What do my headphone habits say about me?

Thinking through how we spend our time in our personal bubble

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5-min read

Today, I’m talking headphone behavior. As we’ve all been social distancing, I’ve noticed that my time spent wearing headphones has drastically decreased. It got me thinking:

What do my headphone habits say about me?

Prior to social distancing when you’d walk around New York City, no matter where you were, you’d see at least a dozen people wearing headphones. Where 80 or so years ago I would have been walking around New York City with a trench coat and a fedora—a hilarious image for any of you reading this who know me in real life—I now always walk around sporting my Powerbeats Pro (highly recommend over AirPods) and backpack.

In New York City especially, and in many big U.S. cities I’ve traveled to, tons of people are in their own headphone-land—oblivious to the action-packed environment around them. In doing research for today’s post, I stumbled upon this interesting piece from The New Yorker from 2016:

“Ambling down a city street with headphones on—you know, maybe it’s dusk, maybe it’s midsummer, maybe you had a really nice day—is, without a doubt, one of life’s simplest and most perfect joys. Humans have long enjoyed secret communions with sound, and headphones allow for the development of a particularly private and tender relationship.”

I love wearing headphones. It transports me into my own private space where I’m both the conductor and audience. I can listen to music, learn something new from a podcast, call friends and family, or just give the illusion I’m engaged in something when I’m actually not doing anything at all (also known as avoiding human interaction).

But, what does my headphone use say about me? Is there an ideal mix of how I should be spending my time when I’m in my own bubble?

The two dimensions for how I am looking at my headphone habits is: educational listening vs. recreational listening.

Educational Listening: Time spent wearing headphones while listening to educational content such as podcasts, audiobooks, TED Talks, online classes.

Recreational Listening: Time spent wearing headphones while listening to music, watching TV or movies, or calling friends or family.

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Understanding the Grid

One caveat before we jump into the quadrants: this grid is in constant flux. It could change by day, by week or by month. You could use this grid to understand how you spend your time while at specific place or while performing a specific activity. You could also use the grid to understand set periods of time. For example, how has your headphone use broken down while self-distancing for the last month? Or, how has does your headphone use break down when you are exercising, specifically? I’ll leave it to you to choose how this grid is most helpful.

Ultimately, when taken in aggregate, you can get a directional understanding of how you really use you headphones and begin transitioning to whatever quadrant you desire, based on your objectives. Finally, certain quadrants are not necessarily better or worse than others. They all serve their own purpose and have their moments in life when they’re preferred.

Where Am I?

These people are always plugged in. You’ll find them using headphones while they travel, work, study, relax, and exercise. I often fall into this quadrant. After taking off my headphones from a long session of music and podcasts, the first five seconds back into the “real world” are quite jarring and make me think: “Where am I?” Music often is the drumbeat of their daily lives. Podcasts and audiobooks are their preferred form of learning. Being in their own personal bubble is oftentimes significantly easier than engaging with the outside universe. For me, I love being in this zone while traveling. Being on a plane or a train is a great time to be completely plugged in.

Situations When I’m in this Zone: Airplanes, Trains, Gym/Exercise, Long Walks

Thirsty for Knowledge

When these people are plugged in, they’re primarily learning. There is so much auditory content nowadays that you can engage with and learn from. We are inundated with podcasts, audiobooks, online learning and Ted Talks. Allegedly, there are 30 million podcast episodes you could listen to at any time. With so much terrific educational content available, finding the right time to receive it is crucial. For me, I love listening to podcasts while going for a long walk. It affords me the ability to focus on the simple task at hand (walking to a destination) and actually retain the information I’m hearing.

Situations When I’m in this Zone: Long Walks, Cooking, Long Drives, Eating Alone, Showering, Exercising


When these people are plugged in, they’re primarily taking a break from stresses of life. Music, for many, is an important part of feeling like themselves. When I go through long periods—about two days—of not listening to music, I feel off-balance. Music, for me, activates certain routines. Some songs and playlists help calm my mind and refocus it for the activity at hand, such as writing this newsletter. Decompression with headphones on extends beyond music, and people who fall in the category could also be using this time to connect with friends or family on a call. They could also be heads down, literally, watching a video on their mobile device. Everyday we deal with stress and people who spend time in the Decompression quadrant use their time wearing headphones to just get away from it all.

Situations When I’m in this Zone: Studying, Writing, Working, Cooking, Walking

Headphones Off

These people are frequently take breaks from wearing their headphones, allowing them to remember that the planet has its own set of unique sounds. When you’re going for a walk, the sound of the city fuels every step. Sitting down at a park is a chance to be in the moment and people watch, not to stream a YouTube video. When you’re in the Headphones Off quadrant, you can experience moments of transcendence—where you remember your place in the world and let your thoughts come and go as they please. Being in the Headphones Off quadrant means you’re simply not doing anything and being present rather than doing any other activity just without wearing headphones. Oftentimes when you’re in this zone, at least for me, it’s not by choice. I’m often forced to be headphones off because my PowerBeats have no battery or I forgot them at home. However, it’s always refreshing to be disconnected and not feel like every moment of your day needs to be prescribed with some activity, whether it be recreational or educational. It’s these moments, when I’m not wearing headphones, that I think can be more valuable than we all realize.

Situations When I’m in this Zone: Anytime & Anywhere

Grid Shortcomings

There are two shortcomings with this grid:

  1. The grid doesn’t account for all of the educational or recreational things you could be doing with your headphones off. For example, you could be playing a game on your phone or reading a book—two activities that fall in the two different categories, but are being done without wearing headphones. Ultimately, there are plenty of things we all do to relax and learn and this grid only takes into account a few of those things that are done using headphones.

  2. The grid doesn’t give time cutoffs for what’s considered a high and low amount of time. While a shortcoming, this is intentional. What’s considered a lot or a little amount of time should be relative to you. Setting minute or hour cutoffs for this grid felt too prescriptive, but I can also see how it doesn’t give enough clarity to be useful. That said, if you want to a time cutoff that separates high and low, feel free. All of these grids should be useful to you, so feel free to adapt them as you see fit.

How does this grid land with you? My hope is that you’re now a little bit more self-aware about your headphone use and you can be more intentional about when and where you use your headphones.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,

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