Attention, Audiobooks, and Me

Confession: I am terrible at doing nothing. Or to be more accurate, I’m terrible at doing only one thing at once.

This doesn’t mean I’m always multitasking, having my mind on Twitter and IRC and whatever I’m working on all at once; in fact, the opposite is true. Our brains were’t meant for multitasking, and switching between these tasks all day, every day, means that instead of doing all the things, I find myself getting very little done. If I don’t respond to something during the standard workday, now you know why; if I let myself lose focus on one thing, it takes a long time to get back in the sweet spot of getting things done while not beating myself up for doing other things during the day.

This need to maximize my getting things done means that I don’t do games or movies or TV shows or Youtube videos well. I have to devote all my attention to these things in order to follow what’s happening. But still, the guilt creeps in. When I’m devoting all my attention to one of these activities, especially lately, I think: What ELSE could I be doing? Can’t I take on something else to maximize productivity and therefore feel less guilty about all that time I do spend browsing the Internet or chatting with people or playing casual phone games? This isn’t from lack of trying. I’ve tried doing other things while watching a movie or show, but eating a meal is about as complex as this multitasking activity gets. Interestingly, I don’t feel this way about reading books, probably because I can listen to soft music while reading and because I truly enjoy books.

Why do I bring this up? I started running last month. The idea of running or walking without a destination in mind is simultaneously fun and guilt-inducing. Why am I wandering around? Sure, these activities are helping me get into shape, but isn’t there something else I can be doing too? What about listening to something besides the same songs on my phone? The guilt and antsiness don’t show up (or at least, don’t show up as much) if I’m walking with a destination in mind. But when I’m wandering or just going on a run (where the destination is the same spot I left), the antsiness creeps in. Can I be doing more right now? Why do I complain about not having enough time for everything if I’m just going on a run with no destination in mind, with nothing new to consume?

This feeling isn’t unique to running. I experience the same feelings to a lesser extent while doing chores around the house, but the ability to stream new songs without using mobile data mostly alleviates the guilt. Music is the obvious solution here, and I have a small collection of tunes on my phone for this purpose. But lately the tunes have become repetitive, despite containing many of my favorites. I needed something new.

Audiobooks were the next solution. My brain doesn’t process spoken works of fiction well, so I was hesitant at first. A couple of months ago I brought an audiobook on a road trip for a friend’s wedding, and I had no idea what was going on at all. Something about Disney World and being immortal, but the back cover could have told me that.

Nonfiction was a different beast, I told myself. Nonfiction books are practically designed to be read in chunks. Especially if the nonfiction dealt with light topics that don’t require analysis after every paragraph, I could probably listen to and process a work of nonfiction. So I went back to my local library’s audiobook selection, selected a book on moral psychology (The Righteous Mind), and then hit play while cleaning the house on Saturday monring.

And you know what? It worked great. I was already familiar with some of the experiments in the book, but even the new findings were easy to take in and process while doing an activity that didn’t require all of my focus. I took the audiobook out on a walk yesterday afternoon and took in everything fine there too, despite missing a few parts when a car zoomed past.

I haven’t finished the current audiobook yet, but so far it looks like nonfiction audiobooks and I are going to get along just fine.

(Side note: if Baby-Sitters Club audiobooks are a thing, let me know because my familiarity with the storyline and the short book lengths would make these audiobooks just right.)

2 replies on “Attention, Audiobooks, and Me”

My coworker likes to put on audiobooks when we’re working overnight shifts before a big holiday. I rarely could take them in either. The reader’s voice makes a big difference here, because the Song of Ice and Fire audiobooks are read in an engaging, animated way and they always stick with me.

I know they’re the complete opposite of what you’re looking for (long, fictional stories) but I recommend giving them a go. If nothing else you’ll be amused by how each character is read.

The reader’s voice makes a huge difference. The last audiobooks I’ve tried had terrible voices. I’m listening to a book on moral psychology now where the author reads the book himself and has a slow (but not too slow) and pleasant voice.

And believe it or not, I gave up on Game of Thrones a book and a half in. I may have to listen to excerpts just to hear the characters. That would be fun.

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