8 Ways to Improve Your Powers of Observation

Paying Attention and Thinking Critically

You see, but you do not observe. – Sherlock Holmes, in "A Scandal in Bohemia."

Do you ever feel as if you're living in your own "bubble," and that you give barely a thought to the world outside?

Test yourself for a minute. From your commute, can you remenber the name of the dime store you pass each day, or the sequence of events at that motor accident you witnessed a few weeks ago? How aware are you of problems growing between your colleagues? And how about that intentional misspelling of "remember" a couple of sentences ago – did you notice that?

Watch this video to get eight tips on how you can improve your powers of observation.

We all get lost in our thoughts sometimes or flit through days on autopilot. However, when we do so, we lose out in the amount and quality of information we absorb, in the potential to be inspired or intrigued, and in our ability to engage with the people, places and situations around us.

Fortunately, developing your powers of observation isn't difficult, and we look at some easy ways to do it in this article.

About Observation

When you're observant, you use your senses to examine something that you're curious about, and you evaluate what you experience.

"Observing" is not the same thing as "seeing." Seeing is passive. For example, you see everything around you as you go to work, but you rarely look for anything specific or note down information to use later. Observation, however, is a process of paying attention, intently and actively, so that you can gather specific information to assess.

Observing their surroundings was a matter of life and death for our prehistoric ancestors – their survival depended on it. However, a study by the Ohio State University has shown that observation skills are now in decline.

More often than not, in these relatively civilized times, observing our surroundings won't be a matter of life or death. Nonetheless, observation skills remain important, as without them you are likely to miss key information and make less-well-informed decisions in all areas of your life. Psychologists Arien Mack and Irvin Rock call this tendency to miss key details "inattentional blindness."

Why Do Observation Skills Matter?

Training your brain to observe allows you to learn and remember more about the people, places, events, and situations around you – to pick up on details that you might otherwise miss. Critically assessing your observations then helps you to understand, to reach well-informed conclusions, and to solve problems more effectively.

In turn, these abilities strengthen your workplace and interpersonal skills, improving the way you interact with the people and environments around you.

8 Ways to Sharpen Your Observational Skills

Observation is a skill and, like any skill, you can learn and develop it. With practice, you can sharpen your mind and make observation a habit.

Here are 8 tips for becoming more observant.

1. Know Your Subject

No matter what you're observing, you're going to do it most effectively when you know your subject. Integrating what you see with what you know is a key part of observation, and you can only be an informed observer when you know how a team, place or process normally works.

2. Slow Down and Look Outwards

It's difficult to be observant if you're rushing around, feeling stressed. Forcing yourself to pause or slow down, and cutting out the mental chatter inside your head so that you can train your attention outwards, is essential. Try using mindfulness to help you focus on observing other people and your surroundings.

3. Try Something New

You can develop your powers of observation by going somewhere new or trying something different. This naturally heightens your awareness and focuses your mind. And the more regularly you do this, the more developed your observational skills will become. A useful tip is to visit museums or galleries – places which actively invite you to experience new things and to observe them closely.

4. Cut Out Distractions

Your ability to observe depends on how well you concentrate and focus. In their 1987 book, Peopleware, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister say that it takes 15 minutes to regain focus after a distraction. Therefore, it's essential to minimize distractions or to remove them altogether.

Try techniques such as active listening and entering a state of flow, which can help you to focus and to keep distractions to a minimum.

5. Play Games

A good mental workout can exercise and sharpen the brain. Challenges such as cryptograms and logic puzzles, and games like Pictionary® or the Rubik's Cube®, stimulate your brain to think intensely, boosting your powers of logic and reasoning. A smarter, more agile brain helps you to observe with greater insight and to deduce information that isn't immediately obvious.

6. Test Your Recall

Memory is a crucial aspect of observation. An effective strategy for developing your long-term memory is to pick a date or event from your past. Then write down as much as you can remember about it, in as much detail as possible.

To work on your short-term memory, try Kim's Game, a technique that comes from Rudyard Kipling's 1901 novel, Kim. Ask someone to gather 15 or 20 random items for you. Study them for one minute, turn away, and write about as many items as you can remember. Don't just name them; describe their color, shape, size, and so on. As your skill develops, increase the challenge. For example, add items that smell or make a noise, to invoke your other senses, but reduce the time you have to observe them. You could also wait for a couple of hours before listing what you saw.

Studying photographs and describing them, picking random objects and looking for them wherever you go, and trying to list everything in your living room are other good ways to improve your observation.

7. Keep a Journal

Choose somewhere to sit, observe and write about the details of what and whom you encounter. Remember to go beyond just the things that you see and use all your senses.

Try taking a sketchbook so that you can draw pictures to describe what you observe, too. Don't worry if your drawing isn't great – you don't need to be the next Picasso! Even basic line artwork forces you to observe your surroundings and to evaluate them before you put pencil to paper.

8. Develop Your Critical Thinking Skills

The ability to think critically is central to observation. How well you're able to question, reason and analyze your observations can make or break the value of your work.

Critical thinking is a skill, and there are many different tools and techniques you can use to develop it. Take a look at our article on the subject for ways to do this.

Key Points

Observation is the process of focusing on something or someone to gather information for critical evaluation. It is more than just passively seeing, and it can involve all of your senses. Good observation helps you to become informed and to be more effective at work.

To improve how you observe the people, places, events, and situations around you, lay the groundwork by knowing your subject, slowing your pace, eliminating distractions, and trying new things. Sharpen your mind by playing challenging games, testing your memory, writing down or drawing your observations, and honing your critical thinking skills.

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