According to research, people spend almost half their time thinking about something other than what they are doing at the moment. And here’s the kicker; doing so makes them unhappy!
(Maybe because they end up having to do it again to fix the mistakes from the first time?)
With all the demands on your time and attention at home and the workplace, how do you hone in on the skills that will make you a detail-oriented master of your destiny?
First, let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about.
What Is Attention to Detail?
Attention to detail is being organized, consistent, focused on high quality, thoroughness, and accuracy. Detail-oriented employees tend to be trusted with more complex projects because their time management skills, organizational skills, and observational skills allow them to check their own work for errors before presenting it for review.
The result? A better first impression of their work quality.
It’s possible to be too detail-oriented, which tends to result in a person who gets bogged down in details and unable to see the big picture.
It’s also common to find people who are smart, resourceful, and hard-working but lack attention to detail. Common reasons are poor time management, prioritizing the wrong tasks, a work style that doesn’t include sufficient time for revision, or inexperience in the field.
Before going further, it’s important to acknowledge that physical and mental health conditions can affect an individual’s ability to focus, so the methods and degrees of improvement will vary.
So with that, it’s time for…
15 Techniques For Improving Your Attention To Detail
Let’s break these down into three different categories. First, we’ll talk about improving mindset, then improving the environment, and finally, improving processes.
Practice active listening skills
Active listening is the ability to engage cognitive, emotional, and behavioral skills to give undivided attention to a conversation with another person.
- Get rid of distractions and avoid interrupting so you can pay attention to what the other person is saying; put down the phone, turn off the computer, step away from the baby unicorn.
- Show interest by using nonverbal cues. For example, you can use a slow triple nod to show engagement and encourage the other party. If you want a refresher on this, check out The 7 Most Charismatic Cues to Use While Listening.
- Reflect by repeating back to the person the most relevant details they said in their own words.
- Ask open-ended questions to clarify and encourage the person to continue sharing. For example, rather than a question with a “yes” or “no” answer, ask, “how could we accomplish that?” or “what do you think is the first step?”
For example, imagine if a coworker stops by your desk to ask your opinion on developing a new policy he’s really excited about. But you’re trying to finish an email at the same time. To work on active listening, you might try something like this:
Coworker: “I’ve got an idea. Do you have a sec?”
You: “Sure, just let me make a note so I can finish this email later.”
Coworker: “Great! I was just talking to a few newer employees, and it turns out several of them are confused about the reimbursement process.”
You: *Triple nods to show encouragement*
Coworker: “Anyway, I know Tess knows that stuff inside and out. What do you think about asking her to do training with the newer employees?”
You: “Have Tess do training? I think it’s a great idea. What topics do you think she should cover?”
Try this: Ask a friend or partner about their day and practice active listening, including repenting the most important things they say. When you see them again, ask about one of the things they mentioned.
Break it down now, y’all.
Being detail-oriented means being able to take a large project and successfully break it down into manageable tasks. At first, don’t worry about putting things in the correct order; just list everything you can think of that needs to be done.
For example, if you’re hosting a big meeting at the end of the month, your list might look something like this:
- Create an agenda
- Email Bob to approve the agenda
- Get Bob’s revisions
- Invite attendees
- Confirm attendees the week before
- Make agenda edits based on Bob’s feedback
- Assign Patsy to manage lunch
- Create name tags
- Get pens and notepads from the closet
- Print agendas the day before
- Book the conference room
- Test the projector and computer adapters
- Make sure we have coffee!
Now, instead of having one big project that is hard to define, you have a list of very simple tasks. An added bonus is that as you finish each task, you can check it off your list. (Dopamine, remember?)
Try this: Break down a project into individual tasks and list who is responsible for getting it done.
Learn the Eisenhower principle.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower popularized the quote:
“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”—Dwight D. Eisenhower
This gave rise to the “Eisenhower Matrix,” a time management system to help prioritize tasks. Each box represents a different intersection of importance and urgency.
Importance generally has to do with the ability to accomplish personal and professional goals, while urgency is often inflicted by deadlines from external sources. The problem is that your brain prefers completing urgent tasks1https://hbr.org/2016/03/your-desire-to-get-things-done-can-undermine-your-effectiveness, even if they aren’t important.
Urgent and Important
These tasks can be ones that were unforeseen, like needing to pick up a sick child from school, or that was procrastinated, like the slide deck for tomorrow’s presentation that kept getting pushed off.
Not Urgent But Important
This category often includes items relating to personal development, professional goals, and relationships. For example, a date night with your partner is essential, but not particularly urgent.
Urgent But Not Important
Many tasks in this category come at the request of others. For example, your boss may need your report by the end of the day because she’s leaving town.
Not Urgent And Not Important
There are always things in this category, and these tasks can vary widely depending on personal circumstances, but here’s the secret: you don’t need to do them. And how do you keep these items off your plate?
Embrace this simple truth: “no” is a complete sentence.
For more about this, check out 6 Effective Tips to Politely Say No (that actually work!)
Try this: Categorize tasks on your schedule this week and complete one task from each category using the Eisenhower Matrix.
Be your own personal assistant
Our brains have priority levels for the information it collects and retains. For example, knowing the date of your son’s soccer tournament is probably more important than remembering you have a coat at the dry cleaners.
Interestingly, research2https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2022-08-05/prognosis-reminder-list-can-improve-your-memory#:~:text=Setting%20reminders%20can%20help%20your%20memory%20skills&text=That’s%20because%20the%20act%20of,Journal%20of%20Experimental%20Psychology%3A%20General. shows that creating external reminders for important dates or tasks, such as the soccer tournament, actually frees up your memory for lower-priority tasks you didn’t write down.
Being detail-oriented doesn’t mean you have to remember every important detail. It’s more important to have a reliable system for recovering information as it’s relevant. It also means being an excellent note-taker.
How do you plan to keep track of details? Create a system on Notion or in notes on your phone. Or go old school and carry around a notebook and pen.
Try this: Make a list of the people in your life whose birthdays or other special dates you’d like to remember. Put an annual event in your calendar on their special day, and set a reminder for the night before.
Take five, everyone!
When working on a time-consuming project, don’t forget to give your brain a rest.
If possible, schedule enough time that you can finish the project, leave it for at least one hour and up to 24 hours, and come back for a final review with a fresh perspective.
Try this: Pick a project to finish one day ahead of schedule and do a final review after setting it aside for at least 12 hours.
Avoid the multitasking myth
You’ve probably already heard3https://hbr.org/2010/12/you-cant-multi-task-so-stop-tr that humans don’t multitask. Instead, we engage in task switching, though how effectively we do depends on a series of factors. The complexity of the tasks affects how long it takes us to switch between tasks.
Research4https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1906788116#sec-2 shows that regular practice can increase how quickly people can task switch, but repeatedly switching between tasks can reduce production time by as much as 40%5https://www.apa.org/topics/research/multitasking.
Try this: Before starting a task at work, close any web browser tab that isn’t immediately relevant. Turn your phone to silent and put it out of sight. If you change tasks before you’re finished, make a note of where you stopped and what should happen next.
Read 30 minutes daily
Reading can improve a person’s attention to detail in multiple ways. Reading requires focus on grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, and other aspects of the text. It also builds critical thinking skills, including analyzing information, breaking it down, and considering the implications of the details.
Beyond that, reading increases general or specific knowledge in a variety of subject areas.
Each of these skills can be transferred to being more detail-oriented when they are applied to a task that needs to be thought through, processed, and presented error-free.
Try this: Go to the library and find a book on a topic you know little about. If you’re a fan of self-help books, try reading from the history section and look for ways the self-help skills you learned recently were (or could have been) used by the historical figure you’re reading about.
Try something out of your comfort zone
When we have new experiences6https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-experiences-help-speed-up-brain-development-in-mice/, our brains create new neural pathways, and improve development. What’s more, new experiences require us to focus, process information, form new memories, and make connections. As a result, new experiences help improve memory function, and the ability to become more detail-oriented.
Try this: Take a different route next time you drive to the grocery store or work. For more ideas, look at 20 Simple Ways You Can Step Out of Your Comfort Zone.
Make a habit of making habits
Habits are repeated behaviors that are usually done unconsciously. Habits take time to develop, but once there, a good habit makes life easier and more successful.
Putting on a seatbelt before starting the car is a habit for 91% of Americans7https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/seat-belts. And yet, how many times a day do parents turn to their kids and say…
Similarly, developing a habit of scrolling to the top of an email before hitting send may not come naturally, but making it a habit can dramatically decrease the number of follow-up emails needed to clarify typos and other errors.
Eventually, the neural pathways in your brain will develop to increase speed and sensitivity to those processes, and the habit will be effortless.
Try this: Pick one bad habit you know you’re prone to make and create a process to check for that error in less than a minute. Here are some examples:
- If you’re prone to biting your nails, try using a fidget toy instead.
- If you sleep late at night, try reading a book and turning off electronic screens.
- If you gravitate towards chips, try munching on celery or carrot sticks whenever you feel that urge instead.
Follow mom’s advice: “clean up this room!”
Studies8https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Joseph-Ferrari/publication/344388085_The_Negative_Side_of_Office_Clutter_Impact_on_Work-Related_Well-Being_and_Job_Satisfaction/links/5f6f3d8da6fdcc00863cb5ed/The-Negative-Side-of-Office-Clutter-Impact-on-Work-Related-Well-Being-and-Job-Satisfaction.pdf found clutter to be a result of indecision about what’s important, and more office clutter predicted greater emotional exhaustion.
This just proves what you already know by looking at your messy desk on Thursday afternoon—being emotionally drained can make it harder to focus on details and increases the risk of errors.
Try this: schedule a regular time every week to declutter your work area. Throw away old post-it notes, gather up trash that’s collected, file documents away, etc.
Unplug digitally for greater attention
Ah, we love technology. So much so that the average American household has 16 connected devices9https://www.parksassociates.com/blog/article/04272022#:~:text=US%20internet%20household%20have%20an%20average%20of%2016%20connected%20devices, and there’s a word for fear of not having a working phone. (True story, it’s nomophobia10https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nomophobia.)
One study11https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5403814/ found that simply completing a task in one app can be delayed by up to 400% by unintended interruptions from another app!
It’s not hard to figure out that attention to detail skills can be significantly improved by reducing external distractions like technology.
- Turn off smartwatch notifications
- Put the phone on silent or “do not disturb” while working
- Set the phone out of eyesight while talking with others
- Leave your phone in another room, especially while working or sleeping
Try this: Delete social media apps from your phone and computer for a week. If you choose to check social media, log on through your browser. To go even further, check out How to Do a Digital Detox: 3 Easy Steps for Success.
Go the Extra Mile: Do you know how much time you spend on your phone? On iOS, take a look at “Screen Time” in your settings. For other systems, install an app that tracks your phone usage and review it every day for one week.
Why are those breaks so important? Giving the mind and body time to reset helps reduce stress.
It’s well-documented12https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352154616301504#:~:text=Stress%20impairs%20memory%20retrieval.,to%20prefrontal%2Dbased%20extinction%20memory. that stress affects a person’s ability to create memories. The more stress a person experiences, the more our brain produces chemicals that inhibit our ability to form short- and long-term memories.
That’s why you may have a hard time remembering what was discussed as you sit down 20 minutes late to an important meeting because you were in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway.
Many techniques, including deep breathing, visualization, meditation, or listening to music, all work to bring attention to the present moment and location.
The ability to recognize what is causing us stress is an important skill to reduce that stress. The article 24 Powerful Tips to Deal with Anxiety offers many suggestions, including:
- Thank you instead of sorry
- Talk in third person
- Destress with anti-stress body language
- Draw a mandala
Try this: Pick one stress-reducing technique to try next time you find yourself unable to focus. Put a reminder where you will see it.
Go old school for better memory retention
Memory recall is an essential factor in producing high-quality work. A study13https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210319080820.htm in Japan tested detail retention, and here’s what happened:
- Participants read a fictional conversation discussing schedules, assignments, and appointments.
- They took notes with one of the following: a paper datebook, a tablet calendar app, or a smartphone calendar app.
- An hour later, they entered an MRI machine while answering a series of questions about the schedules.
- Those who used smartphones finished in 16 minutes. Tablet users finished in 14 minutes, and paper datebook users completed the task in 11 minutes!
- Here’s the most interesting bit; participants who used paper “had more brain activity in areas associated with language, imaginary visualization, and in the hippocampus—an area known to be important for memory and navigation.”
Try this: Next time, you need to remember a list of to-do tasks, write them down on paper and check them off when you’re done.
Go the Extra Mile: Our brains LOVE completing tasks, and especially being able to check a box! When we achieve a goal, no matter how small, our brain releases dopamine, a “feel good” endorphin. So next time you finish folding the laundry, write it on a list and check it off for an extra boost of dopamine.
Work backward from deadlines
Working backward helps determine what tasks are the highest priority, how to sequence tasks most efficiently, and provides those involved with a timeline to which they are accountable.
Creating a timeline also makes it possible to build buffer time for unknown delays and factor in conflicts like weekends and holidays.
Try this: Mark the deadline of an upcoming project on your calendar and work backward to determine when to start each task needed to accomplish it.
Use the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method that combines many of the skills discussed in this article.
Research14http://repository.usp.ac.fj/9029/1/Matching_Workplace_Training_to_Adult_Attention_Span_to_Improve_Learner_Reaction_Learning_Score_and_Retention.pdf shows that when presented with information in three 20-minute intervals with 5-minute breaks, adults will retain the information better and enjoy the experience more than the same information presented in a single one-hour chunk.
Fun fact: It’s named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer!
- Choose one task to work on and remove other distractions
- Set a timer for 25-30 minutes
- When the timer goes off, take a five-minute break
- Repeat three more times
- At the end of the fourth session, take a longer 15-30 minute break
Try this: Choose one project that requires attention to detail, and use the Pomodoro Technique.
And Now You’re Ready Never To Miss Another Detail!
OK, not quite.
Developing attention to detail doesn’t mean having completely error-free work for everything you do. It’s a process of developing skills and creating useful habits to catch your own small mistakes (or big ones!) before presenting your work to others.
When you catch a small error, celebrate! That means your attention to detail is improving.
When you have an important project due, ask someone else to be your second set of eyes. If they point out an error in your work, thank them for the feedback. They just gave you an example of being detail-oriented.
When you spot an error in someone else’s work, graciously offer them the chance to correct it.
So, It Comes Down To This:
- Improve your mindset with less multitasking, more reading and new experiences, and a focus on improved habits and active listening.
- Improve your environment by decluttering, removing technology distractions, taking breaks, and reducing stress.
- Improve your process by leaving reminders, writing things down, breaking down big projects into smaller tasks, working backward from the deadline, and using the Eisenhower Matrix and the Pomodoro Technique.
Looking for more ideas on how to be organized? Check out 19 Ways To Better Organize Your Thoughts (And Be Productive).