Driving it home


In Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, the average commuter is in motion for five hours a week. I choose to live further out where houses are cheaper, and consequentially commute on average ten hours per week. Others have it worse, with 600,00 super commuters in the US spending more than 90 minutes each way travelling to and from work.

A year ago, this commute was the bane of my existence – a time to be endured with FM radio and the occasional sneaky but illegal glance at my smart phone. Travelling two hours per day didn’t give me much spare time to study, and as a lifetime learner, this was very frustrating. I didn’t want cheap entertainment and celebrity gossip – I wanted to learn something of substance, something that would keep my brain excited. Twelve months of excruciatingly boring commuting pushed me to breaking point – and the wonderful world of podcasts and audio books became my savior and restored my sanity.

But I also quickly realised that merely listening to audio while commuting doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve learned the topic. Learning in this style is an art form – and this article will let you in on the tips and tricks I’ve picked up about converting podcast listening into learning… driving it home.

Reasons why you should become part of the craze

The podcast and audio book phenomena has swept the internet in the last decade. A google search for “free podcasts” generated 103 million hits (3 August 2014). If you have an interest, there is a podcast or an audio book on it. Want to learn a language to travel in confidence? Do it. Want to learn philosophy to outsmart the boys at the pub? Do it. Want to learn management to impress your boss? Do it.

Social media and social networking takes up on average 3.2 hours per day for adult Americans. Imagine how much more interesting your conversations with your friends, family and colleagues may be if just one hour of that was instead spent learning something innovative and new!

Why commuting is perfect for learning 

Commuting removes you from many of life’s distractions. In that hour between home and work, or work and home, I am separated from the demands of my children, from the endless onslaught of work email, and from the “sound byte” world of social media. I am hard pressed to find any other period in my day where I am so free from distractions – and researchers have found that a lack of distractions is one of the core requirements for successful learning.

If you are a 9-5, Monday to Friday commuter, then using your commuting time to study has the added benefit that it is almost perfectly spaced for learning. I travel one hour, twice a day, 5 times a week, and this structure of smaller but frequent study sessions is far more effective than a 10 hour cram session on a weekend.

In addition, it means that I can repeat content a few days apart, after diffuse thinking time – and the reinforcement of doing this is far more effective than a cram session. Besides, weekends are about visiting the beach with the kids and staring at the stars with people you love.

Don’t just sit there! 

You want to do more than just passively listen to a podcast – you want to learn it. To do this, you must actively engage with the podcast. Try to find a visual trigger to stop and recall what you have learned so far. When you see this visual trigger, pause the podcast, and explain to an imaginary passenger the key ideas presented to you in the podcast. Do this out loud. Pro tip: close the windows first.

Your trigger might be stopping at traffic lights, driving past a McDonalds or petrol station, or your odometer ticking over to a multiple of 10. If you can’t explain the key ideas to your imaginary passenger, you probably haven’t learned the podcast material. Regather your focus, and listen to the material again. If the topic is difficult, you may want to come back to it in a few days.


Keep a note pad in your car, and jot down the key highlights of the podcast when you park (please please don’t write while driving!). This should only take a few minutes, depending on how long your trip is. Next time you get in your car, try to recall these key points, and then re-read your summary notes. Did you get them right? Did you remember them all?

Test your knowledge 

Humans deceive ourselves about what we know and over-exaggerate what we think we have learned. You can’t really say you have learned something unless you can explain it to a 10 year old. Try to find an interested person to share your new insights with. You might also like to find some online quizzes to test your new understanding.

Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques.


Turn it off

Listening to podcasts for every moment of your trip may not be the most effective way to learn new material. Often it is helpful to turn off the podcast for the last quarter of your trip, and allow your mind to wander, daydreaming about the topic in general, without putting pressure on yourself to be absolutely focussed on facts and figures. It might seem strange to encourage you to listen less, and daydream more. But our intuition about the role of focus in learning is often wrong.

When the brain flips into idle mode, this network subconsciously puts together stray thoughts, makes seemingly random connections and enables us to see an old problem in an entirely new light.

Don’t believe me?

Legend has it not only that Archimedes had his “eureka!” moment about water displacement while relaxing in the tub, but that Einstein worked out the Theory of Relativity while tootling around on his bicycle.

To make your daydream time even more effective, park your car a 15 minute walk away from work, and daydream in public as you burn off the coffee and doughnuts you ate for breakfast. And give thanks that the public swarming around you cannot read your thoughts.

It is usually in these morning moments that I have the “ah-ha!” moment, of joining concepts together, seeing how they fit together. If you can’t add in some exercise to your daydream time, switch off 10-15 minutes before you get to your destination, and sit in silence. If you have children, it will likely be the last few moments of silence for the remainder of the day – enjoy it.

(more to come)