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How to improve your attention to detail while doing your bachelor’s

James Davis

Careers Commentator
With a bit of practice, you can make Sherlock Holmes blush with these mindfulness techniques.

With the rise in automation heralded by a recent McKinsey report and others, soft skills are becoming an ever greater necessity. Bachelor’s degree holders how exit university being able to do what machines can’t are growing in demand. Our article on interpersonal skills addressed one of these key capabilities, but this time we’ll be learning to hone another important soft skill: attention to detail. 

A PayScale work preparedness report surveying 64,000 US managers hiring 14,000 university graduates uncovered some staggering trends. A staggering 56% of managers surveyed thought their graduate hires just didn’t have the attention to detail they were looking for, even though the US system caters to a whole additional year of study. If we assume the US system is similar in terms of content if not culture to the Australian one, then it’s not farfetched to find this slightly worrying. 

It’s not a lost cause though, even if our current systems don’t cater to the development of soft skills to the extent employers would like. In this article, we’ll talk about some great ways to develop your attention to detail while still undertaking your bachelor’s.

Learn some memory techniques

The tips to follow will help you practice, but the theory behind memorisation is how you get the most out of them. This is the key to retaining and utilising details. Here are three effective memorisation techniques to try:

Come up with mnemonics for important details

Whenever you come across a detail you may find useful, try to associate it with a keyword or phrase. Young musicians do this all the time. To read the lines on the bass clef, for example, they’ll recite to themselves, ‘Great Big Dreams For Australia’, the first letter of each word corresponding with the note depicted on that line. The first line’s a G, the second a B etc. Of course, the applications for this go well beyond the music! With some creativity, you can use this to remember equations, quotes, concepts and more. Develop them into songs or rhymes to enhance the effect!

Use a memory palace

Surprisingly, this isn’t entirely fictional! The way Mr Holmes uses it in Steven Moffatt’s adaptation is a tad fictional, but the premise is sound. Humans have an extraordinary spatial memory. That is memory concerning the layout and geography of places. However, we struggle to remember concepts, even if those concepts are simple words… like someone’s name! The way to get around this is by weaving these concepts into a landscape you build in your mind. 

Picture your childhood home or some other place you remember well. Think of all the details in it. The shape of each of the trees. The colour of the fence. The smell of the grass. Every detail you can conceive of, populate the vision with. Now, plan out a consistent route you walk through the palace with. Whenever you ‘enter’ your memory palace, you’ll take this route, with stops along the way. Finally, start associating elements of the palace, be they a vase you have on the windowsill or spiderweb on the roof, with things you need to remember… without using words. If you wanted to remember volleyball practice in the evening, you could place a volleyball at the first stop with the moon and stars painted on it. If you wanted to remember Joe’s birthday coming up in the summer, have joe standing there in thongs and a singlet with a birthday hat on. Sounds pretty wild, huh? If you’re interested, check out this video of world memory champion Alex Mullen explaining and demonstrating the technique. 

Absurd visualisation

This is when you take a concept and associate it with an absurd image. Similar to the memory palace, absurd visualisation can be a little easier to start on. Let’s use names as an example. Say you meet someone called ‘Anna’. You can visualise a woman with a banana for a head. Ban-Anna. What about ‘Josh’? Convert their name into ‘Dosh’ and picture a guy with a monocle and tophat. So what about concepts then? Let’s say you’re trying to remember E=MC2. Well, we have ‘MC’ in there, so you can picture a disk jockey. The number two is there, so picture two disk jockeys playing some fresh beats. Now have them sweating profusely because they’re on ecstasy. E. Completely absurd, but that’s the point! It’s far easier to remember two hyped up DJs than an abstract combination of characters. Eventually, by doing this, you’ll remember the details on their own. 

Get into the habit of list-making

While you’re learning memory techniques, it doesn’t hurt to have some assistance from good old fashioned technology. 

Picking up a few notepads is one of the best investments you can make at uni. You can use them to create lists of weekly goals, daily priorities or even priorities for a single study session. It’s essentially an extension of your memory. Although it seems obvious, this is one of the hallmarks of an organised person. If you can accurately track your goals and obligations, you’ll have a better chance not only at managing your time effectively, but honing in on the details. If you’re not expending effort trying to juggle obligations in your head, you can use the free ‘cognitive space’ to consider the details a little further. Maybe even list several ways of completing a task and choosing the best. Perhaps drawing up a SWOT analysis? It’s a habit worth picking up. 

If you don’t feel like using notepads, use whatever tech you want. It can be Google alerts, or just a spreadsheet. So long as you have them stored somewhere you’re comfortable with, you’ll have a much better time finding and retaining details. Bear in mind however: writing things out by hand could actually improve retention. This is due to the slower pace at which handwriting occurs. There’s more time to process what you’re writing, plus there’s a more ‘physical’ connection to the act. 

Stay in the moment

We talked about this during the interpersonal skills article, but it’s equally important to becoming better at seeing detail. If you’re off thinking about what you’ll do after this, you won’t have a hope at seeing the finer points of… well, anything! Try to remain present, no matter what it is you’re doing. It’s OK to think about the future still; in fact we encourage it! However, this sort of planning for the future can be an activity in its own right, to be undertaken in an allocated time slot if you’re so inclined! In the mean time, whatever it is you’re up to, even if it’s just watching a show on Netflix, staying completely present and attentive is one of the best things you can do to bolster your attention to detail. 

To do this, try to catch yourself whenever you’re slipping. Realise you’re thinking about something else. If you’re reading a book for instance, regularly ask yourself questions about what just happened. Do I understand what I just read? Was I paying attention? Same goes for anything. Study, a lecture, a tv show, a conversation. You name it. If you’re constantly evaluating your own attentiveness, you’ll find it harder to drift off. That’s ultimately a good thing! Just stick with it and you’ll naturally find yourself staying in the moment longer. 

Find a good balance between routine and variety

Too much of one or the other can make paying attention to details very difficult. Too little routine and you’ll have a chaotic life. Too much and it’ll be boring! If you can find the right balance for you, it’ll help you keep organised, which in turn will help you see those details. To this end, you’ll need to build your timetable as early as possible before the beginning of each semester. Get yourself some logical class times, preferably without any five hours gaps one day followed by non-stop classes the next. It’s really hard to pull this off sometimes, but it’s worth giving it a go. 

Remember: your bachelor’s degree will likely be tumultuous anyway. Your default routine is likely to be ‘barely any’, so do your best to keep classes and work as consistent as possible. We understand how rough that can be, particularly if you’re working to a roster, so your best is all you can ask of yourself. Do that and you’ll have a better chance at developing better attention to detail. 

Come up with a system of breaks

Having regular breaks from concentrating is one of the best things you can do to stay focused. If you don’t, you’ll find your mind wandering. 

There are several schools of thought on this. The ‘Pomodoro Technique’, for instance, is about having 30-minute bursts of work in which you intend to accomplish a small sub-section of a task, followed by a five-minute break. You can then leave a mark next to that item and go on another 30 minutes ‘Pomodoro’ if the task requires. Once you’ve left four marks next to a task, have a fifteen minute break instead. Another technique involves consistent 52-minute work intervals, followed by a 17-minute break; no further strings attached. You could also do something entirely different. Just experiment, making sure to always have that next short break on the horizon, so you know there’s at least some light at the end of the tunnel! This can assist not only in general productivity but seeing those details. 

Always revisit old details

Just like how you’d revise for an exam, test or assignment, it’s imperative you return to previous notes and details occasionally, otherwise you’ll forget them or why you wanted to remember them in the first place. This is an unfortunate consequence of how we evolved. Our brains naturally discard any information we aren’t regularly using, being highly selective about what’s committed to long-term memory. These techniques will help you get all that detail committed, but if you don’t regularly access it, either by having a stroll through your memory palace or skimming your notes, you’ll lose it. So try to schedule quick review sessions with yourself to keep all your information and details up to date. 

By practising these techniques, you’ll become far more capable at finding those details throughout your bachelor’s degree and into your professional life. These skills are quite broad in that they’ll make your personal life easier too. From something trivial like remembering a shopping list to picking up on when a friend’s in distress are immeasurably useful qualities. 

Stay tuned for more soft skills and how to develop them during your bachelor’s. If you’re interested in developing your interpersonal skills, check out our article. 

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