What separates the average-to-below-average from the above-average-to-exceptional? There can be many qualities that differentiate a person from their peers, but one specific quality that stands out is attention to detail. How many times have you gotten your hair cut? We all know that some cuts have been better than others. Rodney cuts my hair. It takes Rodney 10-15 minutes longer to cut my hair than it takes the other guys in his shop. The difference is attention to detail. 

People that provide a service that we find exceptional pay special attention to the details. Why is it that our experience with most services is average at best? Because paying attention is hard. It takes practice and discipline. Do you want to be exceptional? Here are some techniques for improving your ability to absorb the details.

Observation

The strategy here is simple: take it all in. When you walk into a restaurant or a shop, or anywhere else, observe the layout, the people, the decor, the smell, everything. Pay attention and take it all in. 

Recall

After you leave, write down everything you remember about the place. The key to growing your capacity to pay attention is the recall. Memory is a muscle that must be exercised. The more we use it, the higher our capacity. Numerous studies have validated recall as a key to memory expansion.

Assimilation

Having lots of information means nothing if we are unable to discern what matters most from the inconsequential. Those who are exceptional at what they do have developed the ability to take in lots of detail and quickly determine the best course of action. How? Experience and applying common sense. If a person lacks enough experience to connect the dots, the details are useless. We need context to help determine the next best action.

If the path to excellence looks easy, why isn’t everyone exceptional? Laziness and lack of discipline. Many people say, “I am just not a detailed person.” What they don’t realize is that attention to detail does not mean knowing everything. It is about paying attention when it counts.

When you are focused on a project, you could always have a sense of how much you have left and what next step needs to be completed. Let’s use a simple example: laundry. Yes, you can be exceptional at laundry, and it requires attention to detail. The first step in all projects is to confirm you have all the tools you will need for completion. In this case, the tools are soap, fabric softener, stain remover, and ideally, a functioning washer and dryer. Step two is to sort the laundry according to color and wash type (delicate, etc.). If you are exceptional and paying attention to the detail, during the sorting process, you will assess the condition of the garments for special treatment (extra dirty or stained, inside-out, etc.). Next, you start the washer after selecting the appropriate wash type, pouring the proper amount of soap, and then placing the clothes inside. Attention to detail here means you verified the washer setting, measured the detergent, and did not overload the washer. Step four is removing the laundry from the washing machine, placing them into the dryer, adjusting the settings and adding a dryer sheet. Attention to detail in this step is shaking the clothes out instead of tossing a wet wad of clothes into the dryer. Step five is to fold and stack or iron the clothes once they’re dry, with attention to detail being quick action and neat folding to minimize wrinkles. The last step is putting the clothes away. Excellence is neatly placing into the dresser drawers for easy retrieval and organizing the closet for easy selection.

This may be a silly example, but the point is that there is an exceptional way to do everything. How you do anything is how you do everything. An excellent chef pays attention to everything from the quality of ingredients to whisking time. Outstanding landscapers zero in on the health and shape of the shrub. Notable parents tune into the needs of their children and are quick to adjust their approach based on the situation. There is a saying, “When you are a hammer, everything is a nail.” Those among us that are exceptional at their craft are more like a Swiss Army knife. They assess the situation and apply the appropriate tools.

If you aspire to be exceptional at anything, you must develop the skill of attention to detail. Learn the details that matter most and how they affect the possible outcomes. Attention to detail is not magic and always requires caring. If you don’t care, the details will never click. Do you want to go through life being below-average, or would you rather strive for excellence? Either way, the market and society will reward you accordingly.

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