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Mastering Your Attention to Detail

Hone your top-down attention skills

Mastering Your Attention to Detail
Image courtesy of Laura D. Vargas

It’s common to see attention to detail or detail orientation listed as a required skill in a job description. In a cursory search of InHerSight’s job board, I found “attention to detail” or some variation in job descriptions for data analysts, legal contracts managers, mechanical inspectors, software engineers, quality assurance auditors, telecom fraud analysts, sales directors, and financial managers.

Employers want to see this soft skill in applicants because it translates to thoroughness, accuracy, and efficiency. But even if the details are not part and parcel of your job description, it’s a skill you need to exercise every day. Paying attention to the details means you know your paycheck is correct, you’re not overpaying a vendor, and that you understand the terms of your employment.

Understanding attention to detail

Brittany Alperin, who holds a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience and is a visiting professor at the University of Richmond where she studies the interactions between attention, emotion, and mental health, told InHerSight what it means to possess attention to detail: “The easiest way to think about it is by talking about two facets of attention: bottom-up and top-down attention.”

Bottom-up attention happens very easily. Alperin uses the example of driving down the road in a car and spacing out, when suddenly a deer jumps in the road. You don’t have to think about paying attention to the deer—it just happens.

Compare that with top-down attention, which is what employers are talking about when they say they want a candidate who possesses attention to detail. We’re slower to engage this form of attention because we have to do it consciously. It requires effort and energy: You’re driving in your car on your way to a place you’ve never been, so you’re paying close attention to the street signs so you don’t miss your turn. That’s top-down attention, or detail orientation.

Detail work is done in your prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain in charge of control, inhibition, and complicated thought processes. This is the last area of the brain to develop, which is why teenagers often struggle with attention to detail. It’s also why people in very early stages of their careers may struggle with being detail oriented. If that region of your brain hasn’t completely developed yet (which, on average, happens around age 25), then you’ll need to work extra hard to use those skills. “The younger you are, the less control you’re automatically using,” Alperin says. “So a little more time, a little more effort needs to go into nurturing those skills. It’s not going to happen as automatically as it might when you get older.”

Peak attention

A person’s attention to detail is at its best roughly in the middle of the arousal spectrum. That is, mental arousal, of course.

Alperin explains: “When you’re low arousal, that’s when you’re tired, not engaged, maybe bored.” You’ll find yourself on this end of the spectrum when you haven’t had enough sleep or you’re doing work that’s not interesting to you, for example. “High arousal is when you feel anxious, your heart is pounding, you’re afraid, you’re hyper vigilant.” You might find yourself on this end of the spectrum when you’re stressed out, juggling deadlines, or anxious about a project.

“People have this sweet spot, somewhere around the middle, and that’s when your attention is really at its best.”

Controlling your attention to detail

In order to get to your sweet spot, you’ll need to understand your environments. “There are two factors you need to control,” says Alperin. “The external environment and the internal environment.”

Your external environment includes things like noise level (too high or too low), the temperature, notifications popping up on your screen, coworkers asking you questions, or how safe you feel. The external forces pulling on your attention. Your internal environment, which Alperin points out is much harder to control, is what she calls “internal chatter.” It’s where your mind is going, whether you want it to or not. Maybe you’re worried or excited about something you have to do later, so you’re unable to focus on your work. A noisy internal environment is not conducive to controlling your top-down attention.

Contemplative practices, like mindfulness and meditation, can help you master both environments. The next time you find yourself focusing really well or unable to focus, consider your internal and external environments: Is the room completely silent or is there ambient noise in the background? What time of day is it? Did you have a meeting or conversation that irritated or worried you? Are you distracted by social media? Taking note of your environments can reveal the stimuli that are helping or getting in the way of deep work.

You can develop this ability to refocus your attention outside of work as well. If you drive a car to work or take public transit, you can use that time to notice your thoughts. “In your daily life, get used to noticing when your mind drifts,” Alperin says. “There’s nothing good or bad about it. It’s just happening. Once you notice it, you can then play with it: Do I want to engage with this thought or do I need to go back to what I’m doing? The more you do it, the more it becomes second nature.”

But even noticing your thoughts is a skill, one that will be easier for some than it is for others. “All human traits are some combination of genetics and environment. Regardless of what your natural state is—attention is so incredibly malleable—you can really foster becoming better at this. It will come very easy to some people, and for others it will be very hard, but it is possible.”

For this reason, Alperin recommends an externalized practice that can help you develop that internal attention: Step outside and notice all the things you see. Ask yourself, how many shades of green do I see? What’s that sound I hear? How would I describe the shape of that flower? What about its smell? Its texture?

“There is some evidence that internal and external attention work similarly, so it's very possible that strengthening your external attention will translate to internal attention.”

How to show an employer that you have strong attention to detail

Even if you establish your mindfulness practices that bring your attention to, well, your attention, how do you show a potential employer that you have this skill and can apply it in your work?

Demonstrating attention to detail in your job application is a matter of showing rather than telling. The reader won’t be convinced if you write, I possess a strong attention to detail, but show a shallow understanding of the role you’re applying for.

According to Colleen Paulson, a certified professional resume writer (CPRW), the best place to demonstrate your attention to detail to a potential employer is in your cover letter. “Take the time to find out who the hiring manager is and address them by name in your letter. Research the company, learn more about the type of work that they do and what their goals are, and discuss how you can help them with this work.”

Read more: How to Dig Up the Hiring Manager’s Email Address

Read the job description carefully. Print it out and mark it up; write down the ways you will address or demonstrate the most critical parts of the requirements. “Sometimes, employers will specify particular qualifications that they would like you to address in the cover letter. Make sure to actually discuss this in the cover letter, as many folks won't take the time to do this. If you aren't trying to impress the hiring manager through your attention to detail in these early stages, then it's pretty clear that you won't be paying attention in the workplace.”

If the job description says they’re looking for detail-oriented candidates who have experience liaising between teams to deliver quality products, you might write:

In my time at ACME, I was responsible for working with the QA team lead to inspect all products leaving the facility. To increase our efficiency and accuracy, I designed a digital auditing checklist that alerted management to deficiencies and trends in real time.

And whenever you can, use numbers. Simply being able to quantify your responsibilities and success shows you’re detail oriented.

My system decreased inspection time by 10 percent and increased productivity by 15 percent. In the six months after the program began, we saw 30 percent fewer customer complaints related to product quality.

In this case, sweat the small stuff

Of course, even if you can provide examples of your attention to detail in action, small mistakes like typos can cast doubt on your skills.

“Proofread your resume and, if you choose to write your resume yourself, have a friend review it. Blatant typos and misspellings will sometimes immediately disqualify you for a role, and they are a lot more common than you may think, so take your time and have a second set of eyes review your materials before you send it to a potential employer.”

How to address the details in your interview

To demonstrate your attention to detail in an interview: Listen. Take a moment to think. Respond.

“When interviewing, the biggest thing to watch out for is actually answering the question that has been asked,” Paulson says. “If you aren't sure what is being asked, ask the interviewer to clarify or restate the question. If you lose your train of thought, ask for some time to think through your answer before proceeding. Interviewers want you to do well and most interviewers aren't trying to trick you, but we also are paying attention to whether or not you are actively listening.”

If you know that actively listening is not your strongest skill, take notes. If you want to make sure you understand a question, repeat it back to them in a way that includes the question in your response. That can even help you stay on track.

The last time I had a disagreement with my boss was over how we would launch the last product we built. She believed we should conduct another round of user testing, but because risk was so low, I recommended that we use the results from the initial test, launch the product, and learn from customer feedback once the product was in use. This ended up being a great success since some of the bugs hadn’t been found in testing and customers loved being asked for their feedback and seeing their ideas incorporated.

If you struggle to answer questions with adequate detail, Paulson recommends the STAR method (our guide on STAR here), which stands for situation, task, action, result. This is a formula for answering interview questions that helps you “stay on track and answer in this methodological way, telling the story of how you can deliver results, you will really wow folks and set yourself apart from the pack.”

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Preparing for an In-Person Interview

About our sources

Brittany Alperin holds a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience from Oregon Health & Science University and a B.A. in psychology and neuroscience from Hampshire College. She is visiting assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Richmond where she teaches courses on aspects of cognition (such as attention, perception, and memory) and conducts research on attention and mental health.

Colleen Paulson is a certified professional resume writer (CPRW) who specializes in helping job seekers change careers. Paulson's resume writing and consulting work is greatly informed by her years working for Fortune 100 leaders Procter & Gamble and FedEx. She has also served as an external reader and interviewer for seven seasons for the Top 20 MBA program at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business.

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By Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza

Content Strategist

Emily is on staff at InHerSight where she writes about data and women's rights. 

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