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10 best podcasts for self-improvement while self-isolating

Learn a new skill and emerge from lockdown better than ever

Lydia Winter
Friday 27 March 2020 12:05 GMT
Now we have all this time on our hands, it could be time to finally take up that hobby you’ve been thinking about for years, whether that’s mastering the perfect omelette or take up running
Now we have all this time on our hands, it could be time to finally take up that hobby you’ve been thinking about for years, whether that’s mastering the perfect omelette or take up running (The Independent/iStock)

In the age of social media, it’s out with long reads and in with easy-to-understand snippets; we’re all finding new ways to absorb information.

Podcasts, in particular, are thriving – according to Ofcom, 7.1 million people in the UK listen to podcasts each week.

And during this particularly unprecedented time of isolation, podcasts offer an alternative way to keep your mind entertained – and, importantly, they’re both free and a welcoming escape from a screen.

Anyone who has a phone and the internet can listen to a podcast, and topics are truly diverse. You can get the backstory behind the day’s news, hear about the best new books, or learn some new (or indeed very old) and obscure historical facts.

Now we have all this time on our hands, it could be time to finally take up that hobby you’ve been thinking about for years, whether that’s mastering the perfect omelette or taking up running.

Whatever your focus, we can almost guarantee there’s a podcast for it. We’ve spent hours and hours listening to how we should manifest our dreams; how we should manage our finances; and how to cook the perfect winter veg stew so we can bring you the very best of the podcast landscape to help you emerge from quarantine better than ever.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

Learn how to fail: ‘How to fail with Elizabeth Day’: Free, Elizabeth Day

With all this focus on success and how to achieve it, there’s very little room for discussion of what happens when things don’t go as planned – which is the very reason why journalist Elizabeth Day chose to set up a podcast that teaches you how to fail. It’s a brilliant idea, showing that those you might consider as ideal or perfect are fallible; guests are real-life people you can aspire to; and you learn that it’s more about how to continue after a failure than about what you’re doing to succeed.

Day asks each interviewee to come ready to discuss three of their life’s failures: recent subjects have been Lisa Taddeo, the author of Three Women; Alain de Botton, philosopher and founder of The School of Life, which aims to teach emotional intelligence; and Farrah Storr, editor of Elle. All in all, it makes for interesting and easy listening, and it’s a good one to dip in and out of according to guests and subjects that interest you.

Download now

Learn to cook: ‘Cook the perfect…’​: Free, BBC

This podcast is a bite-sized spin-off from BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour where hosts Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey speak with chefs and cooks about their favourite dish to make at home. Guests range from household name Tom Kerridge, of two-Michelin-starred pub The Hand and Flowers, to Irish chef Clodagh McKenna, previously of Ballymaloe, and author Rachel Ama, who built an impressive following for her vegan recipes on Instagram.

Each episode sees (or hears) the guests cooking their dish, explaining exactly what they’re doing and why – providing an insight into cooking basics – and the recipe is provided afterwards in the show notes. At ten minutes long, episodes are easily digestible; you can listen to Romy Gill make spicy chickpeas, or food writer Jack Monroe on how to perfect a beurre blanc made out of cannellini beans.

This is a refreshingly fuss-free podcast, one devoid of cheffy techniques and with a wonderfully diverse range of guests.

Download now

Learn to declutter: ‘The Minimalists’​: Free, The Minimalists

“Minimalism gets us past objects so we can make room for life’s most important things.” So says The Minimalists website. So far, so New Age preachy. In fact, initially the whole minimalist feel of this podcast – stylised black and white photography and all – feels, well, a bit much. But if you read the story of founders Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, things become a whole lot more approachable: best friends since high school, the pair chose to climb the corporate ladder, both earning six-figure salaries, driving fancy cars, the works.

But life events for both parties eventually led them to try a 21-day minimalist challenge; they ended up documenting their journey and The Minimalists was born. And it’s this down-to-earth approach that gives the podcast series such a wide appeal – and probably why it’s been downloaded 50 million times.

There are episodes about getting rid of spring clutter (35 minutes) or having a minimalist approach to fashion (44 minutes), but also shorter snippets, like a four-minute episode that deals with overcoming imposter syndrome. The podcast cleverly brings minimalism into every area of your life, from finances to exercises, and leans on the advice of experts to bolster its authority.

Download now

Learn a new language: ‘Duolingo podcast’​: Free, Duolingo

The Duolingo podcasts are real-life stories in either French or Spanish that are told at an easy-to-follow pace, occasionally interspersed with an English commentary so you always know you have a grip of what’s going on, even if not the precise details. The stories also give important current cultural context: the French stories range from winemaking to immigration to the tale of a surfer who lost his leg, and you can find a full transcription on the Duolingo website.

For those using the app to learn the language, these podcasts are a magnificent tool – if you think back to when you were at school, the French curriculum also included information about the country’s culture, politics and more. At 20-25 minutes long, they’re ideal for commutes, too, although we’d like to see it expand to more languages.

Download now

Learn to manifest: ‘Expanded with Lacy Phillips’​: Free, To Be Magnetic

When it comes to the concept of self-improvement, manifestation is probably one of the most hippy, New Age subjects out there: the idea that you can manifest exactly what you want into your life through affirmative thinking and action. Lacy Phillips’s podcast is no exception to the rule, but much of her approach tackles beliefs around self-worth – which most of us could improve, even if we don’t believe in manifestation.

Phillips is free of that smugness that often seeps through when listening to zen yoga types, and touches on difficult subjects such as her IVF treatment and her childhood with an alcoholic mother. She also backs up her work with learnings on psychotherapy and neuroplasticity, speaking to a range of expert guests about everything from “manifestation 101” to love and relationships.

No matter how you feel about manifestation, the podcast sheds interesting light on difficulties you may have faced. Unfortunately at times, it can feel like a promotion for Phillips’ online manifestation school, The Pathway, but there’s still loads of good information here about things you can do without making a financial commitment.

Download now

Learn the secrets of success: ‘The Tim Ferriss show’​: Free, Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss has been referred to as the “Oprah of audio” because of this podcast, so it’s safe to say we expected great things. For more context, Ferriss was listed as one of Fortune magazine’s 40 under 40; one of Fast Company’s ”most innovative business people”. He’s a tech investor and advisor to giant companies like Uber, Facebook, Shopify and Duolingo, and wrote a book called The Four-Hour Work Week, which expanded into a series with books like The Four-Hour Chef.

The premise behind his podcast is to speak to successful individuals about their habits and routines, from favourite books and TV shows to more solid advice, so you can apply them to your own life. He speaks to burlesque star Dita Von Teese; he interviews a Navy Seal and athlete on training, post-traumatic growth and healing; there’s a slot called “books I’ve loved”, with people like Seth Godin and therapist Esther Perel (whose podcast we review below); as well as “the random show”, one episode of which discusses fasting and forest bathing.

There is literally no subject that Ferriss won’t touch. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that the series is quite difficult to tune into sometimes – there’s such a wealth of information that it’s hard to know where to start. We recommend tuning in when it covers a person or subject you’re interested in, rather than downloading every week.

Download now

How to manage money: ‘Cash chats with Andy Webb’​: Free, Be Clever With Your Cash​

Talking about money – or even understanding how personal finances work – can be a bit of a taboo, and it can be incredibly difficult to work out what really is best for you. Andy Webb of money advice website “be clever with your cash” offers weekly, down-to-earth, judgement-free advice on how to manage your finances, whether you’re saving or planning to splurge, with episodes ranging from seven to 45 minutes.

At the time of listening, most of Webb’s advice revolved around coronavirus, focusing on how best to get through a particularly difficult economic time. He speaks in particular about having to use a credit card to stay afloat, and if you have to do it, which one to go for, as well as dealing with bills and other expenses – all of which is very much needed for many.

In the past, topics have included how to deal with money if it triggers mental health issues, so it really is a wide-ranging, useful podcast for personal finance, but if you want more information about the economy and finance generally, then this one isn’t for you.

Download now

How to get into running: ‘Running the show with Dev and Sam’​: Free, Lucozade Sport

This is a 12-part series that follows radio DJ Dev Griffin (who has prior running experience) and Sam Thompson of Made In Chelsea, who has very little running experience. The idea is to follow the pair as they train from scratch for the now sadly postponed London Marathon. Sceptics should give it a chance as it is actually pretty funny, and takes a more laid-back approach in a world that can take things very, very seriously.

Griffin and Thompson follow a training programme developed by running expert Mark Draper, and each episode has new tips. There’s one on how to eat properly when you’re training to run such a long distance; there’s an episode with boxing supremo Anthony Joshua about mixing up your training; and one about hotpod yoga. There’s also valuable information about the importance of building up your weekly mileage, and the proper stretches to do after a run.

Download now

Learning how to learn: ‘Kwik brain with Jim Kwik’​: Free, Jim Kwik

This podcast begins with an extract from Limitless, the 2011 hit film where Bradley Cooper starts taking a revolutionary new drug to give him a razor-sharp mind. While Kwik Brain doesn’t deliver such results, it does tackle the important and often-overlooked topic of brain health, and how to keep your grey matter in tip-top condition for continuing to learn new skills and store memories. It comes from American brain-health guru Jim Kwik (yes, that is his real name) who brings in guests to tackle subjects like: how to eat to feed your brain, what you should be doing to protect it and so on. Interesting, but can get a bit samey.

Download now

Learn about relationships: ‘Where should we begin? by Esther Perel’: Free, Esther Perel

Esther Perel is a Belgian therapist, author and speaker with a focus on relationships, believing, according to her website, that “the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives”. Her groundbreaking podcast Where Should We Begin? is an insight into couples therapy: each episode focuses on the recording of a real couple, although names have been omitted and personal details have been changed.

The show notes point out thematics and questions to think about while or after you listen, and Perel shares her observations throughout the recordings. Subjects are wide-ranging and painfully intimate: “the other woman” explores a couple considering non-monogamy; “mom and Monique” addresses a relationship between a mother and her daughter that has been derailed by a second child that has special needs.

Each podcast is an unflinchingly honest look at relationships, and is of interest whether you’re in one or not – and also lifts the lid on the experience of having therapy. It’s a serious one that requires attention, but there are lessons to learn.

Download now

The verdict: Podcasts for self-improvement

For sheer ease of listening, range of subjects, and a much-needed different perspective on success, Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail podcast stands out. The runner-up (no pun intended) is Running The Show, which blends humour with useful information to get you exercising.

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