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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now to All Tech Considered. Here's a question for you - when was the last time you felt caught up? That is, caught up on all the e-mails you to need to answer, articles you want to read, people who are tweeting and posting pictures of their cats or their babies? Does it ever end?
CAESAR PINA: Technically, I'm never caught up.
CAITLIN NORTON: I'm never caught up.
MITCH MILLER: I don't think I've ever felt like I was caught up.
NORTON: There's constantly stuff coming out.
MILLER: I feel like you're always looking for new information.
CARLY JAYPIN: I got to a point where I felt like I couldn't focus on my work. I couldn't focus, really, on anything.
HASSAN MUKLESS: Every hour, there's five new stories to catch up and you only have so much time to read them.
MILLER: I say I'm always looking for more information on stuff.
MUKLESS: You don't want to be the one left behind.
CORNISH: We interrupted these people as they were peering down at their smartphones and other devices at restaurants in downtown Washington. They were Caesar Pina, Mitch Miller, Caitlin Norton, Carly Jaypin (ph) and Hassan Mukless (ph). Now by one measure, published in The Economist, Americans spend over 12 hours a day consuming media - newspapers, Facebook and so on. But that doesn't mean we're getting more done or getting smarter. Manoush Zomorodi is host of member station WNYC's podcast "Note To Self." She's been exploring this topic and joins us to talk about her project. It's called "Infomagical: Making Information Overload Disappear." Manoush, welcome to the program.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI, BYLINE: Thanks so much, Audie. Good to be back.
CORNISH: All right, Manoush, we're both in the news business. Obviously, we need to know what's going on all the time, but most anyone these days, not just journalists, has this kind of access to an abundance of information. Surely that's a good thing, right?
ZOMORODI: It is, but I think what the problem is is some of us don't know when to stop. And there's actually a really great word for this, Audie. It's called infomania. The Oxford dictionary defines it as the compulsive desire to check or accumulate news and information. One of my listeners described it as FOMO - fear of missing out.
CORNISH: So what's the big deal? I mean, what happens when we try to keep up?
ZOMORODI: Well, the effects of what we call information overload are really just starting to be studied. But as you can guess, when we feel overwhelmed, stress levels go up. I mean, our brains have a finite number of decisions they can make before they get depleted and become less discerning - so this is called decision fatigue. Well, it gets compounded by technology. When I spoke to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, he used e-mail as the perfect example.
DANIEL LEVITIN: Do I read this one now or later? Do I reply to it? Do I forward it to someone else? Do I mark it as spam? Do I need to gather more information before I can reply? That's five decisions right there, and that's one e-mail. And you haven't even dealt with it yet.
CORNISH: OK, Manoush, so we get tired. I understand that might explain why we start playing Candy Crush instead of working towards the end of the day. What are some of the other consequences of information overload?
ZOMORODI: Well, it's interesting. We also get stuck in cycles. Dr. Gloria Mark at UC Irvine found that interruptions can be self-perpetuating. So for example, if you have an hour at work that is really hectic with lots of interruptions from colleagues or e-mail, even if those external interruptions stop for the next hour you will continue interrupting yourself. So what we're finding is focus is a slippery thing. We actually did a survey of 2,000 Note to Self listeners and nearly 80 percent of them told us that they often keep consuming information despite feeling like they have reached information overload. But perhaps most unproductive of all, Audie? When we keep taking in information, we lose the capacity to make meaning from it. I talked to consumer psychologist Dimitrios Tsivrikos at University College London. The research is preliminary, but he estimates that we only use about 40 to 50 percent of the information we take in every day.
CORNISH: All right, on your show, Note to Self, this week you're actually challenging people to think differently about information overload. But how do they go about doing that?
ZOMORODI: Yeah, so our new project is called "Infomagical" because we want to make information overload disappear. It is a very tongue-in-cheek name, but we are very serious about helping people become their own best filters, to find focus more easily and discover what we're calling the magic of clear thinking.
CORNISH: How will this work? I know there are some folks here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED who are hoping to do this with you. Explain.
ZOMORODI: OK. So first, when you sign up, you'll be asked to pick one of five information goals that we've identified, like be more creative or get in touch with friends and family. And then next week, you'll only try to consume information that gets you closer to that goal. You'll also get a daily assignment. On the first day, for example, we're asking you to single-task, do one thing at a time. When's the last time you did that? And there's also a bonus, Audie. If you sign up to do the project via text, you'll be part of our data set and we'll measuring what effect sticking to an information goal has on participants' information overload.
CORNISH: Manoush, thanks so much.
ZOMORODI: Thank you, Audie.
CORNISH: That's Manoush Zomorodi. She's host of the podcast Note to Self from our member station WNYC. You can find details and links for everything "Infomagical" at npr.org/alltech.
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