How do I become a more careful, detail-oriented person
February 6, 2006 8:35 AM   Subscribe

How can I become a more careful, detail-oriented person? (more inside)

This is something that I've struggled with my whole life. It causes problems in both my personal and professional lives. I seem to get the big picture, but miss the little things and that can cause havoc. A good example: in college I filled out the financial aid form in the space where the financial aid office was supposed to fill it out. I was almost brought up on honor code charges for this (thankfully a kind assistant dean realized that I had just made a mistake and hadn't been trying to swindle the loan company). I've made other similar mistakes in terms of paying attention to instructions and being careful about small details. In my personal life, I tend to lose things: keys, glasses, etc.
Jobs often require you to be "detail-oriented." How do you acquire this skill if you didn't come by it innately? Personal stories as well as reference to helpful books are welcome.
posted by bananafish to Work & Money (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
To sound slightly psychbabbly: What is your opposite strength, and how is it important to you? Do you skip over details because you're really good at focusing on the big picture and that's fairly central to your sense of self? Or are you sloppy about it because other people then tend to rush in and do things for you so you don't mess them up? Or are you always in a hurry because you pride yourself for being on time, and so aren't willing to always spend the time necessary to get stuff done properly? Or are you a procrastinator who runs out of time for that reason? Or something else entirely?

I think if you can drill that down a bit, it might help.

Otherwise, meditation. Even walking meditation, where the idea is to walk slooooooooowly and focus on nothing but what your feet are doing. You need to train your brain to focus and the here and now, basically, rather than making assumptions about instructions, people, etc.
posted by occhiblu at 8:53 AM on February 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

Developing habits and routines really helps me keep track of the details. For instance, you mention that you lose things. Develop the habit of keeping your keys in a particular place. Perhaps you keep them in your right jacket pocket when out and in a basket by your front door when at home. Then, if you're looking for them, you have only two places to look for them.
posted by orange swan at 8:58 AM on February 6, 2006

Developing habits - in general - requires the type of detailed thinking that people like bananafish and me are lacking. How does one become better at managing the details without having to manage the details? It's a tautology that I wrestle with every day.

I realize that what you're getting at is the idea of "baby steps" - that if we start with the small things (like car keys) it will eventually carry over to the big stuff. Sort of a trickle-up approach to attention and focus.

This has never worked for me. As a result, I've given some serious thought to talking with a shrink and looking into the various ADD drugs. So far, this hasn't been necessary, but I suspect it's the only thing that will really make any kind of difference for me.

If you're really troubled banana, perhaps you should consider that course as well.
posted by aladfar at 9:24 AM on February 6, 2006

As an all too forgetful mad scientist, I'll share my secret with you. There's a book Getting Things Done, that will change your life.

In a nutshell, learn to write everything down, and keep track of it. It's amazing how many times a day I'll look at my list of stuff, and realize how much it helps me. Once you realize you have a safety net to capture all of your important thoughts, it frees you to really get stuff done.

Works for me, and many others. I hope it works for you. Remarkably simple.
posted by kungfujoe at 9:44 AM on February 6, 2006

Best answer: (I'm typing this from a horrible browser with no spellchecker and no access to MeFi's spellchecker, so please forgive typos.)

While not everything is changable, the human mind is amazingly plastic -- you can change many things IF you're willing work hard at it. Ask yourself this: As an adult, have you ever changed any major part of your personality? Most people, if they think about it, would say no. Or, if they say yes, they remember the change as taking a gargantuan amount of work.

Do you know anyone (you?) who has lost a lot of weight -- over 100lbs -- and managed to KEEP it off for years? This person has totally changed his relationship to food and exercise, not temporarily but permenantly. And it probably took a long time. And he probably failed several times and started again from scratch.

Most people don't change because they aren't willing to commit to this amount of work. They'd rather find that non-existant magic bullet we all seek. And most people totally cave in the first time they fail. They console themselves by saying, "I guess I'm just not that kind of person."

You need to (1) force yourself to attend to details. (2) remember to apply step one. Use a reminder "device" to help you. Tie a string around your finger; make a big sign over your desk; get a co-worker/significant other to bug you, whatever. Then, once you've been reminded to do it -- do it.

How? It's not a mystery. Just go through everything painstakingly slowly.

By nature, I'm a fuckup. I'm also a theatre director, and when I direct a Shakespeare play, it's vital that I understand what EVERY WORD MEANS. I have an overwealming desire to spped through the play, glossing over it (my inner fuckup talking), but I force myself to go through it slowly.

How slowly? I read the play like this: "To ... be ... or ... not ... to ... be ... PERIOD ... That ... is ... the ... question ... PERIOD." Yes, I speak all the punctuation. I look up every word I don't understand. Naturally, I zone out and suddely realize I've glossed over half a page. At which point I back up and start again from where I was pre-zoneout. It usually takes me about a week to go through the play this way. It's painful, but it's SO worth it. When I'm finished, I KNOW the play as if I wrote it.

Having done this for years, it has changed my personality in general. I take pride in attending to the details. I will never totally escape my inner fuckup, but I know how to keep him at bay. But you can see that I'm only able to do this through hard work and dedication. I have to totally give up on magic and shortcuts and secret tips. I have to WANT to do it.
posted by grumblebee at 10:02 AM on February 6, 2006 [3 favorites]

Grumlbebee says it all (especially his point #2).

I too have had to learn this the hard way.
posted by bonehead at 10:33 AM on February 6, 2006

Grumblee's answer is great. Read it five times and then put it into action.
posted by orange swan at 10:47 AM on February 6, 2006

Great advice from grumblebee. There is another approach which can work as well: in some contexts, you can partner with other people who have opposite strengths. Eg, if you get the management job, you appoint someone details-orientated as your assistant. Start your own business, and engage a good bookkeeper. Good teams often work this way...

Do what grumblebee suggests in contexts where it's important that you personally are on top of things, and otherwise let people who are good at details and enjoy dealing with them take care of them.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:15 AM on February 6, 2006

I was not a detail-oriented person. Currently I project manage and engineer for a living. Details have become important and I have learned to cope.

I have not read Getting Things Done as suggested above (but will soon!), however I can attest to the power of writing things down. Create a to-do list. When my ADD kicks in and random important thoughts (details!) fly by, I quickly jot them down for later use. I have to-do lists at work and home.

One other important item- I use a checklist for reviewing the work that leaves my desk. Like you I am concerned with 'big picture.' A thoughtfully created checklist is 1. A living, changing document, and 2. Necessary for anything leaving my desk. I ALWAYS forget some mundane, yet important detail.

If I can do this, so can you.
posted by vaportrail at 11:30 AM on February 6, 2006

"I have to WANT to do it"

Right. So the real question is how to motivate yourself to do something that you think (intellectually) will contribute to your long-term happiness, but doesn't seem (emotionally, viscerally) immediately attractive enough.
posted by shivohum at 2:58 PM on February 6, 2006

Or, how do you make yourself do something you don't want to do. Good question. Working for delayed gratification is part of growing up. I'm not sure there's one way to make yourself do it, so -- if you value this kind of maturity but have a hard time achieving it -- use every trick you can come up with.

Sometimes I can force myself to do unattractive things by telling my wife I'm going to do them. Then I'm too embarrassed NOT to do them.

Give a friend a thousand dollars and tell him not to give it back to you until you finish project X.

Whatever it takes!
posted by grumblebee at 4:03 PM on February 6, 2006

Join the military. Attention to detail takes on a different level of importance when people (or you) could die if you screw up.

They might pay for your college, too.
posted by tcobretti at 7:44 AM on February 7, 2006

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