What if you could learn ONE skill that would massively improve the quality of almost everything you do?
That includes any assignment, paper or set of notes you write for school, any article or blog post you publish online or off, every important email you send, any research project or portfolio you create, any job interview or presentation you prepare for… all that and more.
Sounds pretty good right?
This post is about attention to detail – what we’re going to call a “meta-skill”. Weaker terms for meta-skill – if you’re writing a resume or interviewing for a job – might be “transferable” or “soft” skill.
And while this topic is unsexy (or at least not as cool as talking about colonizing Mars or testing out mind-altering meditation techniques) the truth is that if you really want to understand your gifts and give them back to the world in the best way possible – a lot of that process is going to be boring, monotonous, and unsexy.
So let’s talk about meta skills. What is a meta skill exactly?
If we think about this aspect of personal development/self improvement on a spectrum, it would look something like this:
As you can see on the expertly designed graph above:
Towards the left are things that help you across a broad range of circumstances and areas of life, and on the right are things that help you in specific ways and only in certain situations. Meta-skills are right around the middle in terms of utility.
Hopefully that makes sense – now on to the main topic of discussion:
What is attention to detail?
Attention to detail could also be called “thoroughness”. It means being attentive to the details of what you’re working on…
But what is it really?
It’s actually a combination of two things. We can break it down into these two main components:
1) Going at a measured pace (and especially not rushing)
2) Repetition (Checking again and again)
Let’s go over these one at a time:
Going at a measured pace (Not rushing)
In an ideal world, all work would be done as fast as possible without compromising on desired quality.
And while we don’t live in an ideal world, this is usually what we’re going for. “As fast as possible without compromising on desired quality” doesn’t even necessarily mean fast – it could actually be quite slow. It depends on the individual, the work, the skills involved and so on.
This makes sense intuitively, but it’s not always easy to put into practice. Often the reason a person does compromise on the desired level of quality (either their own or someone else’s) is because they are going too fast.
A person rushing is usually due to one or both of the following reasons:
– They don’t like the work itself
– They are thinking about what they’ll be doing in the future, after the current task is finished
Here’s an example:
Let’s say I’m studying at the library, reading about a subject I really don’t like. It’s boring, completely uninteresting – and what’s more, I know I’m going to the gym after I finish this reading.
I keep thinking about the gym and how it’s going to feel to work out – and I’m mainly focusing on how it’s going to be way better than what I’m currently doing. So I start reading faster, skimming over pages and skipping paragraphs, because I know the sooner I get done, the sooner I can go to the gym.
You’ve probably been in similar situations. Maybe it’s not a workout you’re looking forward to, but going out at night to party or to meet a girl. Either way, your mind is focused on something that’s going to happen in the future that you expect to be better than what’s happening now.
This causes you to rush, make small mistakes, and lack attention to detail.
How do we fix it?
The solution is straightforward, but it is also easier said than done.
To avoid rushing in this way, you have to catch yourself when your mind is focused on an upcoming event and bring the attention back to the task at hand.
The best way to catch yourself in these instances is to just notice how you feel while you’re working.
Work shouldn’t feel hasty – it should feel measured, or even calm. It can still be fast, but it shouldn’t be rushed – there’s a big difference between fast and rushed.
If you notice feeling rushed, then just notice where your mind is at. Are you thinking about what you’ll be doing later? About something in the future that’s going to be better than what you’re doing now?
If so, re-focus the attention on the task at hand.
This is harder the more you are looking forward to the future activity, and it’s harder the more you dislike the task you’re working on.
However, often the resistance around a task is just a monster that your mind is creating. Doing the thing itself is rarely that bad – what’s bad is the story you tell yourself about it. Remember that when you find yourself rushing, re-immerse yourself in the task and most of the resistance will disappear.
So that’s the first component to attention to detail – moving at a measured pace, whatever that means for you with relation to the work – and definitely not going too fast.
Repetition (Checking again and again)
The second aspect of attention to detail is checking your work, again and again. Repetitively going over something to make sure it’s up to the desired quality standard.
The better you are at working at a measured pace (component 1), the less you will need to repeatedly check, because the first version will always be closer to the final product when you don’t rush.
Let’s look at another example:
Imagine you’re preparing to go on a trip. You’re packing your bags and you don’t want to forget anything.
There’s a lot to remember – what’s going to prevent you from leaving something important behind?
Checking, again and again, to make sure you’ve got everything.
The number of times you check should correlate to the importance of the thing – if it’s a 2 day camping trip and you forget something, it’s not a big deal. But if it’s a 6 month backpacking trip around the world – you’d better check a few more times!
The more times you check, the more you increase the chance of noticing something you didn’t notice before, and the less chance there is of screwing up.
Checking = Discipline
At a basic level repetitive checking is just about discipline. You will likely need to check things more times than you want to – and that’s what discipline is; making yourself do something you don’t want to do.
You can use repetitive checking to build discipline in a broader sense as well. Adopt the mindset to just always do the extra little bit. Just check one more time.
When you’re 100% sure something is where you want it to be… just go over it one more time. Whenever you think you’re done… you’re actually almost done because you still need to check once more.
This is how discipline is built – by pushing past your own resistance a little more each time. This is what allows you to always advance further, and it also becomes a habit when you do it consistently over time.
One more example to illustrate this point:
Whenever I did really well on tests or exams at university (90%+) it was almost always because of ONE thing I did above all the others: reading over my notes repeatedly, again and again.
I would have pages and pages of plain notes written in black ball point pen and just read them over and over. There was no fancy studying techniques, mind-maps, colour-coordination or anything like that – and I got better grades than many people using those techniques.
Why? Simply because of repetition and discipline. I would decide on a number, say 10 or 20, and keep rereading the notes until I hit that number. In my experience – provided your notes are good – this is the studying “method” that works better than all the others.
While it’s not super complicated – as you can see – I do think it’s useful to break things down like this.
Often when we get more granular, the better we’re able to understand something in relation to ourself. This way we can identify weak points, address them accordingly, more effectively improve on strengths and so on.
To recap, attention to detail is:
1) Going at a measured pace (and definitely not rushing)
2) Repetition in the form of checking again and again
Combining these two things together will allow you to catch small errors and manage the details of what you’re working on – in other words to pay appropriate attention to detail.
This meta-skill will serve you in many areas when you cultivate it. The key is putting it into practice – and as you do the quality of everything you do will increase.
Read next: Understanding the Difference Between Impulses and Deep Feelings (Meta Skill #2)