WNYC’s ‘Note to Self’ takes on information overload

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NYPR Note To Self Live at The Greene Space

Note to Self host Manoush Zomorodi was “disappeared” by magician Adam Cardone at the Wednesday launch event for “Infomagical.” (Photo: Matthew Septimus/WNYC)

A new project by the WNYC tech-focused podcast Note to Self aims to help people overcome information overload while also becoming better-informed.

Infomagical,” a follow-up to last year’s “Bored and Brilliant” campaign, premieres today with a podcast about what causes information overload and why people should be more selective about the information they take in. Where “Bored and Brilliant” focused on the benefits of boredom, “Infomagical” will help people take control of the information they need.

Note to Self’s producers were looking for a follow-up to “Bored and Brilliant” when they settled on the topic of information overload. They surveyed nearly 2,000 listeners and found that many felt overwhelmed with trying to keep up with all the information in their daily lives. About a third said that information overload was even affecting their close relationships. Researchers have also found that human brains are ill-equipped to handle the flood of information in the digital age.

“Infomagical” is about making it okay to miss “the story behind Donald Trump’s hair” or “the show on Netflix everyone is talking about,” said Manoush Zomorodi, host and managing editor of Note to Self. “We’re trying to build an interdisciplinary case for why we need to personally and culturally make a change related to information,” she said.

Purveyors of information “want us to consume as much information as possible,” Zomorodi said. “So can we be our own filters? Can we decide what we want information to do for us?”

The centerpiece of “Infomagical” is a “challenge week” that starts Feb. 1, featuring daily podcasts in which listeners and experts will discuss how to better manage information intake. Accompanying challenges will get participants to narrow their media habits with a focus on specific goals, such as improving creativity or getting more up-to-date on the news by paying less attention to other media. They’ll be asked to avoid multitasking for an entire day, tidy up their phone apps and avoid memes and trending topics.

Participants will receive text messages each morning linking to the day’s podcast, and texts during the day will help keep them on track. Finally, at the end of the day, they’ll be asked via text: Were you successful sticking to your information goal, and how overloaded do you feel now? Answers will be submitted by text as well, with the goal of determining which challenges are most effective at reducing stress and giving participants a renewed sense of focus.

After the challenge week, Note to Self will use the feedback to measure the effects of sticking to information goals and how lifestyle changes can affect stress levels. It will share findings in a Feb. 10 podcast and with neuroscientists, technologists and data scientists.

The series will also examine research that has found that carrying out digital tasks makes people crave more tasks; FOMO — fear of missing out; and “filter failure,” in which people struggle to filter the media they consume for quality.

Special guests during “Infomagical” will include Marie Kondo, bestselling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and MIT psychology professor Sherry Turkle.

The project kicked off with a live event at WNYC Wednesday, featuring a cognitive neuroscientist explaining what information overload looks like in the brain based on fMRI scanning. Afterward, a magician made Zomorodi disappear.

Last year, Note to Self’s “Bored and Brilliant” series enlisted more than 20,000 people who attempted to use their phones less, rediscover boredom and think more creatively. Zomorodi said she hopes for similar engagement numbers for “Infomagical.”

The theme of magic, while tongue-in-cheek, is intended to evoke the feeling of focus people can discover when they are no longer overwhelmed by just keeping up with the world around them.

“It’s something very personal, something you have to figure out for yourself,” Zomorodi said. “It could be learning to speak Spanish, or getting back in touch with the cousin you had that weird falling-out with, or starting a new project. For everyone, it will feel different.”

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