Help me learn to sweat the details
February 25, 2014 10:21 AM   Subscribe

How can I train myself to pay attention to details?

Of late, I have noticed that I have become increasingly sloppy in various areas of my life, be it writing scientific article or analysis or even reviewing other papers. How can I learn to 'sweat the details'? I am inspired by stories in the media about companies such as Apple or Pixar that go to great lengths to make things just so, but can't seem to translate this to my own life. Please suggest techniques so I can be better at the details.
posted by dhruva to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Break whatever it is you hope to accomplish into the smallest chunks possible. I start with the beginning and the end of whatever your project is. Between those two, what is the halfway point? What's halfway between the beginning and the middle? The middle and the end? What's halfway between those?

When you've gotten down to that level of granularity, then make a checklist. You'll start noticing the details when you start planning them out meticulously.
posted by xingcat at 10:25 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's easy to stop writing an article once all the words are on the page. "Sweating the details" means noticing what doesn't work about what you've made and then fixing it. This can be a lot of work, and you may have to rewrite your article several times to make it right.

I disagree that you need a plan. Don't worry about being sloppy when you're working on something. Just make sure you're willing to throw your work away and start over.
posted by panic at 10:41 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Take a small step to the left.

Not really, but it's a great way to remind yourself that perspective matters and, more specifically, that taking another perspective gives you a whole new way of looking at, well, any given thing. The keys behind the couch come into view with a small step to the left. The 'their' there where 'they're' is supposed to be shows up when you turn your draft upside-down. People smile at you more when you take a second to try to see things from where they're standing.
posted by carsonb at 10:50 AM on February 25, 2014

Slow down.

Build in enough time to edit - never hand in a first or even a second draft. This means setting a personal deadline to finish the first draft much earlier than the actual deadline.

Proofread backwards - start at the end and read sentences or paragraphs in reverse order to make sure that they make sense and are focused.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:52 AM on February 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Print out your articles to proofread. It may just be a get-off-my-lawn thing, but my students seem to think that they can edit adequately on the screen, and you just can't. There are some typos you just can't see without the thing on paper in front of you with a red pen in your hand.

Get more eyes on your work. Readers don't have to be specialists in your field to catch grammar errors and awkward phrasing—in fact, not really understanding the context can even help with this! Bonus: To get readers, you will end up offering to read their work, in exchange—this is also good practice for improving your own work.
posted by BrashTech at 10:54 AM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Another tip on proofreading: after you've printed it out once and read it through, print it a second time but make your margins very wide (or very narrow). This will make it look different on the page and you will be able to spot small typos much more easily.
posted by rpfields at 11:05 AM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm going to write two posts that somewhat oppose each other regarding their methodology. The first is on how I overplan a project. This level of detail is used for long ranging projects, projects with multiple resources, and ultimately a lot of visibility for the final product.
1. Pre-planning
1.1. Make a due date milestone - be it real or self imposed.
1.1.1. Plan to finish the final report 4 days in advance.
1.2. Storyboard out the final result, figure out what order it needs to be accomplished in.
1.3. Figure out what techniques, tests, and data you will need to meet your deadline.
1.4. Identify your data sources and any limiting factors (such as getting data from someone else, 2 week incubation periods, parallel studies, etc.)
1.5. Set time lines based on the date and your adjusted milestone date.
1.5.1. If the milestone date can't be met because of realities of what is required, add resources, extend deadlines, or trim your grandiose plans.
1.5.2. write my conclusions - blank. (If I haven't answered these questions, I've done it wrong)
1.5.3. Re-tweak the timeline.

Data planning
2. Now, out of this, you probably have a handy checklist of the datasets you need.
2.1. That means you can categorize them as
2.1.1. date identified
2.1.2. date requested/begun
2.1.3. date completed
2.1.4. date verified/audited
2.1.5. data visualized
2.1.6. visualizations cleaned up/audited
2.1.7. completed y/n

sub-projects (repeat as needed)
3. You want to categorize when sub-parts are completed
3.1. data available
3.2. data described (decomposition)
3.3. analysis start / stop dates
3.4. analysis verified
3.5. analysis writeup

4. Presentation - restructured as necessary
4.1. Data source presentation for appendix (done in parallel to data planning)
4.2. Decomposition
4.2.1. background information on purpose
4.2.2. thanks
4.2.3. data visualizations and background as to what they show
4.2.4. methodolgy
4.3. analysis writeup
4.4. verification that writeup aligns with original planned conclusions
4.5. first pass check
4.5.1. sleep on it
4.5.2. contact people to schedule in-person delivery
4.5.3. check it again
4.5.4. hand it to one trusted person to look it over.
4.5.5. make their changes
4.5.6. hand it out to 3 trusted people to look it over.
4.5.7. make changes
4.5.8. re-read one more time.
4.5.9. tailor master presentation into multiple presentations for each audience you'll be presenting them to. Not everyone needs the full technical presentation.

5. Presentation
5.1 provide presentation either two days before your meeting if you want an engaged and potentially hostile audience if you want them to disagree with you publicly
5.2 alternately provide presentation for scheduled email delivery immediately after your presentation is over.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:05 AM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Give yourself time to break away from the writing/reviewing process. Take a long lunch - put the document down for a day if you have the time. Do something completely different to reset your brain before coming back to proofread.

I find I need at least an hour after completing a document/completing a review to decompress before I can do a thorough proofread session. It almost feels like clearing the cookies/cached parts of my brain. It gives me a fresh look at the document from beginning to end without the "well I know what I meant I to say" mindset.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 11:06 AM on February 25, 2014

Alternate advice from my prior advice:

We make mistakes when we fall too far into routine. We all get used to fast typing. Sometimes we don't notice extra spaces between words we write because html and spell check ignore those syntactic mistakes.

When possible change your experience. I write 90% of my deliverables in Notepad++ and then bring them into PowerPoint or word. It helps see exactly how badly I make mistakes. I've moved most of my charting from Excel and SAS to Tableau so I don't make formula errors, overwrite data, or otherwise malign my own work before it makes it.

If you are going to create stuff in a consistent format, build it in a template. There is a high initial setup cost time-wise, but if and when I find an error, I know how to fix it.

Change the room you work in. Don't sit at your desk in the same environment and work. Don't always go to the coffee shop. Don't sit in the lab, or in your bed as the only place you work on a certain task - you need to break up your day. Headphones are great for eliminating instantaneous distractions, but you are listening to constant noise - which in and of its self can be a constant distraction.

Don't start at 1. and go to 5.2 (from my prior message) in a single course of action. You can jump steps. Make sure you know what the status of each step is. Pay attention to your schedule, coming back to it to update it regularly means you might overlook things, but you won't outright miss things that you've committed to. You have to be looking at something in order to have the opportunity to overlook it.

Lastly, communicate schedule changes.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:19 AM on February 25, 2014

To build on Suffocating Kitty's suggestion re taking a break -- you said you've noticed increasing sloppiness. Does this mean you used to sweat the details? If so, maybe you just need a long break from that kind of work. When was the last time you took a vacation? What kind of stress are you dealing with at work and at home? No matter what techniques you use, it becomes incredibly difficult to sweat the details when you have too much on your plate and you feel like you have no time to do everything, much less do everything with a sufficient amount of effort, or when you are just plain burned out and simply don't care.
posted by odin53 at 11:21 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Read. Read stuff other than your own writing. Watch movies and TV. I'm not kidding.

When you do these things, you'll likely notice what's not quite right. You know that stuff's in your work too, but you're afraid you've lost the ability to identify it. I'll bet you haven't.

Recently I read an article in which every usage of a certain word showed up in italics. Mostly, it should have, but other instances made it clear someone had just gone through with a "find/replace" tool and not done what peanut_mcgillicuty suggested (read it backward; but follow it; make sure it makes sense, word for word).

If you've ever had a less sloppy way (your question implies this is a recent frustration), it's likely you'll notice when other work is sloppy. I can hardly think of a better incentive to make sure yours rises above.
posted by whoiam at 11:48 AM on February 25, 2014

My wife is in the same position in roughly the same profession. As an academic you get pulled in so many directions - teaching, admin, research, writing, editorships, politics, recruitment, lab management, reading and then you also have the commitments of the rest of your life. Her printed outlook todo list is currently about 4 pages long printed in two columns and growing.

The big difference maker for her being able to sleep at night was to do some mindfulness meditation when she went to bed. Worrying was her mind-killer and the feeling of being overwhelmed wiped out her ability to recharge with a decent night's sleep. Learn when to say 'fuck it' and just relax.

You also need to choose which details to sweat. The world doesn't fall apart if you do a less than awesome review. There are still usually 2 other reviewers and at least one editor making the decision. You don't need to correct every grammar error and your grad students are largely responsibility for their own efforts. You just point them in a direction. It is up to them to travel it. You can ignore some emails. If the person sending it thinks it is important they will follow up and so on. So pick your battles if you want to win the war.
posted by srboisvert at 11:49 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Does this mean you used to sweat the details?
Just a clarification: I never was the meticulous type, but I feel that it's gotten really out of hand.
posted by dhruva at 12:59 PM on February 25, 2014

For checking your own writing, one of my professors swears by reading it aloud. This not only catches spelling and grammar errors, it forces you to revise the awkward bits.

Alternatively, it may be an all-over cognitive fog issue, whether caused by something like sleep deprivation or a larger issue. During depressive episodes, my normal editing superpower vanishes.
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:26 PM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am inspired by stories in the media about companies such as Apple or Pixar that go to great lengths to make things just so, but can't seem to translate this to my own life.

Cut yourself a break, you're just one person - you can't compare yourself to major companies! Companies like those have lots of people who are experts in their own specialties - such as proofreaders and copywriters. Are there any tasks that you can hand off to persons with more experience or qualifications than you to achieve this high standard that inspires you?

Those companies also have streamlined checklists and processes to be consistent. How are you being sloppy? Make a schedule and checklist in Excel of the best possible way to thoroughly complete a task - step by painstakingly detailed step- and stick to it every time you do that task. Use the same strategy for other tasks as well.
posted by NoraCharles at 2:41 PM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your answers. I will try to incorporate them into my routine. Lots of food for thought. Thanks.
posted by dhruva at 8:42 AM on February 26, 2014

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