To Fight Infomania, Get Comfortable With Missing Out
When President Biden took office earlier this year, many of us relished the end of four years… of compulsively refreshing our news apps. The headlines lost their lure, cable news saw a post-Trump ratings slump, and, even though Covid times continue, it felt like we got part of our brains back. But, in the past few weeks, that feeling has faded away for me.
I’ve begun stuffing my favorite reading app with long-form articles, yet I can’t get past the first paragraph of any of them. My inbox is drowning in newsletters that I usually rely on to streamline my information consumption — now I just skim them and save them for later. Each of the books stacked on my bedside table has a bookmark shoved in around page 11. I want to read, read, read. But I feel overwhelmed. I’m having trouble prioritizing. It’s time for me to admit that my infomania has roared back.
“Infomania” is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “the compulsive desire to check or accumulate news and information, typically via mobile phone or computer.” I’ve struggled with it for years. It’s different from information overload in that with infomania, one might observe feeling overloaded, but then continue to consume information anyway. Here’s how one of my podcast listeners, Kelsey Lakowske, describes the affliction:
I want to read all these articles about everything from the latest scientifically engineered sugar substitute to an in-depth analysis of Donald Trump’s hair. It’s like a different flavor of FOMO. It’s fear of missing out, but missing out on content — and on knowledge. With limited time and mental resources, there’s no way to get through it all.
The concept of information overload dates back to the 13th century, when scholars, clerics, and academics complained about having an overwhelming wealth of things to read. Hundreds of years later, some experts estimate that since the start of the pandemic, we’ve doubled the time we spend consuming content on a daily basis: from an average of three hours, 17 minutes to an average of six hours, 59 minutes.
In 2016, I launched a public radio project to try and find ways to overcome infomania: 30,000 people signed up for Infomagical, a week of experiments designed to help people find their focus again. One of the most effective antidotes to infomania we found was setting an information goal, or a concrete thing you want to learn and understand. Cognitive psychologists might call this sticking to a schema, which has been shown to increase cognition and memory. Here’s an example: Say you’re interested in NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. Normally, you’d Google “NFT” and then bounce from a link about digital art to another about blockchain to an Eth forum on Reddit to a Wikipedia page about the Capuchin crypts to a list of ancient Roman recipes. And you’d probably skim it all, learn little, and remember nothing.
But by setting an information goal instead, you’d approach things differently: Perhaps you’d download an explainer podcast, use the hashtag to research it on social media, and choose a single long-form article to read. Then you would stop consuming any further information. And then maybe you’d go for a walk to process all that you learned. That would be a very effective way of absorbing the subject.
Sure, at its most delightful, the internet can be one big rabbit hole down which we happily fall, whiling away the hours without regret. Unfortunately, that rarely happens in practice. And so it’s helpful to more deliberately chart a course by applying a schema or filter to our content consumption. Oddly, Donald Trump did this for me. For most of 2020 (heck, for most of the past four years), he was my schema. Everything I read was tinged orange. The majority of the articles I saved were obsolete after a week because the news cycle churned so violently. And, at the end of a day of outrage and disgust, I had no problem flinging my phone across the room and doing a mindless jigsaw puzzle.
Now, even though we’ve hardly found a new competent status quo, I feel free — obliged even — to read about topics beyond the headlines. And that freedom, once again, has turned into mania. My impulse is to live the middle-aged woman version of Ready Player One: Plugged into the portal at all times with granola bars by my side for sustenance, reading analysis of the racial reckoning in podcasting, how the pandemic is reshaping education, and why there are reasons for economic optimism.
But this time, I recognize the symptoms. So now I’ll set some information goals. This means accepting that I will miss out on amazing articles, won’t always recognize the memes my colleagues refer to, and can’t sustain this information gluttony. I’m merely human. In return, I’ll get my brain back once again.