HEALTH

6 Small Habits To Increase Your Attention Span

And why there's no such thing as multitasking.

12/08/2016 12:13 PM AEST | Updated 13/08/2016 12:25 PM AEST
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Multitasking? No, you're not.

Whether you're trying to write an essay, or just clearing your email inbox there's no doubt you're interrupted by a notification (or thirty) like a temptress luring you away from said task.

The growing number of apps, platforms and devices entering our lives have placed distraction at an all time high.

Unfortunately it's hard to measure whether our attention span has actually decreased (as psychologists need to measure a controlled task which is difficult throughout time).

The Huffington Post Australia spoke to Dr Katherine Johnson, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Melbourne, to breakdown some myths about our attention spans and consequently, how we can help increase them.

Dr Johnson is studying attention control in children and adults over time, so there's probably no one in the country better to explain how to avoid reaching for our phones five minutes into a movie.

What is the exact definition of our attention span?

There are two different terms (and meanings) behind our attention spans in psychology.

Visual attention span: "It's literally how many things can you pay attention to on a screen in a particular amount of time," Johnson said.

Sustained attention span: "Which is concentrating on a task for a long period of time without getting distracted by anything else, and it's particularly difficult if the task is boring."

So here, we're tackling sustained attention span.

Is technology ruining our attention spans?

Technology isn't exactly ruining our attention spans. It's just providing more distractions.

"Technology is just another example of a distraction. Ultimately it's under our control, so if we can recognise that we're allowing ourselves to be distracted, we can also convert it into a reward," Johnson said.

Also, contrary to belief, you cannot do two tasks at once. Johnson said when we think we're doing two things at once, like walking and texting, or watching a movie and trawling instagram, we're actually just quickly microswitching between tasks.

"It leads to a worse performance on both tasks, compared to just doing one task at a time."

What else can we do to improve our attention spans?

1. Find a quiet space

There is a network in the brain that is "aroused" when it's alerted to random noises, said Johnson, so finding a quiet space without distractions is best to clear your inbox.

Which is bad news for workers in open plan offices. However, regular noise is fine as the specific brain network adapts. If the open plan office is quiet, you'll have no problems, but if there's irregular noise, listening to music quietly may even help eradicate the loud outbursts of chatter.

"It's that irregular noise that will capture your attention and drag you away from your task," Johnson said.

2. Go for a run

"People with higher cardiovascular fitness do better at sustained attention performance," Johnson said.

"So if you have better aerobic fitness you are more likely to perform better. So there's another reason to go for a run."

So there is science behind exercising in the morning (and no, the below doesn't count)

Paul Bradbury

3. Buy a pot plant

Research conducted by Johnson and her colleagues at The University of Melbourne revealed when people are exposed to greenery performed long tasks better.

"It also helps people's cooperation in the workplace," Johnson said.

They don't yet know whether it's exposure to nature or the colour green that does wonderful things, but having a pot plant with greenery in your office or on your desk certainly helps. Or a photo of greenery in sight.

4. Drink green tea

"In green tea there's a little bit of caffeine but also an element called Theanine, and they improve sustained attention performance," Johnson said.

Dimitri Otis

5. Meditate

You can improve your attention control if you can meditate, said Johnson.

"It makes sense, because when you're meditating you're concentrating on either one thing or a blankness, so you're exercising that muscle in the brain."

That 'muscle' is a network in the brain which controls sustained attention (involving parts of the frontal cortex and parts of the parietal cortex in the back of the brain).

6. Get a good night's sleep

"If you're more tired or fatigued that clearly effects your attention span," Johnson said.

Irregular and odd sleep cycles impact our ability to perform tasks well so make sure you get between seven and eight hours shut eye each night if you can.

And if you got to the bottom of this article, congratulations. You can go and check your instagram now.

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