Reclaiming My Life From the Podcast


Noel Wang, Co-Executive Editor

I used to think that I hated walking by myself. Sure, when I had a dog with me, I had to be paying attention, quieting barking, and ensuring that my furry companion wasn’t acquainting herself with some unsavory roadkill charcuterie.

Walking wasn’t the problem—I liked running and short hikes. And getting facefuls of minty, un-quarantined winter air was absolutely delightful, so it wasn’t about being cold.

One day, I remember fruitlessly trying to download a 45-minute podcast (I’m scrupulous about my cell data usage) to my phone before a walk. In the ten whole minutes I spent pacing in front of the garage door desperately fishing for a Wi-Fi signal, I had the (admittedly obvious) realization that I didn’t actually have to listen to anything on my daily outing. 

So, I just canceled the download and spent an hour in the silence of my own thoughts, and suddenly, I realized that walking wasn’t actually so bad. Maybe the podcasts had been the problem the entire time. 

I used to pretend to be a diligent podcast-listener. Heck, I even produce one for this newspaper! My “favorites” used to be Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, The New York Times’ The Daily and El Washington Post, although now, I probably could only recall the most memorable episodes. 

And not that there’s anything wrong with those podcasts, any others, or even the art of podcasting itself. My problem was the unusual… stress I had about listening to them. I felt like it was my obligation as someone who wanted to be considered “smart” to listen to podcasts all the time. The wisest people I know loved it. So why didn’t I?

It took a lot of silent, podcast-free thinking to find an answer, but a YouTube opinion video by the New York Times helped me put a finger on it—I didn’t want to optimize my life. And I felt guilty about that.

According to the video, the average person wastes about 21.8 hours a week of their life. “Optimization” is presented satirically, but the fact that it took me until halfway through watching—when they advised adopting polyphasic sleeping to “stop spending so much damn time unconscious”—that I realized the suggestions were actually meant to be humorous. 

The alarming part was that all of the optimization ideas were real. Some people probably do sleep polyphasically in order to maximize their waking hours, even if it isn’t really scientifically proven. And as mentioned in the piece, plenty more people do other things like ordering meal subscriptions, packing their gym bags the night before, drinking meal replacement shakes… and listening to podcasts.

What on earth is it that the podcast-listener life offers? It’s supposed to be effortless—it’s like you skip having to actually read books or feeling lonely. Podcasts are for a generation of people who have better things to do than waste time. It’s a paradox, a vicious cycle—you could be listening to a podcast while you waste time, and then you wouldn’t even be wasting time in the first place!

They’re absolutely everywhere and I resent it. I could listen to podcasts while I bike, or while I clean my room, or while I bake, or while I do literally anything leisurely. 

Try replacing every instance of Dr. Seuss’ iconic “I would eat green eggs and ham” with “I would listen to a podcast,” and I guarantee that every sentence would still seem plausible on the surface.

I know that yes, perhaps I would be making better use of my life if I tuned in from a boat, or with a goat, or in the rain, or on a train, or in a house, or with a mouse, but goshdarnit, I demand the right to waste my time!

After giving up on the Wi-Fi, I never really looked back. Sure, I love NPR’s Code Switch, Serial’s Nice White Parents, and even Slow Russian, but I choose to listen because they inform me about topics I really care about, and not because my brain has a few extra gigabytes of space that I might as well fill up. 

When I’m in the mood for something calming, I seek the soothing, yet concise lyricism of On Being’s Poetry Unbound, while Sleep With Me gives me respite for nights of insomnia. I still indulge from time to time, but always on my own terms.

I do truly admire the kind of people who enjoy podcasts, or bullet journaling, or listening to audiobooks while they jog at 5:30 in the morning. It’s remarkable how rich our lives can be in the modern era. 

I don’t hate efficiency, or convenience, or productivity, but I’ve discovered for myself that peace means different things for all of us… or maybe I’ll have to save that meditation for the next episode. Right now, I’m just enjoying the sunshine.

See the Visitation Voice Opinion Statement here