Spend 10 minutes browsing job listings, and you’re bound to come across a phrase like this more than once:
We’re looking for someone who is detail oriented.
It’s such a common job requirement, that you might be tempted to describe yourself as detail oriented on your resume.
But what does it mean to actually be detail oriented? And why is it such an important thing for employers? Is being detail oriented really such a good thing?
I’ll get to all those questions in this article, and I’ll also show you 10 simple ways to improve your attention to detail.
What does it really mean to be detail oriented?
The textbook definition of detail-oriented is baked right into the phrase itself: It’s someone who pays attention to the details. But that’s a pretty vague definition.
When employers say they’re looking for a detail-oriented person, it can mean a wide variety of things. They want someone who…
- Pays attention to the little things
- Is thorough with their work
- Puts effort into presentation and aesthetic
- Follows through with their duties
- Checks their own work
- Is organized and prepared
- Has a good memory
Being detail oriented doesn’t sound quite so simple, when you consider all that. And if you take the concept beyond the workplace and into the realm of personal relationships, it gets even more complex.
A detail-oriented person in day-to-day life will remember important dates like birthdays and anniversaries. They might be the type who has a daily to-do list, likes to plan ahead, and always has a piece of gum or a tissue when you need it.
Perhaps you know people like this, and admire the way they are thoughtful and prepared. Those are strong ideals to aspire to, but before we drill down into how to build detail-oriented skills, let’s take a look at a somewhat darker side of this personality trait.
Is being detail oriented always a good thing?
The upsides of being detail oriented are easy to see. It can help you get jobs, position you as a reliable and trustworthy person, and make it easier to achieve your goals.
But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. Sometimes, being too detail oriented can lead to bigger issues. There is a fine line between paying attention to details and being obsessive or a perfectionist, which can have knock-on effects that diminish the value of being good with details.
For example, imagine you have a big report due for your boss on Friday. You finish the majority of it on Wednesday, but you spend Thursday and Friday tweaking the fonts, making sure all the boxes on your Excel sheet are exactly the same size, and debating which stock images to include.
In the meantime, your colleague turns in the same report, and though there may be a typo here or there, they managed to get it into the boss three days before you. Do you think the boss will care about the typos, knowing they got the report so much faster?
Being detail oriented is one thing, but getting caught up in the details in ways that impact your productivity can lead to setbacks like this. It’s best to cultivate an appreciation for details, while still being able to step back and look at the big picture. This can help center yourself when you’ve been deep in the details for too long.
If you already have a handle on the big-picture stuff, it doesn’t hurt to work on your attention-to-detail skills. Here are a few practical methods you can use to improve.
10 simple ways to be more detail oriented
1. Train yourself to slow down and breathe
Here’s a red flag to look out for when you’re reviewing job listings: Beware any job that asks you to be able to work in a “fast-paced environment” while also being detail oriented. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to work quickly while also paying close attention to details.
Learning to take your time may be the hardest task to master on this list, but it’s also the most important. If you find yourself missing details, the best thing you can do is train yourself to slow down. You may be a talented multi-tasker (more on that later), and your ability to get things done at a breakneck pace can be a useful skill. But rushing through things is the number-one way to miss important details.
To overcome your tendency to rush, a bit of mindfulness can work wonders. Train yourself to recognize the moments when you’re rushing, and give yourself mental reminders to slow down. Try using a timer the next time you’re working on something that requires attention to detail. (The one on your phone will work just fine.) Set an alarm to go off every 5 or 10 minutes. When that happens, take a break, step back from your work, maybe stretch or go for a walk. When you return to the computer, put yourself into “details” mode. Instead of pushing forward with the project, take a few minutes to review the work you’ve just completed.
Eventually, you will hopefully be able to slow down and revise your work without a timer.
2. Be realistic about deadlines
We’ve established that being detail-oriented means you need to slow down, which leads us to the next skill: Setting appropriate deadlines.
If a certain set of tasks requires attention to detail, then you will need to build more time into your schedule to accomplish that task, no matter what it is. Being able to measure your time and anticipate when you will likely be done will make life much easier.
This applies to both your personal and professional life. For example, let’s say you’re moving out of your apartment, and you need to clean it top-to-bottom in order to get back your security deposit. If you leave cleaning to the last minute, you might be able to do the big stuff like sweeping and cleaning the toilet. But you still could lose some of your deposit if you forget to take out the trash or dust the ceiling fans.
At work, setting appropriate deadlines may mean you need to be firm with your managers and colleagues. If someone is expecting you to pay close attention to details, but they set an unrealistic deadline, it’s important to politely explain why you either need more time, or won’t be able to do as much of the detail work.
For example, you might say, “I’m happy to meet that deadline, but I won’t be able to do the usual amount of research. If you give me another day to get it done, I can go deeper with my research before I turn it in.”
Either way, you’ve either managed expectations or given yourself extra time so you don’t have to rush.
3. Create a focused space by minimizing distractions
Some people wear their ability to multitask like a badge of honor. And it can come in handy, but it also may be impeding your ability to focus on the details. Distractions pull you out of a focused mindset, and there’s little more distracting than the group texts buzzing your phone or endlessly scrolling through TikTok.
It’s cliche to say you need to put your phone away when working—for a lot of people, your phone is part of your job. But you can still minimize distractions by closing out any unnecessary apps or putting blocks on certain websites until you’ve finished a task.
Digital distractions also play a part in our social lives. A 2013 study found that having a phone nearby—even if it’s face-down or off—can impact social relationships and closeness. This shouldn’t be surprising. Think of the last time you were trying to talk to a friend, and they looked at their phone. You can feel their attention drift away.
There are lots of focus apps out there that can help you keep distractions at bay. My personal favorite is Forest, which lets you plant a virtual tree, which grows as long as you don’t close the app (and open up something more distracting).
Beyond digital distractions, there are other things that can ruin your focus and cause you to miss details. The first step to minimizing these distractions is to acknowledge them—the next time you feel yourself getting distracted, pause and examine what is pulling your attention away. Then you can make a plan for eliminating that distraction. This may be as simple as finding a quiet place to study, putting on some background music, or hanging a “do-not-disturb” sign on your door when you’re trying to focus.
Even tidying up your personal space can help you be more detail oriented. A cluttered desk makes it a lot easier to lose track of that important note you wanted to remember.
4. Learn how to ask questions
Part of being detail oriented is knowing how to gather all of the information you need. In other words, you need to be ready to ask the right questions at the right time.
Let’s use a work example. Your manager has tasked you with posting to Instagram on the company’s behalf. You ask some questions, perhaps about what photos you should use or how many posts to make. After you make the posts, you show your manager. She takes one look and says you have to repost them all, because you didn’t use the right hashtags.
In this scenario, some of the blame falls on your manager for not briefing you properly. But if you had asked more detailed questions at the start, you would have impressed your manager by being so detail oriented, you knew what questions to ask.
Sometimes, you need a bit of experience to know what questions to ask in different scenarios, so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t ask every question the first time you’re doing something.
Instead, after you’ve finished a project or task, take a few minutes to reflect on the job. What questions do you wish you had asked at the start? Make note of these, and you’ll be able to ask more of the right types of questions the next time.
5. Always have a notebook and pen handy
According to experts like Jared Hovarth, of the University of Melbourne’s Science of Learning Research Center, writing things down by hand makes it easier to retain that information.
When we write by hand (as opposed to typing), our brains have to work harder to keep up. If you’re taking notes while someone is speaking, your brain has to select only the most important words—and this process makes it easier for you to remember things later on.
Beyond that, having a written record of important details means you won’t have to go hunting for them later on. For example, if you’re having a conversation with a friend and they mention a book they want to read, write that down. Then, when it’s time for that friend’s birthday, you’ll have the perfect gift. Surprising a friend with exactly what they wanted—something they asked for months ago—will portray you as someone who remembers the details. (Because you do, thanks to your notes!)
6. Get into the habit of checking your work
We touched on this before, but it’s hard to understate the value of self-editing and revising your work. There is no such thing as a perfect first draft—that’s why they’re called first drafts. If you turn in work or “finish” a task without looking back over it with a detailed eye, then you will have a hard time attaining that “detail-oriented” status.
There are a few good rules for becoming a good revisor. First, it’s always best to take a breather between finishing a job and revising it. This allows you to clear your head and refocus on the new task of revising, rather than creating or working.
There are tools out there that can help you become a better editor—Grammarly is one popular option for writing. But beware: Becoming too reliant on technology to find your errors and mistakes can lead to trouble. These tools aren’t perfect, and they’re meant to complement your own editing, not replace it.
Finally, it’s always wise to call in a second opinion to help catch details you may have missed. In the workplace, this might mean you ask a colleague to look over documents. At home, you might ask a friend or family member to weigh in. It’s as simple as asking, “Dad, can you have a look at my room? I just cleaned and want to see if I missed anything.”
Asking for this kind of help will make it infinitely easier to catch details in the future. The next time you clean your room, you’ll remember the pointers your dad made and will take care of them automatically.
7. Practice putting yourself in other people’s shoes
To truly be considered detail oriented, you need to be able to anticipate other people’s expectations and wants. This isn’t easy, because most of us aren’t mind readers. But taking time to sit down and put yourself in someone else’s shoes can help you get better at thinking of details you may otherwise miss.
Let’s take an example: Your friend is getting married, and they’ve asked you to help plan the menu. This task requires a lot of attention to detail, and you can’t base it solely on what you want; you have to take into consideration what the newlyweds and their guests would want.
So, you sit down with your pen and paper and start putting yourself in their shoes. Start asking yourself questions like:
- What do people usually expect to eat at a wedding?
- What time will other events be happening? What about people who have dietary restrictions?
- What foods would be exciting to the marrying couple?
- Will there be children at the wedding? What would they want to eat?
- Will people want coffee with dessert?
The more time you spend asking questions like these, the more details you’ll think of in advance. People will be impressed with your attention to detail, because you thought of so many possible scenarios.
8. Work on your aesthetic abilities
Have you ever stepped into a store or restaurant and been wowed by the atmosphere of the place? Personally, I have a cafe I love because they always serve a little round, pink cookie with their coffee, which they keep warm by resting it on the lid of the cup.
It’s not that I love the cookie—it’s the little thoughtful touch that resonates with me. Someone who works in that cafe has great attention to detail—it’s evident in not just in the cookie, but the neat handwriting on their menu boards, the way their logo is etched onto their tables, and the delightful music they’re always playing.
These aesthetic touches can go a long way into helping you present yourself as a detail-oriented person. You don’t need to take a course in interior design; all it takes is a few moments at the end of any given task where you can add a special touch.
This can work with things as mundane as a spreadsheet. Before you send it to your boss, can you add in some of your company’s branding to make it look more official?
For the more personal side of your life, adding special aesthetic details can show people how thoughtful and creative you are. It doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming, either. Giving a gift to a friend on their birthday is easy—but if you include a handmade card with a personal note, you’ve added a surprising detail to what would otherwise be a simple gift.
9. Cancel this thought: “I already know this.”
Imagine you’re sitting in a work meeting, and your manager is talking about tasks for the upcoming week. You already had a one-on-one conversation with her about your tasks, so you think to yourself, I already know all this. And you begin to zone out…
Fast forward to the end of the meeting, and all your colleagues are excitedly talking about the upcoming holiday party. But you zoned out during the meeting, and you missed all the details on the fun event. Now, you have to sheepishly ask your colleagues or manager what’s happening—that’s not something a detail-oriented person should have to do.
The temptation to let your brain “clock out” when you feel you’re hearing something you already understand is strong. It takes work to train yourself out of this habit, but if you can stop that thought in its tracks, you’ll find yourself picking up on details you might have missed.
10. Take care of yourself to improve your focus
You’ve probably read plenty of articles touting the value of self care—but it bears repeating here, because your mental and physical wellbeing has an enormous impact on your ability to focus and pay attention to details.
Eating well and sleeping for six to eight hours a night helps you keep a clear mind. When you can’t keep your eyes open because of an all-nighter, or you can’t think because you’re hungry or overly full, then your attention suffers (which means you are bound to miss important details).
Likewise, exercise that increases your heart rate has been proven to improve concentration abilities. If you aren’t into the gym, even taking a brisk walk, doing some yoga, or dancing in your room for 10 – 15 minutes can make a difference.
Lastly, you need to make sure you schedule in time to relax and do nothing at all. If you’re overworked, your ability to catch mistakes and hone in on details will decrease. Make time for family and friends, or simply let your brain switch off as you binge-watch on Netflix or play video games for an hour. Allowing your mind time to rest will make it much easier to turn on your focused brain when you need it.
Practice makes better
If you aren’t someone who is naturally detail oriented, don’t fret. Learning to focus on details is a skill you can learn, with a bit of practice. With the methods I’ve outlined in this article, you’ll eventually be able to demonstrate to employers, friends, and family that you really are one of those people who focuses on the details.