On attention to detail

my reply to a Twitter survey, “what’s something a boss told you that stuck for your entire career,” is being told in 2013 to pay more attention to detail. today i’m passing that gift along to you.

what is attention?

we’ve all seen mind tricks like this one: I cnduo’t bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. only the first and last letter of each word is in the correct spot, but your brain figures it out.

attention is not understanding the sentence, it’s noticing the pattern in each word’s misspelling.

what is detail?

consider a web developer implementing their colleague’s designs. solely paying “attention” would yield a pixel-perfect rendition of the exported graphics. but attention + “detail” ensures the designer’s typos are fixed.

detail is a judgment of where attention should be paid at all.

measuring our skill level

before we can improve, we must assess where we’re at. three phases to consider:

  1. measure once, cut twice
  2. measure twice, cut once
  3. measure once, cut once

some people spend their entire career in Phase 1. do some work, submit to boss, correct the work, re-submit, never get promoted. they send emails and forget to attach the aforementioned file.

if you climb the corporate ladder, welcome to Phase 2. you do good work, but nailing the request “exactly to spec” is stressful. and deadlines? impossible. many designers and developers orbit this stage.1

obviously we want to be in Phase 3. not only is your output superior, you don’t have to kill yourself to produce it. we call people in this sector “brilliant.” but how do we get there?

improving our attention to detail

Herschel Walker didn’t use a fancy gym to become a top 1% athlete; he got big and strong doing pushups and situps in his room. likewise we don’t need Pomodoro timers or micro-dosing to improve our attention to detail.

first, identify a few areas where your attention to detail is lacking. it’s totally reasonable if your email game sucks, but your texting game is fire. or your cooking tastes great, but your wine palate is meh.

next, attach a follow-up drill to each problem area. we’ll borrow from James Clear’s “habit-stacking” concept to get us started. for example:

  • IF email (typos, grammar, attachments, tone), THEN re-read message twice before sending
  • IF being late to meetings, THEN enable automated daily summary emails (sent in the AM)
  • IF engineering (backend bugs, frontend styling issues), THEN write integration tests, ask a roommate to click-test

practically speaking, attaching follow-up checks will make your life a little more painful. but it will also make your work product a little more impressive.

ok, so how do we get to Phase 3, where we produce great work without all the extra checks and balances? we do this by internalizing the pain of reviewing, reworking, refactoring.

if, while making something, you can simulate the inevitable pain of re-doing it later (thanks to your follow-up drill regimen), this knowledge alone will compel a cleaner first stroke.

case in point: when i author an essay i’m analyzing the progression of ideas in real-time as i type. this is not to say i don’t tweak a sentence every now and again, rather that i’m writing with a “the rough draft is the final draft2 mindset.

forcing myself to ship something, with only inline-edit allowances, shines a spotlight on my shortcomings. in other words, paying attention to detail is the best practice to paying attention to detail. it exposes gaps in micro-skills that are easy to fix, whose mastery feeds back into the machine of doing great work, the first time.

monitoring our progress

every task has a limiting factor. workouts and running usually revolve around time. study depends on focus. driving depends on speed and traffic.

if you can identify the limiting factor for a task in which you’d like to improve attention to detail, produce 2+ things with all other variables being the same.

over a period of weeks or even months, compare your first (see: last) draft of each thing you make. if the difference isn’t easy to spot, it doesn’t exist. add more drills, and don’t give up until your first try is better than your last.


  1. the Peter Principle also comes to mind. essentially the trap is when you’re marginally better than most people at X, but fail (refuse?) to acknowledge your own shortcomings and resolve them.
  2. like 9th grade, but wiser.