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Why Long Form Content Works: Dealing With Information Overload

by Chris Dalton | 05.12.14

Having constant access to the Internet is a double-edged sword: it is a luxury to have so much knowledge at your fingertips, but navigating the sea of information can be overwhelming. Endless media streams on sites like Facebook and Twitter can be mind numbing and distracting. We use them to keep up with hearing the latest news at a breakneck pace, but trying to keep up with these streams leaves us like hamsters on a wheel. Our attention spans have atrophied to the point of being unable to concentrate on long form content and our constant connection to feeds have deteriorated our mental filters.

In our last article on productivity, we spoke about the importance of taking breaks to be more efficient with our tasks and avoid burnout. Another important skill for productivity in the digital age is having the ability to block out distractions and maintain attention for extended periods of time. The majority of content has shifted from long form content to quick, consumable Tweets and Buzzfeed listicles, and for regular consumers of this type of brief content it has become difficult to make it through a long article.

Despite the popularity of Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and other aggregate websites for shallow, meaningless content, research shows that long form content is actually more effective than short. Although short content can be good for SEO and keyword optimization, it can hinder user engagement, which is arguably a more important metric. Longer content means that users will take the time to interact with your content for a longer period of time – and generally, the longer that your content is, the more researched, developed, and thought out it is.  

The popular blogging website Medium compiled data on the average word length and time spent on posts and found that the ideal length is around 1,600 words long and takes seven minutes to read:

Clearly if you’re a content creator, it makes sense to focus on creating high quality, long form content to set your work apart from the masses. Most of us are consumers of content as well though – so here are some tips for dealing with information overload:

Shift your content consumption from “fast content” to “slow content”

Buzzfeed generates cliffhanger titles and numbered lists that preys upon our psychology and tempts us to click. Ultimately though, most of us get little value out of articles like “128 Thoughts Everyone Has While Trying To Buy Concert Tickets” (an actual Buzzfeed article). Websites like this are focused less on providing valuable or entertaining information and more about getting as many clicks as possible to increase their ad revenue. Contrast this with the article “Snow Fall” from the New York Times, a multimedia narrative that combines long form journalism with HTML 5 visuals and videos.

On the Internet, where everyone can be a digital publisher, the way to stand out is not by creating a short keyword optimized blog article, but by producing an outstanding piece of content that stands out from the rest. The short piece of content may get lots of clicks for the day, but it is soon forgotten. Pieces like the New York Times article Snow Fall are still shared and read today despite being published in 2012. It’s a memorable piece of content that readers appreciate for its depth of research, and ultimately it garners higher quality interaction and enables valuable discussion.

Use to avoid a tab monsoon and remove potential distractions

Have you ever gotten on Twitter for a few minutes to read up on daily updates and the latest news, only to find your browser overloaded with 50 open tabs to various links you found? It can be incredibly distracting to try to read an article that you have open with the luring titles of ten other related links, and it’s tempting to click between several tabs rather than focus on just one article. It’s also an overwhelming feeling if you are truly interested in looking at everything you have open, but don’t have the time to look at it all.

A simple work around to avoid overloading your browser with tabs and focus on just the essentials you have open at the moment is to use a bookmarking website like bookmarks your tabs in the cloud, allowing you to access them easily at a later time and removes those distractions when you are trying to focus on one thing. Another handy feature is that it allows you to categorize your saved URL’s, so if you are doing research on a particular topic, you can file away all of your open tabs on that topic into an organized section for later retrieval. Managing the content you like to read and watch in an organized format can help you parse it out to be viewed at your leisure, rather than in a coma-inducing binge.

Avoid taskswitching

The worst offender of productivity is the myth of multitasking. Most people think that they can do multiple things at once at the same efficiency. Although a small (about 2%) portion of the population can truly multitask without suffering in performance, for the vast majority of us, we perform worse at tasks when we try to complete multiple things at the same time. Attempting to multitask leads to decreased productivity – although we think we are doing more in less time when we combine tasks, we end up taking longer than we would have had we done each task independently. Doing multiple tasks simultaneously also generally leads to a lower quality of work for all of the results produced.

Many knowledge workers have become accustomed to rapid task switching: going from their inbox to a beep on their phone, then back to their original project they had been working on. We’ve become slaves to the interruptions that pop up in our periphery, and it hinders our ability to produce quality work in a reasonable amount of time. Constant distractions and taskswitching cause us to constantly have to revisit our original task with an altered frame of mind, and when we lose our train of thought, it takes us longer to get back into a certain task.

Removing potential distractions, such as by using the tip in the last section, can go a long way in helping you avoid taskswitching. By training yourself to focus on one task at a time, you can get more done than by taking projects on all at once. Budget time in your schedule to specifically go through your inbox rather than checking it every few minutes and reading emails as they come into your inbox.

Take the time to focus on longer articles, well produced videos and other well developed forms of content. If you’re used to Twitter feeds, it can be difficult to focus your attention on one thing at a time, but doing so will help manage overloading your thoughts with information and keeping your mind clear and productive.

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