Do Sweat the Small Stuff
August 7, 2018 7:38 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn how to pay attention to detail?

I am awful at small details, or maybe even medium-sized details. It has always been my biggest weakness. I've always considered myself to be a big picture, strategic thinker, and that's fine, but it's come at a cost. The lack of attention to detail has an impact on my work and my personal life. I'm the kind of person who would try to plan a food event and forget to get knives or something. I don't notice (or really care) about font size differences in presentations. I stop early when I'm painting (as my hobby) when I could keep working on details to perfect the piece.

How can I fix this? At least a little? What are some resources out there that may help me learn this skill? Open to all media, books, courses, etc.
posted by aclevername to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
For presentations, use a template and stick to it, or have someone who likes detail work edit it before it goes out if that's possible. There are templates you can purchase online that are up-to-date looking and don't require much editing.

Use checklists for events, I am detail-oriented but I find without a checklist for big projects things will get forgotten. The new version of microsoft word has a template for lists that I like using and I just put everything in it for traveling and events. I find that organized people use lists, it's like people who are in good shape, they look like they don't need to watch what they eat but you'll most often find that they do.

For stopping early, can you try taking a break when you want to stop? Alternatively say to yourself "let's continue for 3 minutes" and see where it takes you.

Hard to say for your personal life how this impacts things but if you tend to not make plans or arrangements you can try to look ahead to what's happening on say the weekend, and ask yourself what you'd like to eat, what you'd like to do, and what needs to happen for that to occur, like do you need to go shopping on Thursday night so you have dinner ingredients for the weekend, do you need to get gas or call a friend in advance, do you need to book a hotel a few weeks early?

If you forget birthdays and dates and so on, put things in a calendar and have it repeat, set up a reminder a week before big dates to get a card or gift. My friends who are excellent with this stuff have reminders set up to cue them to mail a card well in advance.

In general the more you make the extra effort to take care of details the more routine it will become but to begin start with some small steps and reminders for yourself. I always forget timesheets at work and I put bright post-its (that rotate and move around my desk) to remind me.
posted by lafemma at 8:06 AM on August 7 [3 favorites]

Read "Getting Things Done", specifically the part about "Next Actions".
posted by Wild_Eep at 8:37 AM on August 7

People call me detail oriented and I don't mean this to sound judgemental, but I think paying attention to detail comes down to "caring". And once you care, it's about doing a thorough job of the task at hand and the way you do that depends on the task.

For your presentation example: Much of my work depends on us nailing presentations in both style and substance. I fuss over the details of my presentations because I really care how it looks. I care how it looks because the presentation will influence how the recipient will think of the content, me, and my employer which will hopefully result in a successful pitch. A sloppy looking presentation looks like I don't care about the material or the audience, so I employ tactics to make it engaging, coherent, well designed, and well paced. These are not "attention to detail" skills, these are design skills specific to presentation creation, it just so happens that they also require attention to detail to execute. So yeah, if you don't care about the fonts being the right size, that's your first challenge right there.

In contrast, say I'm doing an internal presentation, I don't care as much how it looks, I just try and make sure the content is clear.

Planning a food event and forgetting the knives: This is about caring for the guests. I would think about the event from their point of view. What would they enjoy eating? How will they eat it? What's the mood I want to invoke? Then I would make lists. Lists for menus, recipes, supplies, to bring the event to life.

Stopping early on your painting: It's a hobby. Who cares if you stop early if you are stopping when you no longer get anything out of the project? I would say for this example if you're happy enough to call the project finished, well that's enough detail. If someone's complaining to you that your paintings don't have enough detail well, that's subjective and the nature of art. If you are personally more interested in producing detail focused art, I can't help you as I have no experience with painting and I don't know what that means.

So, it really depends on the situation, and it might help if you had specific examples where it has burned you the most in the past and you want to pick up tactics and/or habits to prevent them in the future? I'm skeptical that there's some general method for being detail oriented if you're not naturally wired that way.
posted by like_neon at 9:06 AM on August 7 [16 favorites]

I think you're recognising that even though these things are not important to you they matter to others and sometimes that matters.

I have to spend a lot of time doing presentations that get reviewed by ppl who will point out fonts and double spaces and what not. So before I send the presentation for review I now run a few document searches for things like double spaces and replace them with single spaces. And I print them and read them with my mental checklist of ‚stuff ppl have pointend out in the past‘. In the most recent review the reviewer commented, that they couldn’t find any such formal errors. Does that mean I believe this is really value add, no. But the person in charge does, so they get what they want.

And once you decide ‘this’ is important stuff to care about - for whatever reasons - you find a process that facilitates that ‘this’ gets you or by the detail oriented person in your team or whatever. It just has to become a step of the process.

More difficult in your personal life as there may be less formal accountability, you just upset your friends, family, SO. They may tell you or not. So try to figure out what ‘details’ matter to the important ppl in your personal life as well. And find a way to make those happen by whatever means works for you, be it reminders or whatever.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:09 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

For a scenario like forgetting knives, I have a two-part method:

1. checklist
2. think through the event

So, I do my best to make a comprehensive checklist of things to bring. Nothing is checked off unless it is in the lineup of bags by the door to go to the car.

After I write the checklist down, I think through the event (for ex: I will arrive at location 2 hrs before event. That is early in the morning, so I'll need coffee and my sister will probably forget to make her own. Add to checklist. Then we'll set up the tables. They provide tables. Then we'll set up the non refrigerated food and utensils. Okay add utensils to checklist. and so on)

For things like the powerpoint: I read through my work separately for appearance and content. Rather than hoping I am good enough at details to notice font change amid proofreading, I proofread first, then go through again just looking at visuals. Then I read through another time making sure the client name is spelled correctly on every slide.

In general, remember that getting details right is just work. It's not a special talent. So when you're painting, maybe that work isn't worth it for a hobby. Or maybe it is worth putting in the work to get the piece you really wanted.
posted by Emmy Rae at 9:23 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

Adding to the book recommendations: read the Checklist Manifesto by Gawande. It will change your life.

You need external lists and the time and care to think ahead and develop them. Your most important step has to be spending 15 minutes writing out everything you can think of that needs to get done at the start of a project, and then referring back to that list and refining it as you go. Do that, and you will magically appear to have great attention to detail. (Frankly, 90% of those of us with great “attention to detail” just have little scribbled checklists we took 15 minutes to write out at the start of a project and keep updating). So: become Santa. Make a list, check it twice. (Up to you whether you also categorize tasks as naughty or nice.)
posted by suncages at 9:24 AM on August 7 [9 favorites]

like_neon hits it on the head: you do have to care to do details. I know on projects at work that I just want to be over I really have to force myself to doublecheck details... which is really just finishing the job well.

But, you can do something about it - just takes practice. Most of us get a natural rush from 'finishing' items; it feels good to check items off the proverbial to do list. So, you may need to rewire what "finished" means for you. Checklists have their downsides, but for a while, you should use them to break up your tasks in to smaller pieces, and check those off.

So, instead of a list that's "Plan Dinner Party", itemize it in to the 25 little steps you need to do to really finish the job.

The nice thing about doing the details is then you get 25 little rushes of success, not just one.
posted by RajahKing at 9:39 AM on August 7 [2 favorites]

More on Emmy Rae's tip to think it through, and have a checklist: if you have to plan an event, try visualizing *attending* it from the perspective of someone who wasn't involved in planning it, from start to finish.

At each stage, notice exactly what you're seeing and doing, and what exact steps needed to happen for you as an attendee to see and do those things. Add those to your checklist.

So, if the first step is "arriving at the venue," think about whether there were instructions on the invitation for how to get there, and whether you got your parking validated. Add these things to your checklist: 1. include parking info and directions to invitation 2. Arrange for validation with venue. Next, you get to the check-in table, and someone seated there gives you a name badge and a complimentary glass. The table has a white cloth on it and a welcome sign. You add more to your checklist: 3. Ask venue about getting a table and chairs and whether you need to provide linens. 4. Get staffing arranged for check-in 5. Order name badges. 6. Order glasses. 7. Print welcome sign. 8. Assign staff to make sure they are taken to the venue day-of.

And so on!

For things like font sizes and paint details, sometimes seeing things in another format helps call attention to what needs changing. So, try printing a slide or two from your deck. What looks ok on your screen might bother you when you look at it on paper. Try taking a photo of your painting - does it still look good enough to you, or does it push you to fix that messy bit in the corner?
posted by prewar lemonade at 10:55 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

First, consider that you might have adult ADHD, and consult a therapist.

Checklists are good, although they're just treating the symptom, not the disease. I remember reading an article about a plane crash that occurred even though the pilot had gone through an extensive pre-flight checklist, because the order and rhythm of the checklist had become so routine that they weren't actually using it. There's a way around this, though, which Japan does with pointing and calling in their rail system.

The best way to improve at anything is deliberate practice. So practice paying attention to details, especially when you don't have a choice but to pay attention. Do you have kids? You probably won't forget their stuff, because they'll start crying if you forget to feed them. If you don't have kids, do you have a pet? And if you can't get a pet, buy some plants and keep them alive. You can pick up other hobbies, too. Computer programming is a good one because details matter so much. Every programmer has a story about code that wouldn't work because of a missing semicolon or something like that. Basically, do things that won't succeed unless you pay attention to all the details.

Finally, remember that nobody is good at everything. You might just not be a detail person. It's ok, there's no moral shortcoming. What you need to do instead is to find a partner who can make up for your shortcomings - ideally, someone whose shortcomings you make up for. Your partnership can then be more than the sum of its parts. That's how good teams work. If you're not good at catching a football, you probably shouldn't play wide receiver. But that's no reason you can't play quarterback and throw the ball to someone who is good at catching it.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:23 AM on August 7 [2 favorites]

Regarding the details in paintings: The eye is naturally attracted to highlights and details. Details should be an aesthetic editing choice. Artists do radically different treatments of details that lend become signature style. Jan Van Eyck, for example uses precise, evenly distributed detail that one would only experience if the brain is in a hyper focused state. He includes soft focus reflections to imply the natural versus the supernatural world. Rembrandt, as a contrast, uses detail to create focal point, and renders the rest of the composition in brilliant calligraphic linear passages that leads the viewer to believe that the painting has more overall detail than the actual work; the brain fills in the detail intuitively.

Anyway, all this to say that you should decide how you want to lead the viewer in your visual narrative with detail.
posted by effluvia at 11:31 AM on August 7

Finally, remember that nobody is good at everything. You might just not be a detail person. It's ok, there's no moral shortcoming. What you need to do instead is to find a partner who can make up for your shortcomings - ideally, someone whose shortcomings you make up for.

Please don't do this. Decide you care enough about relevant details to find a way to be good at them. Or don't. But don't expect your partner to do the boring, thankless work of not messing up details. I just don't think there is some skillset equivalent to "keep track of all the little things that make life go on" that a potential partner is lacking.
posted by Emmy Rae at 11:37 AM on August 7 [10 favorites]

This may sound ridiculous, but I promise it will help … jigsaw puzzles. Working on a jigsaw puzzle trains your brain to focus on nuances and detail on all sorts of levels, without losing sight of the big picture.

For example, if you start by separating all the orange pieces, this is attention to detail in broad strokes. Then when you focus on the orange pile of pieces, you must go more granular, noticing differences in texture and shade. Next, you'll go even deeper, finding that paying attention to the shapes of the bumps and indents pays off the better you get at noticing.

It's slow, relaxing and methodical work. You'll find ways to 'level up' your jigsaw game the more you do it and the 'lessons' you learn are directly applicable to real life situations.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:43 AM on August 7 [3 favorites]

Thanks for everything so far guys. Just to clarify, I wasn't necessarily looking for specific solutions to my examples (although the ones you have given are great) rather than just general resources on trying to gain the skill of paying attention to detail. I should have been more clear about that, sorry.

As for checklists, those are great, but what if you miss things to put on the checklist? Seriously asking. Like, what if you just don't think of all the right steps?
posted by aclevername at 1:09 PM on August 7

I’m like you, but I’ve gotten more and more detail-oriented with age and experience. The more you practice, the more naturally it will come.

One of the most important things I learned - and this is especially useful for work - is to do my own QA. Write a checklist of things to look for, and post it somewhere you can see. After you finish something, but before you send/present/submit it, step away from it for a little while, at least an hour. (If you’ve been working for a while on the same thing, you start sort of tuning out details - coming back with fresh eyes helps a lot.) When you return to it, check it with your QA checklist, one item at a time.

Written lists in general are good. I like to categorize my lists, e.g. my packing lists always have categories for “clothes,” “toiletries,” “carry-on items,” etc. It also helps me to keep my lists looking somewhat neat; I deliberately write them in my tidiest handwriting instead of my usual note-taking scrawl.

If you forget to put something on your checklist, it means you’ve learned for future lists. You’re not going to get it perfect every time. Checklists and processes evolve. It’s easier to add one thing to a checklist you’ve already made than to create that checklist from scratch. It’s also best to make your lists early on, like as soon as you get the idea for the event. It’s normal to forget a few things the first time around, so giving yourself time for a second look helps.

Leaving things and coming back to them also helps for art. When I painted, I sometimes declared my work “finished” sooner than I’d originally planned, because I was happy with it. Other times, I’d decide a canvas that I’d finished weeks ago needed more work. Painting can be especially great for this precisely because it’s so easy to come back after a while and add more (depending on the medium - some are more forgiving).
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:30 PM on August 7

Thanks for everything so far guys. Just to clarify, I wasn't necessarily looking for specific solutions to my examples (although the ones you have given are great) rather than just general resources on trying to gain the skill of paying attention to detail. I should have been more clear about that, sorry.

As for checklists, those are great, but what if you miss things to put on the checklist? Seriously asking. Like, what if you just don't think of all the right steps?
posted by aclevername at 4:09 PM on August 7 [+] [!]

1) Distribute the checklist to others with similar roles and ask them if they have anything to add.

2) Mess up. Forget the thing. Add the thing to the checklist for the future. Repeat.
posted by edbles at 1:47 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]

Checklists are valuable in part because they memorialize what you thought would be important so you can find out where your blindspots are. If you are not doing a post-project “aw shit, how did I forget forks???” review, checklists (and all other attention to detail strategies) are worthless. In other words, the way you get better at checklists is the same way you get better at everything: by fucking up at it over and over, but hopefully less (or at least differently) every time.
posted by suncages at 2:15 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]

I try to turn myself into the recipient of what I'm doing and see it from their POV.

So literally, if planning an event, I "enter" the space and start from there. What's the first thing that their eye falls on? Does it look nice? Where does their coat go? Where will they want to sit? What will they drink, and how will that drink reach their hand, and is there a coaster? Is the restroom clean- think in the order they encounter it. Door, toilet, paper, tap, towel. And so on.

If possible I literally walk through the space in the order that a guest will. If I can't do that, I do it mentally. It takes time to do it- I just take the time it takes to check or visualize all aspects of what the recipient will encounter.

For presentations- same thing. What does the room look like? Where should I sit? What colour is the wall- I'll wear a nice contrasting colour. Is my outfit good when I'm sitting or does it bunch up? I'll sit in a similar chair in front of a mirror to check. I'll look through the presentation deck slide by slide with fresh eyes. Once you've done a bunch it takes less time to imagine all these things, but literally for me, it's just taking the time.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:28 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]

+1 Adult ADHD! You know yourself better than anyone so this might be off but just hear me out. I just got diagnosed and I was shocked. I did alright in school. As life got more complicated things really fell apart. I had a harder time with things with complex steps. I had a really bad time with procrastination because I was stressed out. If you do have ADHD, no amount of "caring" will help you. Just look up the symptoms, it can't hurt. Some people don't need medication, therapy can help them with time management and general living skills. But medications personally makes everything much easier for me. People used to call me spacey and now I'm a stone cold boss.
posted by Bistyfrass at 3:25 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]

2) Mess up. Forget the thing. Add the thing to the checklist for the future. Repeat

There's a saying - foresight comes from experience; experience comes from lack of foresight
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:53 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]

1. Stand Operating Procedures - take the time to write out all the steps that need to be taken for repeatable tasks, and then make sure you follow the procedure every time, it will become habit, and the procedure itself becomes a form of

2. Checklists - everyone is right, they make a huge different. Yes, you may miss something off the checklist, but if you only miss one thing, once, that's better than missing a bunch of things regularly. The key to ensuring your checklisting really works is

3. Reviews - there are three types of review. The first type is taking some time - doesn't have to be a long time - to really look at the checklist, compare it with what you've done, and identify any gaps, mistakes, areas of concern.

The second part is reviewing the actual work. This is where you take the time to re-read the document/work for typing errors, formatting mistakes etc. This is the point where you might pass the work onto a willing and available colleague to pass a fresh eye over it. This type of review must always happen (I think at least twice) before passing work on. Common things to check are - do hyperlinks work? Are the fonts/colours right? Is the spacing right? If the work is an email, these means sending to yourself; if it's a ppt that means running through it slowly in slideshow mode, for eg.

The third part is after you've delivered. Take the time a look at what went "right", and what could be improved, and what went "wrong". Amend the Operating Procedure and Checklists to reflect this. Keep iterating until the process is bulletproof.

You can do this, it's mostly about embedding a habit and mindset. Best of luck,
posted by smoke at 3:58 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]

I don't know how helpful this will be, since I don't have any resources to point you to, but I think there are actually two categories of causes for failing to notice small details and it might help you to figure out which one applies in different scenarios.

The first is, as others have mentioned, just not caring about perfecting the details. You might feel like small differences in fonts don't really matter, or not want to finish adding details to the painting. You can work on this by thinking about why you should care (e.g. font size differences might make an audience judge the presentation as less professional, rightly or wrongly), then forcing yourself to take the time to double-check things while reminding yourself why. If you decide the details truly don't matter in a particular instance, well, then you don't need to worry about improving your attention to detail there.

The second category is just not noticing or thinking of things. I consider things in this category if they literally do not occur to me, despite thinking considerably about whether I'm missing anything and triple-checking my work, then they seem obvious when someone else mentions them. Checklists help - in your example of forgetting knives, you could make a checklist then look up event planning resources, or mentally walk through the event in your guests' shoes, to see if your list is missing anything. Have someone else check your work and if you missed something add it to the checklist for future. If you tend to forget things, put it in writing or your calendar. You could look into ADHD, as others have said - I'm not saying you have it, but a lot of the resources for people with ADHD have good strategies regardless.

Maybe all your errors are the first type, I don't know. I don't have a full solution for the second type. I make checklists and calendar entries for everything (I've been known to make checklists that include "check whether you've eaten today") but I still miss details because not everything has a pre-existing checklist.

I'm mostly making this comment to reassure you that, if you're someone who misses details even when you deeply care, you're not alone, because I take issue with people assuming this always comes down to caring.
posted by ersatzhuman at 9:56 PM on August 8

- Checklists - use existing ones, or make ones based on good drafts from the past, or get someone to check your checklist (though people don't generally like extra work)

- Print the presentation/document out and proofread the hard copy with a coloured pen or marker - gamify this part, I always think to myself that the game is to 'catch' the errors, and there always ARE errors

- Practise!! I am still working at this, it's a skill like any other! Expect incremental growth
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 9:28 PM on August 11

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