Out of the blue, your team leader drops a curveball: the team is adopting a new project management app and updating work performance standards.
Such an abrupt shift pushes your most basic cognitive skills into action. You diligently listen to your manager’s instructions, process the influx of new information, and use logic to understand it all.
Normally, your thinking skills operate in the background, quietly supporting your daily work. But moments like this emphasize the incredible potential of your brain and the importance of honing your cognitive abilities.
Of course, some abilities — such as reasoning, visual learning, and listening — may come more naturally than others. Don’t worry: like any skill, you can grow and develop your brain power.
Prepare to unlock the full potential of your mind. Let’s explore examples of cognitive skills and discover practical ways to elevate them in the workplace.
What are cognitive skills?
The definition of cognitive skills encompasses your brain’s remarkable capacity to process, store, and utilize information. These include abilities such as concentration, memory, and problem-solving.
Your cognitive skills operate subtly yet significantly, shaping your social interactions, learning processes, and ability to complete tasks successfully.
Say you meet a potential client at a networking event. Your brain effortlessly processes various pieces of information, from nonverbal social cues (like gestures) to your elevator pitch. In this scenario, your adaptability is the defining factor between a successful and unsuccessful connection.
Cognitive development begins in infancy and early childhood and continues throughout your life. Your brain learns and grows as you age — a process called neuroplasticity. The more you train your mind through goal-setting and skill learning, the sharper your brain becomes.
Research suggests the greater your cognitive ability, the better your performance. But there’s a caveat: your cognitive skills don’t operate in a vacuum. Self-discipline and planning also play a strong role in your ability to access and improve these abilities.
Although you may lean toward certain skills — perhaps your auditory processing is stronger than your visual learning — you can improve in any area with thoughtful practice and goal-setting.
Types of cognitive skills
Remember: your cognitive skills define your capacity for processing incoming information, building memories, and interpreting stimuli. Before jumping into cognitive skills to fine-tune, let’s explore eight different types of cognitive skills and their daily applications:
The world is full of stimuli. With so many distractions, it’s important to build up your ability to keep your focus.
Your attention span is divided into three categories:
- Sustained attention: This is your ability to focus and concentrate your thought processes over an extended period of time. You’ve likely been in a meeting or call where your mind started to wander — that was your sustained attention clocking off. But when you let distractions get the best of you, you might procrastinate, take excessive time to complete tasks, or lose out on important information.
- Selective attention: When various stimuli battle for your attention, your selective attention helps you suppress distractions and stay on task. Giving into distractions pushes your workflow off course and disrupts your productivity.
- Divided attention: When you’re working on a project, you often have constructive feedback from your manager, requests from your client, and the scope of work to consider. Your divided attention allows you to take in all this information and find the right path forward. Without it, you might become overwhelmed and struggle to chart a course of action.
At work, building your memory helps ensure that information doesn’t go in one ear and out the other. These are the two types of memories to polish:
- Working memory: Sometimes referred to as your short-term memory, working memory allows you to hold on to information while you use it. Imagine a virtual onboarding with a new project management app: your working memory allows you to process instructions as you work through the platform. Weak working memory can cost you time. You might re-read directions, forget what someone just told you, or have difficulty following step-by-step instructions.
- Long-term memory: Long-term memories are the procedures, facts, and experiences you use to interact with your environment and learn new skills. Your long-term memory guides your professional development as you build upon your knowledge and expertise. Without a sharp long-term memory, you may struggle to fine-tune important technical skills or build relationships important to your career.
Information processing skills
Pings on your phone, numbers on a chart, and the inflection of a coworker’s voice all signal different messages. Here are three ways your brain processes information:
- Auditory processing: Noise is identified, analyzed, and separated by your auditory processing abilities. Auditory processing disorder is a common cognitive disorder that impacts your ability to listen to speech with background noise, follow spoken instructions, or learn new languages.
- Visual processing: This is your ability to perceive, analyze, and synthesize visual patterns — as well as form visual imagery and memory. It’s not uncommon to struggle with visual processing, which can make pattern recognition in math and written instructions difficult. Fortunately, this can often be improved with a vision therapist.
- Processing speed: This is the time required to respond to and process information from your environment. Low processing speeds can cause you to take longer to complete tasks — especially under pressure — which throws off your efficiency and workflow.
What are examples of cognitive skills at work?
Ready to level up your performance? Here are nine examples of cognitive skills to work on to strengthen your professional development:
1. Logic and reasoning
The ability to draw specific conclusions based on varied facts or data is your deductive reasoning. Even mundane tasks, like organizing your calendar, require strong logic and problem-solving skills. Deductive reasoning also helps you gauge importance, estimate work times, and set realistic goals. Without these logical thinking skills, you would struggle to work productively.
Language is divided into four skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Every person is different — you may be an excellent writer but struggle with verbally expressing your ideas. However, clearly communicating your ideas is valuable in just about any role. Strong language skills can help you overcome miscommunications, resolve conflict, and encourage teamwork.
3. Critical thinking
Critical thinking is a union of several soft skills, including attention to detail, intellectual curiosity, and open-mindedness. These traits are integral to problem-solving because they help you work through biases and arrive at independent, out-of-the-box solutions. That’s likely why critical thinking is considered one of the most durable skills in the workplace.
Your day-to-day is full of short-term tasks and long-term objectives. Without proper planning, you could become disorganized or miss important deadlines. Planning requires logic and memory recall — these skills allow you to estimate a task’s relevance and how long it should take to complete. Learning to organize and prioritize your tasks empowers you to be efficient, responsible, and proactive.
5. Quantitative skills
An understanding of statistics and math helps you turn ideas into data and eliminate emotional biases from important decisions. Data analysis is an increasingly important hard skill to have on your resume.
And as artificial intelligence and big data can contribute to businesses project growth and calculate risk, learning quantitative tools might help you stay competitive in the job market. Similarly, if you’re a freelancer building a personal brand, being able to read analytics allows you to engage wider audiences and find opportunities in your market.
Making the right first impression is a science. It requires you to pay attention to social cues and process several visual and auditory stimuli from the person you’re networking with. Practicing active listening trains your brain to sustain its focus and pick up on information that will lead to positive and productive professional interactions.
In the digital age, we work with more emails, project management tools, and messenger apps than ever before. While you don’t have to aspire to be a copywriting master, learning to organize your thoughts and contextualize them for your readers can reduce miscommunications. And when someone understands a message immediately, it saves you and your colleagues time that you can dedicate to more important tasks.
8. Reading comprehension
Reading requires you to connect ideas, sustain your focus, and recall past experiences or know-how to de-code information. Similar to writing, analyzing and contextualizing information can help you avoid misunderstandings and improve your productivity. Reading comprehension is important in any job, particularly remote jobs that depend heavily on written communication.
While collaboration may sound more like a social skill than a cognitive function, efficient teamwork requires abstract thinking. These skills help you break a project down into different tasks, leverage everyone’s strengths, and keep on top of all your team members’ deliverables.
How to improve your cognitive skills
Inspired to level up your cognitive capacities? Here are four ways to take care of your brain:
1. Stay healthy
Consider developing a routine to get your 150 minutes of recommended weekly exercise, like an after work swim, joining a jogging club, or hiring a personal trainer. Similarly, a firm sleep schedule, staying hydrated, and good nutrition are complimentary habits that contribute to better brain health.
2. Practice focusing
Repetition leads to success, which also applies to strengthening your focus. Methods like the Pomodoro Technique and concentration-based apps are great ways to build self-awareness and discover how you can stay on track.
Learning task management methods (like the Eisenhower Matrix), adopting work productivity tools, or occasional digital detoxes are more ways to prioritize your focus. Find what works for you and practice until it becomes a habit. This prolonged ability to concentrate will strengthen your overall cognitive abilities.
3. Reduce your stress
Worry activates your fight or flight response, which can cause mental fatigue and poor sleep. Acute stress or anxiety can often be improved by developing regular self-care practices, such as meditation, yoga, and deep breathing.
Chronic stress is a more serious mental health risk with serious implications on your short term wellness and long-term cognitive health. Mental health professionals can help you identify the root cause of your stress and provide you with the tools and resources to ease your mind.
4. Train your brain
Your brain is like any other muscle in your body — to keep it in peak condition, you need to work it out. Incorporate some mental activities into your free time, such as reading before bed, playing chess on your lunch break, or following a serial podcast during your daily commute. You can also try memory or reasoning games to sharpen your cognitive skills in fun and practical ways. Even two minutes a day dedicated to self-improvement can grow your skills.
Your brain is working even when you aren’t. But even though many of your cognitive skills are firing off in the background, you can still work to actively sharpen your abilities.
The next time you’re tackling a new task, pay close attention to your focus. How easily do you succumb to distractions? Do you respond better to visual or auditory learning? Once you understand your strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses, you can incorporate techniques to improve.
Eventually, you won’t have to focus so much on focusing. And the next time your coworker comes at you with a curveball, you’ll have the resources and know-how to take the change in stride.