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Infomagical: WNYC's 'Note To Self' Tries To Make Information Overload Disappear


People tend to think of information overload as a fact of life in the 21st century. Lately, we've been asking whether it really has to be that way.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Every hour, there's five new stories to catch up and you only have so much time to read them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I wouldn't say I'm overwhelmed. I'd say I'm always looking for more information on stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm kind of actively trying not to be overwhelmed by information these days.


We asked - when was the last time you felt caught up? And those were just a few of the comments we heard from people in downtown Washington, D.C.

SHAPIRO: As part of All Tech here at NPR, some people who feel that information overload have been trying to do something about it, along with our friends at WNYC in New York. Manoush Zomorodi hosts a podcast called Note to Self, and she is with us now to update us on the project called "Infomagical: Making Information Overload Disappear." Welcome back, Manoush.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, BYLINE: Good to be here, Ari. Thanks.

SHAPIRO: Remind us again what you asked participants to do last week.

ZOMORODI: OK, so what we first asked them to do was to choose an information goal for the week. Sort of a touchstone or a personal filter that would help them be more selective about all the videos and status updates and news articles that they took in. And by the way, the most popular goal of the five choices we gave people was be more in tune with yourself. The second one was be more creative. And...

SHAPIRO: ...So those are very abstract goals. We're not talking about only check my phone twice a day or something like that.

ZOMORODI: No. So they would choose something sort of broad, and only they could define what be more creative meant to them. But then every morning, participants got an assignment from us, something more specific; a suggested behavior modification to try. So, like, on the first day, for example, we explained the science behind decision fatigue, something a lot of people have heard of, and some new, fascinating research on interruptions. And then we asked people to give up multitasking for the day and to try something that we called single-tasking. I think you can guess what that is. Do just...

SHAPIRO: ...One thing in a time.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Yeah.

SHAPIRO: How did you measure whether this worked or not?

ZOMORODI: Well, what we did was we corresponded with them two ways, via email and via text, every single day...

SHAPIRO: ...Adding to their information incoming (laughter).

ZOMORODI: The irony did not escape us. It is a paradox, but we are trying to meet people where they are. And at the end of every day, we asked them two things - could you read how successful you were at sticking to your information goal, and did you feel more, less or the same amount of information overload?

SHAPIRO: And what happened? What did you discover?

ZOMORODI: Well, OK. So it's interesting. At the end of day one, about 40 percent of the texting participants said that they felt less overloaded. It's pretty good.

SHAPIRO: All right.

ZOMORODI: Still less than half though. But by the end of day five, Friday, 71 percent said they felt less overloaded. But it was also interesting. We asked people how well did they feel that they were meeting their goals, and we saw those numbers increase as they went through the week as well.

SHAPIRO: I suppose it's not that surprising. This is something where practice will improve performance.

ZOMORODI: That's absolutely right. It's also kind of not surprising that the least successful group were the people who had set their goal to be more up-to-date on current events.

SHAPIRO: What's the next step?

ZOMORODI: OK, so we're going to be parsing the data much further, and the stories, with psychologists, technologists, data scientists because really, I think our goal is to start a longer-term cross-sector conversation about new approaches to - how do we build our technology? How do we consider how we use our technology? - because information overload is not something new. It has been dated to the 13th century. But what is new is the pace, and what we are finding is loss of focus. You can look at it from a utilitarian aspect - it is bad for personal productivity - but also from a mental health perspective. A lot of the people we spoke to reported a lot of anxiety, trouble sleeping, personal relationships being affected by this constant feeling of needing to keep up. And we're still doing "Infomagical" challenges, Ari, so if you want to do it, you can.

SHAPIRO: That sign up is at npr.org/alltech. Manoush Zomorodi, host of the podcast Note to Self from WNYC. Thanks, Manoush.

ZOMORODI: Thanks so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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