Manoush Zomorodi is the host and managing editor of WNYC’s New Tech City, a public radio podcast that examines how technology affects the way we live, whether it’s the ubiquitous surveillance following our data or the new frontier of space tourism.
Earlier this year they asked listeners to partake in an experiment called the Bored and Brilliant project — a provocation to stop checking your phone obsessively, to see if being a little more disconnected from the digital world would foster a greater sense of awareness and creativity. Did it work? One second — let me check my email while we catch up with Manoush about her favourite tools for managing her workflow, and if the digital detox left a lasting impression.
Location: Back and forth between home in Brooklyn and the office in Manhattan.
Current Gig: Host and Managing Editor of WNYC’s New Tech City. Mother of two.
One word that best describes how you work: Furiously.
Current mobile device: iPhone 5
Current computer: MacBook Air. The big one. But I often wish I got the smaller one. I hate dragging it back and forth from home to work on the subway. I have a keyboard for my iPad but it’s just not the same.
What apps, software, or tools can’t you live without? Why?
On-demand audio apps. Without them (iTunes, Stitcher, Overcast, WNYC’s own app), I’d have no show AND I wouldn’t jog very much. Having said that, I’m looking forward to a future where podcasts are more easily discovered and shared.
Other apps I rely on include the calendar app (so obvious, I know, but between kids, colleagues, and work events, I have nine different schedules to keep tabs on).
I kind of screwed myself with email by using a Yahoo mail account and using that account to open a Google Docs account. Then I decided to try Gmail (you know, peer pressure) and by opening a Gmail account you automatically get another Google identity. So now Google thinks I’m two different people. On the one hand, that’s great because I like the idea of messing with Google’s data; on the other hand now I can’t log into both Yahoo and Gmail at the same time in the same browser. My email fantasy is to pay for a service that will let me migrate and archive all my old email, won’t track me, AND won’t go out of business right after I’ve given everyone my new email address. I check Lifehacker every month for a solution to this conundrum. So far no one seems satisfied with the existing services. I trust in Alan Henry.
For reading, I use Pocket like a crazy person because I subscribe to a stupid number of newsletters and want to CONSUME IT ALL. At the end of the year, I got an email from Pocket saying I was in the top .1 per cent of users. Maybe they send that to everyone. But what they SHOULD do is send an email that states what percentage of your saved articles you actually read. My number would be significantly lower, in part because I find Pocket very difficult to organise. All I want are good old-fashioned folders that I can browse.
As a host, I go through dozens of articles to find ideas, then dozens more in preparation for all the interviews I do. We do one episode a week and each episode has at least two to three interviews. I think because I’m such a visual person, tags just don’t satisfy me (another reason I’m not into Gmail). Also, Pocket doesn’t work on Kindle, so I’ve yet to buy an e-ink reader (that, and I have control issues with Amazon). I’ve recently tried to set up a system where I send my Pocket articles that I want to reference later (for future shows or that book I’m working on) to Evernote. For some reason, Evernote and I have never clicked. I love reading articles about how people use Evernote but until I can read Evernote on my phone as I can read Pocket, Evernote and I will remain cordial acquaintances. Pocket and I are lovers.
As Ira Glass put it so beautifully on Lifehacker last year, my show also “runs on Google Docs”. In the “Scripts” folder each show gets a single doc where we dump all the links, interview transcripts, notes and ideas. That way I can easily reference everything when it’s finally time to start writing. I feel uneasy using a free service that has access to everything I write including this very sentence but it’s our contemporary deal with the Devil, right?
Lastly, I am really big on white boards and Post-it notes. About a year ago I got a productivity makeover from Toyota’s efficiency guru (we did an episode on it). He convinced me that I needed to SEE all my ideas in front of me and watch them progress or stagnate. So we have a big board with show ideas, a calendar to visualise workflow, and sticky notes all over the place. Each show gets a post-it that moves up the whiteboard calendar. After the show has aired, the Post-it migrates to our “Wall of Satisfaction”. I also really love the “Grande” Post-its. I love most office supplies.
What’s your workspace setup like?
My team and I have a “pod” with three desks at New York Public Radio but, as you can imagine, radio people are kind of chatty so I don’t get a lot of writing done there. So I usually script the show on the weekends, either at Whole Foods, where the coffee and Wi-Fi are strong and I can combine work with a grocery run, or curled up on the big furry beanbag chair by the window that gets a lot of sun in our bedroom. One day, I was typing away and paused to gaze out the window. The tree was full of green parrots nibbling away on half-frozen berries. We stared at each other for a moment and then all got back to business.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
I don’t read the internet anymore because of newsletters. I am fully curated thanks to This, Pocket, Mediabistro, Today In Tabs, MediaREDEF, NiemanLab, The Conversation, Everything Changes, Caitlin Dewey, HotPod, WNYC, Next City, Gary’s Guide, #AwesomeWomen, The Ann Friedman Weekly, Real Future. I’m sure I forgot someone vital. Apologies.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
I am obsessed with to-do list managers. For years I was on the hunt for an app that hit the sweet spot between “Reminders” and Omnifocus. I wanted to love Wunderlist because it looks so great but it just doesn’t have enough functionality. On the other hand, so many of the more powerful list apps are just plain ugly. I’ve spent hours reading Lifehacker articles debating the merits between the various kind of list managers. After trying out at least a dozen, I’ve settled into Todoist. It’s GTD without being obsessive, attractive without being too clever. It doesn’t integrate with my calendar but for now, I’m at peace because I can prioritise and repeat tasks and put them off until next month or whenever. I can also look at the week’s task in one glance and move things around easily. Since becoming a parent, my brain is a sieve. Seriously, my kids would never return their library books if I didn’t write a reminder to find and put them in their backpacks.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
No other gadgets. I’m trying to keep life simple. Between all the crap my kids get from grandparents (both sides) and the ridiculous number of books and magazines my husband and I try to plough through, I don’t want more stuff. This answer is going to get me in trouble, by the way.
Did the Bored and Brilliant project affect the way you approach your gadgets in the long term?
Yes. I’m trying (trying!) to keep my phone in my pocket (that was Challenge #1) while I walk and only look at it purposefully, not just because I feel socially awkward or I’m in one of my OCD email checking cycles (you know, those days when you just keep checking and checking and checking). I took the game 2Dots off my phone because I was using it as a crutch when I was tired or stressed. I haven’t reinstalled it but I’ve noticed that I’ve gone back to Pinterest. After listening and writing all day, I guess I need visual stimulation. I’m thinking about subscribing to some pretty magazines again.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
I can be ruthlessly efficient. Sometimes that’s good (planning birthday parties, organising a vacation); other times that’s bad (conversations, explaining a complicated idea). My years as a TV news producer made me capable of pushing myself extremely hard and getting more done than anyone else. Unfortunately, this also leads to burnout. I learned the hard way how important it is to manage your energy.
What do you listen to while you work?
Sometimes I listen to the “Focus” playlist on Spotify but usually I just wear my headphones as a signal to leave me alone (everyone in radio does this) or because I’m listening to a raw interview and trying to figure out how to edit it down. If I’m going to be subbing for the hosts of WNYC’s daily live shows, Brian Lehrer or Leonard Lopate, I’ll make sure I listen to the show the day before just to remind myself of their rhythm and pacing. I don’t want to freak out the audience by being overly exuberant (which is usually my MO). Also, if something funny happens, I need to be able to reference it. Like the day Joy Behar was on and she completely mangled my name.
What are you currently reading?
Still ploughing through the New Yorker article about Jony Ive. I gave myself mental permission NOT to finish the piece (it’s 17k words, after all) but I just keeping wanting to go back to the calm world that journalist Ian Parker has captured so beautifully. I also am re-reading The Shallows by Nick Carr and Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson. I think I also have a women’s fitness magazine that I got at the airport and never read. I’m trying to eat more protein so I thought it might be inspiring but it’s just kind of reminding me of being 25 and spending too much time at the gym.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I will take an intimate dinner of four over a party any day. I would rather be on a panel than go to the networking drinks afterwards. My husband is my secret weapon. He enjoys socialising way more than I do and is much better at making small talk. Between two extremely talkative children and talking for a living, my inner introvert is feeling very deprived these days. I have to be careful to feed her with quiet time. Otherwise, the extrovert side starts to become acerbic.
How do you recharge?
I started working out again last summer after a seven year break. I like my new “guns” but I also like how it resets my mood. Before having kids I used to spend the entire weekend on the couch, alternating between napping and reading the paper. That’s now my recurring fantasy. Instead, I vacuum. It’s very satisfying to being able to survey an accomplishment so quickly. Nothing like a good Miele.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I’m not a night owl or a morning person. Sucks, right? I’m a 4PM person so I have absolutely no edge on anyone.
I try to go to sleep around 10pm and get up at 6am; I’d say it works four out of seven days. No matter what, I have to read something ON PAPER before I go to sleep. I also try to have no screen one hour before bed — tough, because that can be the only time my husband and I can watch House of Cards or High Maintenance. First thing in the morning (I hate admitting this) I look at my phone; it’s like visual espresso. That blue light wakes me right up. I’m too lazy to go make actual coffee.
This is something I’ve been pondering: We all experience moments when we suddenly wake up in the middle of the night thinking about something, either work or life related — so what wakes you up at 3 o’clock in the morning?
Oh dear. Existentialism. Death. That horrible things can happen to everyone. That’s what wakes me up at 3 o’clock in the morning. If my thirties were about having a family and my forties are about making my own identity, I’d like to think my fifties will be about coming to terms with the cycle of life and impermanence. It’s a big joke in my family that I’m so ridiculously dark. That, and I always spill stuff down the front of my shirt when I eat.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The head of foreign news-gathering at the BBC once told me, “Never bring management a problem, bring them a solution.” If you’re self-employed that advice applies doubly.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
When I feel beaten down and overwhelmed, like I’m doing an half-arse job and impressing no one (including my kids and my team), I listen to the one song I have on my phone (other than the U2 album that Apple forced on me): “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” by the Arctic Monkeys. It reminds me of when I was cool, had free time, and lived a little more dangerously. It’s like time travel for 2 minutes and 41 seconds. Pretty much the exact amount of time it takes me to walk from the subway to home, just in time to make dinner.
We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.