes, you’ve just got to get to the end.”

Digesting information at speed is not new. Speed reading emerged in the 1950s as a way to effectively scan pages for information, while fast forward and rewind controls have long allowed us to skip through content. The tech that has both advanced our need to get through torrents of information and made it a more accessible feature is what’s more recent.  

A 2021 study found that 85% of university students speed watch lectures, a practice propelled by remote learning during the pandemic. Podcasts became popular walking companions during lockdown, too; one in four of us now listen to them weekly, with one in five estimated to listen at speed. YouTube had variable playback speed on the web for years before rolling it out on mobile in 2017, name-checking it as one of their most requested features. Audible – where you can increase the speed of spoken books to 3.5x – introduced readers to the idea the same year, while Netflix introduced playback controls to 1.5x in 2020. Last year, WhatsApp brought in the ability to increase the speed of audio messages to 1.5x with a single tap and 2x with a double tap, and in February this year Twitter announced that it is testing the feature for videos. 

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Jodie Weston, 28, is a recent convert. The DJ from Kent picked up speed listening last year and now accelerates true crime and world affairs podcasts to 2x. “I’m always on the go, time is of the essence,” she says. “I have a short attention span and a brain that has always been able to process things quickly, so this has become my default, whether I’m listening at home, before bed, on the Tube or travelling for work. If I catch key words and phrases, I can fill in the gaps and get my podcast fix in half the time.”

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Doing double time 

Having never paid much attention to these functions myself, I began to wonder what I could be missing out on. Is everyone apart from me halving their listening time and doubling down on their productivity? I embarked on a week of ‘podfasting’ – drinking in everything I listen to or watch, at speed. First, I swiped to Spotify, hit play on Welcome To The OC, Bitches! and switched the speed up to 2x. It felt like being force-fed audio and I instantly hit pause then pulled my earphones out. It was stressful, unrelenting, too much, too fast. Instead of giving me chance to wind down, I felt my cortisone levels rising as indistinct, sped-up chipmunk voices blended into one and an overload of compressed information seemed to dissipate into the airwaves before hitting my brain. I tried 1.5x instead and hated it a little less – but it was still overwhelming.

I also tried books, Klara And The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, and TV, Netflix’s Bad Vegan, at 1.5x and felt on edge again. I noticed, too, how quickly something I wasn’t even enjoying became normal. My consumption increased – it would, I had 50% more ‘down’ time – but when I slid back to 1x, it suddenly felt slow, especially the book. By manipulating speed, I lost track of my norm. I saved time, yes, but my brain was flooded. I felt the opposite of relaxed. Ultimately, I’m not convinced that I actually derived any pleasure from it. Also, how much of what I heard actually sunk in?

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Play around with playback

I asked the question to Nicola T Chang, a sound designer and composer for stage and screen, who explained that, on a listening level, far from making it easier to hear, you can indeed lose legibility. “By toggling playback speed you affect the pitch of the voices and the sound you’re hearing,” she says. “If you speed a track up a lot you lose legibility because the words are closer together and the pitch is higher. The difference in intonation, tone and pitch become smaller.” This explains the chipmunk voice that’s a by-product of sped-up listening. “If you stretch an audio file and slow it down, the converse happens and you lose the percussiveness,” she continues. “If audio is designed to be heard at normal speed, you lose the beauty of the design when you change that. It’s disloyal to both design and our usual experience of the world.” In short, our ears are not tuned to listen this way.

The UCLA research team who found that 85% of students were speed watching lectures last year set out to understand how it affected learning, asking participants to watch at 1x, 1.5x and 2x then testing them immediately afterwards and one week later. They found minimal impact on performance – comprehension only declined beyond 2x. (The visual properties of video helped.)

This could be because, conversationally, we talk at 125-150 words per minute. When we speed up consumption to 1.5x that becomes 225 words; at 2x, it’s 300. Our understanding only declines at 275 words per minute – a threshold crossed at double speed. 

Uri Hasson, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, USA, has studied how the brain processes sped-up speech and explains that we can actually train our minds to respond to higher speeds: “The brain can scale its response time. So, if I talk slowly, you process it slowly. If I talk fast, you process it quicker.” He says you can see this if you monitor brainwave activity during listening. “The space between sentences – silences, gaps – are where you think,” adds Hasson. “If you speed up, you shorten the thinking gap so you can take in information but perhaps not think around it, contextualise it or form an opinion.”

Interestingly, at 1.5x, no information is lost, he says, but at 2x, there is a 30% dip in what the brain can process, meaning the sweet spot between efficient listening and losing knowledge exists before we hit double speed. But it is also different for everyone. “It’s quite personal,” says Hasson. “The brain is malleable. It’s about learning, adapting, evolving – some are better at scaling than others. There is a point where you hit quantity over quality, where it becomes so fast – or so slow – that attention wanders. To those who want time to process and make connections, it feels terrible. Others will train their brain to condense information very quickly.”

It is impossible to quantify how many people have adopted speed listening but crucially, says Hasson, it will not damage your brain and is unlikely to impact concentration in normal, conversational settings. “The brain adapts,” he says. “There’s no burnout either; more of a fatigue, like if you watched eight movies in a row. You’ve not caused yourself harm – but you’d want a break.”

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Find the sweet spot

For Ruby and Jodie, music – where the interplay of sound is the source of enjoyment – is still out of bounds when it comes to speed listening. Streamers clearly agree: Spotify will let me speed up an episode of Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail podcast, but doesn’t give an option on the new albums it serves.

For the creators, there’s less differentiation. Pilar Nalwimba, 35, podcast producer and host of the No Approval pod was previously a social media manager but switched to a career in audio to move away from three-second windows to engage people in quick content before they scroll past. Today, she puts 10-12 hours work into each of her podcast episodes, where guests include Selling Sunset’s Amanza Smith and writer Yomi Adegoke. She says the idea of speeding those up strips away the journey that storytelling, interviewing and editing take us on as listeners. “We’re losing the experience and joy of taking in longform content by always looking for that viral moment,” she says. “We’re looking for the destination and losing the parts that allow us to connect as humans.” 

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In fact, frequently when I write, I think of the 2021 book Dopamine Nation, in which addiction expert Dr Anna Lembke describes how digital media has left us all in constant search of our next hit. Inhaling Pilar’s podcast at speed, instead of enjoying it, feels like I’m feeding that constant, collective need for instant gratification and faster lives. “I wanted to spend time with a story, give listeners the feels,” says Pilar. “A voice is so powerful. At speed, you miss the emotion, the path of conversation, jokes.”

Her own experience of speed listening starts and ends with work voice notes, played quicker to fish out key information. When it comes to her podcasts, she says, “I don’t like to think that’s all people are looking for. Fast-paced, bitesize info has rewired our attention to detail and our knowledge base. I think we’re losing so much.”

When Ruby arrives home, in east London, she opens her laptop and hits play on a YouTube show: a therapist digesting Real Housewives episodes. At home in Manchester, I start a new book on Audible, sliding up and down the incremental playback options, until I settle on 1.2x.

In a society that floods us with information, we are constantly shifting life’s gears: we power walk but seek out slow news, we speed study but slow cook. Training my brain to listen faster reminds me why I tune in at all – for knowledge and a pop culture fix, yes, but above all for pleasure. What I really crave is to live slower, to pause rather than race to the end. Like Hasson says, it’s personal – and somewhere, 20% faster than normal, I think I’ve found my audio sweet spot. 

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