What It Means to Pay Attention to Detail, and How to Excel at It
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Your mission: Make it to the end of this article without checking your phone. And not because I tried really hard to make it fun to read. I did try really hard, but that’s not the point. The point is, before you can learn how to pay attention to detail, you have to learn to pay attention.
You’ve already taken the steps to get here. (Welcome! I wish I could greet you with a piña colada.) Now, see if you can focus on your intention—reading this article—without giving in to the urge to check your phone, or answer a new Slack message, or—
Wait. You know what we should do first? Let’s go over four quick ways you can remove distractions, the No. 1 enemy of paying attention to detail.
- Pause notifications. As you try to focus, others will continue sending you emails, Slacks, and texts. Respectfully, shut that sh*t down. On Slack, you can add the headphone emoji (🎧) with a note that you’re doing heads-down work. Set your phone to “Do Not Disturb,” which prevents vibrations and sounds and tells people you’ll see their invite to the cross-functional BBQ later.
- Arrange your space. Time to clear off that desk! Even if that means shoving stuff behind you so it’s out of sight. Do put a glass of water and notepad by your side; whatever you’ll need during your focus time. And if you’re working remotely and really type A, you can shut doors to adjacent rooms. (An unmade bed is distracting to me, so putting a physical barrier between us helps.)
- Set a timer. Set an alarm to go off in 20 minutes or however much time you have to spend. Then, get to work and don’t you dare get up until that alarm goes off! I mean, you can pee. But use common sense. And remember how freakin’ good it will feel when this task is checked off.
- Use a distraction list. Chris Bailey, author of Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World Full of Distractions, makes a list of any distractions that come up (like remembering to email somebody) while he works. “This way, these things don't derail my focus,” he says. When he’s done, “I’ll go to town on the distractions, which is kind of a reward at the end of a focus session.
Ultimately, “No one can control your attention but you,” says Maura Thomas, who has an MBA and is the author of Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity Every Day. With this in mind, we can move on to how to pay attention to detail. Overall, we’ll cover:
- What does paying attention to detail mean, exactly?
- The skills you need to demonstrate attention to detail
- How to show you’re paying attention to detail, in 4 key work scenarios
- 10 best ways to improve your attention to detail
What does paying attention to detail mean, exactly?
Paying attention to detail means completing a task thoroughly. If your boss says they want you to pay more attention to detail, it means they’ve noticed errors in your work and they want you to get better at catching and fixing those mistakes before turning in future projects.
I like how Muse career coach Yolanda M. Owens defines paying attention to detail. She shared something her grandmother used to say to her: “People view the world with a different prescription in their lens, and what you pay attention to depends on how sharp your vision is.”
When I was an editor at a previous job and had to convey notes to writers from my boss, who had, let’s say, very sharp vision, I often couched her feedback with: “We have to get the hang of what she pays attention to, and pay close attention to those things.” So sometimes it’s literally about paying particular attention to the stuff that stands out to your boss.
But your boss may not even articulate this stuff to you. This article will help you recalibrate and start paying more attention to detail—even without explicit instructions. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be seen as someone who’s reliable, thoughtful, and trustworthy. You’ll gain more and better responsibilities, and have an easier time negotiating a raise or promotion. Seems worth it, right? Let’s keep going.
The skills you need to demonstrate attention to detail
Imagine you have a microscope in front of you; think of each skill on this list as a different lens to view your work.
- Active listening skills: These help you focus on and process what someone’s saying to you. Scott Eblin, founder and president of The Eblin Group, a leadership development firm based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, describes three types of listening: Transactional is, I just want to hear what you need me to do. What’s the point? What’s in it for me? Transitional is, I'm listening to you while thinking about what I'm going to say when you stop talking. And transformative is, I am listening in order to understand what you are saying in a way that I could even repeat it back to you. You have to be actively listening for this last one. And if you do want to repeat what you think you heard, you can say something like, “What I think I’m hearing you say is X. Would you say that’s accurate?”
- Analytical skills: This is your ability to read, interpret, or manage data correctly. (If you’re not a numbers person, a calculator is your friend.) It’s also about being able to evaluate information and use it to draw insights, come to conclusions, or solve problems.
- Diligence skills: Diligence means a “careful and persistent work or effort,” so diligence skills are all about avoiding distraction pitfalls and focusing on that quarterly sales memo for pool floats. People often fall short on diligence when they work too quickly, and I’ll share more about the power of slow work later.
- Editing skills: This one’s all about reviewing what you write, whether it’s a dissertation or a one-liner. You want to make sure your message is free and clear of typos, including spelling and grammar mistakes, and also easy to understand, logical, and respectful.
- Observational skills: Sometimes, paying attention to detail means observing your environment. If you’re noticing that Senior Accountant Doug seems particularly frenzied these days, it might encourage you to tidy up that expense report a little bit more than you would otherwise. Actions like this make you seem thoughtful, i.e., you’re mindful of how others might receive and benefit from your work. (And in return, maybe Doug will approve your MasterClass with Kris Jenner toward your “learning and development.” Who knows?!)
- Organizational skills: You can have the best information in the world, but if it’s presented like a pile of cords behind your grandmother’s brick of a TV, no one is going to want to make sense of it. The ultimate question is: How can people easily sort through this information if I am vacationing in the Maldives and unable to explain it to them?
- Time management skills: You’re probably familiar with this one: the ability to juggle multiple responsibilities at once and prioritize how and when they’ll get done ahead of your deadlines. This is an especially difficult skill for people who are new in their career, not because they’re inexperienced but because they have no one else to delegate to and/or fewer options to share the burden. Yep, I said it, and I have help for you ahead.
Next, we’re going to talk about how to apply these skills to your career.
How to show you’re paying attention to detail, in 4 key work scenarios
Here, I’ll turn the seven skills above into prompts you can answer to ensure that you’re thinking about these four situations from every angle—at least when it comes to paying attention to detail.
1. How to pay attention to detail in job applications
- Active listening: Did you read the job description, and find ways to incorporate the specifics onto a tailored resume for this role?
- Analytical: How can you quantify what you do with data? And how can you take a data-driven approach to answering interview questions?
- Diligence: Do they ask for anything else in addition to your resume? A cover letter, or salary requirements? Include those in your application.
- Editing: Review your materials for typos and other mistakes. Ask a trusted friend if they can be a fresh set of eyes for you.
- Observational: Can you research the company by checking out their Muse company profile or website and finding ways to incorporate info into your application? Showing that you’re an informed candidate who cares about their culture will help you stand out.
- Organizational: Is your resume file saved in a way that a busy hiring manager can easily access it? Try “[FirstName]_[LastName]_[Company]_Resume_2023.pdf.” Now that’s paying attention to detail, baby.
- Time management: Are you able to apply for jobs in a way that doesn’t lead to fatigue or burnout? Build in breaks so that you can come back to it fresh.
2. How to pay attention to detail during a job interview
- Active listening: When the hiring manager is explaining the role, are you paying attention—or thinking about what you’ll say back to them? Can you take notes to include later in a thank you email?
- Analytical: Are they sharing how they measure success, or any benchmarks that you’ll need to hit to be successful in the role?
- Diligence: Are you prepared to show up on time? Do you have a list of questions to ask them based on what you know about the role so far?
- Editing: Have you thought about condensing explanations to possible interview questions into bite-size answers? Do you know the most important information you want to share about yourself, and what you can save for another time if you’re cut short?
- Observational: Do the people you’re interviewing with seem like they would be great colleagues? How can you take cues from what you see and hear during interviews and take that into account when answering and asking questions to show you're responsive rather than just reciting what you prepared?
- Organizational: If you’re interviewing in person, do you have everything you need in your bag, including a notebook, pen, and copies of your resume? If you’re asked to follow up with attachments, are they saved in a way that will make sense to the receiver?
- Time management: Are you keeping track of time during the interview, or asking about their timeline so you can anticipate when you’ll need to be prepared for next steps?
3. How to pay attention to detail at the office
- Active listening: Are you paying attention to the speaker in a meeting, or is your mind wandering?
- Analytical: Are you enabling yourself to focus on complicated materials, or are you trying to review a spreadsheet with one eye while your cubemate is telling a wild story about their weekend?
- Diligence: Do you make time to review your work before turning it in, or when you get to the last step on a project, do you fire it off immediately?
- Editing: Do you review your work for logic, grammar, and spelling? Is it organized in a way that’s clear and easy to understand? Is everything relevant, or should some items be moved to a different place?
- Observational: How does your boss like to receive information? Is that influencing the way you’re delivering materials? This is also about noticing things beyond your exact task and understanding how they might influence your work.
- Organizational: Do you keep your space clean and free of clutter so that you can focus? Do you organize your emails, files, and other work so that it’s easy for you to find things on short notice?
- Time management: Are you giving yourself time to get from one meeting to another? Are you building in windows for proper focus and even breaks? Are you prioritizing and planning so you can meet all of your deadlines?
4. How to pay attention to detail while working remotely
- Active listening: Are you paying attention to the Zoom meeting or secretly adding a new Poo-Pourri scent to your Amazon cart?
- Analytical: Are you looking at the same version of the document as everybody else? Do you know which information is pertinent to a particular decision and how to get it? Did you check your math at least once?
- Diligence: Are you putting in the work and staying on task even when your boss/others aren’t there watching you?
- Editing: How might your tone come across on Slack or email, where humor and sarcasm can be easily misinterpreted? Are you sending a quick response out of anger or resentment, or have you given yourself an opportunity to cool down, and remove any negative tones you might regret later?
- Observational: What kinds of questions does your boss or recipient always ask? Can you anticipate them so they don’t have to (especially in a remote environment where they can’t just turn to you to follow up quickly in a time crunch)?
- Organizational: And are you delivering these materials in a way that’s easy to understand, even for someone who isn’t familiar with the subject matter?
- Time management: Are you managing and meeting your deadlines all while working during the company’s normal business hours?
10 best ways to improve your attention to detail
OK, we’re getting close to the end! These expert-backed tips will help you set the building blocks for paying attention to detail, no matter what you’re trying to accomplish.
1. Start with a good night’s sleep.
First things first: Getting enough ZZZs will help you kick off your day with a full tank. “As people accumulate sleep debt, their attention spans get shorter,” says Gloria Mark, Ph.D., a Chancellor’s Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity. Make sure you’re detaching from work after hours. “It gives you time to replenish, which can help you sleep better as well and then reattach to work the following day,” Mark says.
2. Practice meta awareness.
A lot of our behaviors are automatic, Mark says, which means they don’t involve much effort. “When you have this urge to grab your phone, that's an automatic action. It is a habit you've developed.” Mark says the way to go about overriding these automatic behaviors is to develop what’s called meta awareness. “It’s being aware of what you're doing as it’s unfolding,” she says. “I’m a news junkie, and every time I have an urge to check the news, I ask myself, Gloria, do I need to go to the news site right now? And I try to understand the reasons why.” She says it could be because you're bored, or because you're procrastinating (which she jokes is often the case for her). “But when I identify that, it helps me get a grip on it, and helps me curtail my behavior,” she says.
3. Know your “why.”
Replenishing the office snack pantry will not be your legacy. But if you know how it affects company culture or can simply make someone’s life easier, it will give the task more purpose. “It’s about understanding the deliverable, and if you can feel a connection to it, you’ll become more personally invested and pay more attention to detail,” Owens says.
4. Design your day.
Mark has found that people tend to be in one of four types of focus states. Focus is when you’re engaged in something that’s mentally challenging. Rote attention is one notch down, where you’re doing something—like peeling potatoes—but it’s easy and doesn’t require a lot of critical thinking. Then there’s boredom, where you’re neither engaged nor challenged, and finally frustration, where you’re challenged but not engaged (a tech problem, for example).
In Mark’s research, “We found that for the focus state, people tend to have two peaks during the day—one is usually mid-morning, and then another peak around mid- to late-afternoon. And that coincides with the ebb and flow of people's attentional resources.” Because you have a finite set of resources you use throughout the day, you want to identify when your peaks of attention take place, and block those times for work that requires attention to detail.
5. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.
We think in threes naturally. “We have sayings like ‘third time’s the charm,’ we award three Olympic medals, and even a story, which is a sequence of thousands of events, is divided into a beginning, middle, and the end,” Bailey says. It’s why he says one of his favorite rituals is to think to the end of the week and ask: What three main things do I want to accomplish? “I choose three, and in the process, I don’t choose a lot of things,” Bailey says. He also repeats this process daily to help him stay on track.
6. Avoid task switching at all costs.
“The No. 1 piece of advice I can give people is to do one thing at a time,” Thomas says. “No matter how many browser windows or half-written emails you have open on your screen, you’re only doing one of them at a time, right?” She explains that while we may call it multitasking, what we’re actually doing is switching between tasks.
Instead, intentionally do something until it’s done or you get to a predetermined stopping point. I’m gonna do the expense report until it’s finished. Or, I’ll work on this article for 30 minutes. Once you make that decision, Thomas says to “do whatever you need to do to put yourself in a little Do Not Disturb bubble.”
7. Slooow down.
If your work is repetitive—say, on a factory assembly line—the worst thing you can do is work slowly. Work at half the speed as everybody else, for example, and you probably won’t have a job in a few months.
“But when it comes to work that’s cognitive, or work we do with our mind, not our hands, slowing down allows us to work more deliberately,” Bailey says. “The slower we work, the more deliberately we work. And the more deliberately we work, the more productive we become because you’re making deliberate progress on one thing.” What we lose in speed, Bailey reassures us that we more than make up for in undistracted attention, “which is, of course, a critical factor of our productivity in a distracted world,” he says.
8. Get into your flow.
“The key is actually a calm mind,” says Bailey, whose new book is How to Calm Your Mind: Finding Presence and Productivity in Anxious Times. “Because a calm mind is a productive mind, in that we’re not chasing the next hit of novel distraction.”
He’s describing a process where, for every new and novel thing that we direct our attention to, “Our mind rewards us with a hit of dopamine, which makes us feel as though pleasure is right around the corner, but doesn’t lead to pleasure in and of itself.” So when we check Instagram, we get a hit of dopamine. We go over to email, we get another hit of dopamine. We check the news, another hit of dopamine. “And throughout the day, the more dopamine that we tend to, the less focused we become, because we want to chase stimulation instead of becoming present with what we’re doing,” he says.
If we can train ourselves to pay less attention to novelty throughout the day (using the distraction list mentioned earlier in this article will help!), our focus becomes effortless, because we’re not constantly chasing dopamine. Genius.
9. Take breaks.
Just as you want to book focus time around your natural attention peaks during the day, “You want to design breaks at those times when you’re in your troughs, because you can’t perform very effectively anyways,” Mark says. Be proactive about this. “It’s important that you’re not just working through to exhaustion and then saying, Oh, I better take a break,” she says. “You do it before you get to that point.”
10. Review your work.
This last one comes from me: After returning to something from a break and before turning it in, read it one more time with fresh eyes. And because our eyes tend to self-correct, read it aloud. After editing thousands of stories, I can’t tell you how many times I thought I’d caught everything—and thanks to that final read, I fixed a host of mistakes before a story was published. If Thomas’s No. 1 tip is to do one thing at a time, reviewing your work is mine.
P.S. If you’re reading this, you made it to the end. Mission accomplished. Even if you took 16 breaks and watched every season of Love Island between the first sentence of this article and the last one, I am proud of you.