How ditching podcasts on my morning commute increased my creativity and productivity

It used to be that there wasn’t single minute of time spent in the car when I didn’t have a podcast playing.

Since discovering them back in 2011, I’d accumulated dozens of interesting and entertaining podcasts, covering everything from tech and economics to neuroscience and meditation. I started listening all the time, especially in the car. I loved feeling like I was learning things during my otherwise unproductive 45 minutes per day in the car commuting to and from work.

I was a podcast junky. And a productive one at that. Or so I thought…

My 30-Day Information Fast

Starting January 1st of this year, I participated in a 30-Day Digital Declutter experiment, with the goal of becoming more intentional about which digital tools were actually beneficial in my life and which were soul-sucking distractions.

For 30 days, I eliminated everything from Instagram and email newsletters to blogs and reading the news online.

While I suspected that my productivity without all these distractions would improve, I was surprised by how much and in what ways it did.

There were some significant if unsurprising aspects areas where my productivity increased, like my ability to work uninterrupted for longer stretches of time (I wrote about this previously if you’re interested).

But one of the most surprising productivity results came in a very unexpected place.

Carpooling with My Unconscious

Part of my digital declutter experiment involved eliminating podcasts.

The first day that I got into my car, I instantly felt uncomfortable not being able to cue up of a podcast episode. So I turned on the radio instead (for what was probably the third time in as many years 🙂

That lasted exactly 20 minutes.

Once you’ve experienced the podcast lifestyle, with all of its flexibility and control over what you listen to (not to mention the quality of the content), it’s pretty hard to go back to radio.

So I turned the radio off and didn’t turn on anything.

Instead of listening to anything I wanted, I started listening to nothing.

I just drove to and from work with nothing but my thoughts and the view.

After a few days of this, a funny thing happened: I started getting lots of random but interesting ideas popping into my head while I drove — mostly about topic that would make potentially-interesting personal development articles for my website.

I remember one specific stretch when — in rapid fire succession — the following ideas for articles literally just popped into my head:

I wasn’t thinking about these topics in particular or trying especially hard to “have good idea.” They just showed up.

Takeaway: I had been suffocating my unconscious with my incessant podcast listening habit. The more creative and generative part of my mind had been working on coming up with new ideas and I was finally able to notice them once I turned down the volume and just allowed myself to “listen.”

Writing is a lot easier when you have plenty of ideas

Eventually I started using Siri on my commute to dictate these ideas into a “new article ideas” folder in my writing app of choice on my phone. After only a few weeks of doing this, my list was far bigger than it had ever been and continued to grow quickly.

My commute effectively became an ideas generation session where I brainstormed and “listened” for new ideas to write about in my work.

Crucially, when I actually sat down at my computer to start writing articles every morning, I began to notice a lot less friction to getting started, including a much lowered urge to procrastinate.

Previously, there were many days when I wouldn’t feel very motivated to write because none of my current drafts seemed interesting or exciting. Now I had loads of exciting topics to start writing about.

I never got to my desk feeling like I don’t have anything good to write about.

Having lots of new ideas coming in on a regular basis gave me a huge boost to my motivation to work. Specifically, having lots of new ideas helped to just get started with my writing, which, as any writer knows, is at least half the battle.

Producing More by Doing Less

This experience was a good reminder to me that we can all fall victim to the trap of thinking that to produce more we always need to do more. In the long-run, sometimes doing less enables us to produce far, far more.

By eliminating podcasts and carving out some quiet time on my commutes, I allowed myself to be more receptive to the massive amount of “work” that my unconscious mind was already doing, which lead to a significant increase in both the quality and quantity of my overall output of work.

There may not be a free lunch, but free ideas are surprisingly easy to come by if we can learn to be quiet.

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