Dan Sandler has dozens of podcast episodes and audiobooks he wants to listen to, but so little time. So does Brandee Mahn. And Ami Lynn Kane.
So they’ve found a way to keep up.
The three are part of a subculture of people who listen to audio content on accelerated speeds – sometimes up to three times faster than normal. To these people, known as “podfasters,” normally paced talk can sound like it’s in slow motion.
“It’s gotten to the point where I can’t even listen to speech at a normal speed without wanting to yell, ‘Spit it out already,’ says Mahn, 44, a product owner in Philadelphia.
Some apps, like Overcast, also delete pauses in podcasts to help move things along for impatient listeners.
Speed listeners say they do it partly to keep pace with the avalanche of new audio content. Last year alone Spotify added 1.2 million podcasts. And that’s not counting the flood of audiobooks, news programs, webinars and other offerings produced each year.
Experts say the speed-listening trend also is a reflection of today’s instant-gratification culture.
“It is a perfect example of our overworked, fast-paced generation that is wired to multitask and overproduce at all costs,” says Crystal Burwell, a psychotherapist in Atlanta.
“The bottom line for most busy Americans boils down to productivity,” she adds. “How much can we cram into our day to have something to show for sacrifices we all make?”
He believes people can train their brains to listen at faster speeds
Sandler says he started listening to podcasts in 2005. The marketing manager from St. Johns, Florida, switched to accelerated speeds three years later to keep up with the many options competing for his attention.
He says audiobooks turned him on to the practice of listening to podcasts at increased speeds. Some authors spoke so slowly, he started speeding up audiobooks and realized he could do the same for podcasts, too.
Since then, he gets through more podcasts and audiobooks weekly. At 1.5x speed, for example, a half-hour podcast lasts only 20 minutes. Apple and Google podcasts automatically lower their pitch as the speed increases, so “it doesn’t sound like chipmunks,” he says.
“I truly think this is something everyone can do. I am no different than anyone else,” he says. “The plasticity of the brain is really amazing. It adapts so quickly to new situations, even unfamiliar ones that seem impossible to accomplish.”
You might think people listening to audio at higher-than-normal speeds don’t retain as much information. But that’s not necessarily true.
The average rate of speech is about 150 words per minute, but the average adult can read about 250 words per minute – suggesting that people can process verbal information at higher speeds, too.
One academic study in 2020 played lectures at different speeds to graduate students and found “no significant difference” in the students’ comprehension between the normal and 1.5x speeds. However, when the lecture was played at 3x speed, the students’ comprehension scores plummeted.
Sandler doesn’t feel like he’s missing anything.
“At higher speeds, my mind does not wander as much,” he says. “I can pay attention, visualize the conversations in my head, and I understand more. I remember more of what I hear. My brain does better processing it because I can focus more on what I am listening to.”
She began speeding up recorded meetings during the pandemic
Kane, who lives in Austin, Texas, started listening to meetings as much as 2x faster when her job at a nonprofit shifted to remote during the pandemic.
“Recording meetings became the norm so they could be shared as a courtesy to people who couldn’t tune in live,” she says. “At first, I felt like work was becoming unsustainable because I couldn’t figure out how to fit in all of this Zoom meeting time and not have my brain feel fried. But as soon as I discovered a plugin on Chrome to speed videos up, I got hooked.”
Now Kane listens to webinars, training videos and other work-related content at higher speeds.
She’s also applying speed listening to audiobooks and podcasts as well.
“I have ADHD and I’m a super verbal and wordy person by nature. My entire life, people have asked me to slow down when I speak and I’ve often felt frustrated by slow speakers,” she says.
“Listening to some things sped up feels like it’s right at my pace. I think I’m able to comprehend language, when I’m truly paying attention, faster than the average person speaks.”
Some speed listeners draw the line at music
Sandler says podcasts with poor audio are harder to comprehend when speeded up. So are podcasts featuring hosts with accents, or hosts who already talk fast.
He also draws the line at speeding up podcasts and audiobooks that have music or sound effects. He’s tried that, he said, and it sounded terrible.
Mahn, the Philadelphia woman, subscribes to 15 podcasts, including “Sawbones,” a comic look at medical practices; “Classic Movie Musts,” which provides context around landmark films; and “Where Should We Begin?”, in which real-life couples reveal intimate details to therapist Esther Perel.
She started listening at higher speeds to keep up with her growing backlist. Now she’s hooked, and can’t imagine listening to many of them at regular speed.
“There were so many interesting podcasts I wanted to listen to, and I enjoy digging through backlogs for topics or guests that I wanted to hear,” Mahn says. “I also listen to a lot of longform podcasts, so bumping the speed up a bit helped me get through them.”
She won’t listen to fiction or music podcasts at accelerated speeds because that can distort sounds and affect timing and mood.
But Mahn has become so accustomed to speed listening that when she forgets to bump up the speed of a podcast she thinks the conversation is dragging.
“After listening to accelerated speed for a while, it almost becomes difficult to listen to conversations at normal speed,” she says.
Experts question the value of speed listening
Experts say “podfasters” are not just reacting to the glut of audio content and not enough time to listen to it.
They’re also the product of a society that’s rewarded for efficiency, productivity, multitasking and getting things done as quickly as possible, says Dr. Marcuetta Sims, a psychologist and founder of The Worth, Wisdom and Wellness Center in Atlanta.
In a world of instant gratification, where people have access to everything within minutes, the art of slowing down is all but forgotten, Sims says. And a relentless pandemic burnout has only added to the toll and exacerbated the pressures.
“There’s so much beauty in being present,” Sims says. “Try to take the time to just focus in on one thing at a time.”
Burwell, the Atlanta psychotherapist, agrees, saying she’s noticed an uptick in clients experiencing cognitive overload.
“I often wonder – are we sacrificing comprehension for convenience?” she says.
Both Sims and Burwell say that while speed listening may work for some people, forcing the brain to repeatedly process an avalanche of information can have an adverse effect on mental health.
“While stillness is the antithesis of our culture, there are still cognitive and emotional spaces our soul can’t access while in overdrive,” Burwell says. “It’s OK to slow down to move ahead.”
But Kane, Mahn and Sandler may not be slowing down anytime soon. The three say they have no plans to watch movies and TV shows on accelerated speeds because that would detract from the visual experience.
But they’re not giving up their “podfast” lifestyles. There is so much content out there, and only so many minutes in the day.