Cognitive Skills: What Are They and How Can You Improve Them?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 15 June 2022 | Published 25 June 2021

Updated 15 June 2022

Published 25 June 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

In a workplace setting, cognitive skills are used to solve problems and improve the quality of your work. Showing that you have strong cognitive skills on your CV and in a job interview can make you a more appealing candidate to an employer. You develop cognitive skills throughout your life, but you can always develop them to improve your workplace performance. In this article, we explain what cognitive skills are, give examples of cognitive skills and discuss how you can improve your cognitive abilities.

What are cognitive skills?

Cognitive skills are the core abilities of your brain demonstrated through your memory, reasoning, attention span, problem solving, thinking, reading and learning. Cognitive skills help you process information by sending it to the correct areas of your brain. When you need that information again later, your brain relies on these cognitive skills to retrieve it for use. By developing cognitive skills and building on them, your brain can complete these cognitive processes more quickly and efficiently.

In the workplace, strong cognitive skills can provide many benefits. Your cognitive abilities ensure that you interpret data, remember important information and pay attention during meetings, to name just a few.

Examples of cognitive skills

You can divide cognitive skills into nine categories, each of them reflecting a different method that your brain uses to process and use information. Here's a list of the nine cognitive skills:

Sustained attention

Sustained attention helps you to keep your attention fixed on a single task for a long period of time. In many jobs, you need this skill to accomplish assignments or projects. Having strong cognitive skills can help you resist diverting your attention to something else and stay focused on the most important task.

Selective attention

Selective attention allows you to focus your attention on a single task even when there are distractions all around you. This cognitive skill helps you choose which task to devote attention to and helps you stay focused on that task. For example, it requires selective attention to ignore your phone and colleagues in order to only answer emails.

Divided attention

In the workplace, there might be times when you need to have your attention on multiple tasks at once. Divided attention is the cognitive skill which helps you to multitask, allowing you to retain information while completing two or more tasks at the same time. For example, you might add the finishing touches to your current project while you simultaneously gather ideas for your new project. With divided attention skills, you can complete concurrent tasks or processes efficiently without losing information.

Long-term memory

Having long-term memory allows you to recall past information. It ensures that you remember all the key points from last week's big meeting with your manager and also the names of your colleagues which you learned years ago. Without long-term memory, you wouldn't be able to remember the training you've had in the workplace and apply it to your daily tasks.

Working memory

Working memory, also known as short-term memory, helps you to retain information while you're working on a task. For example, if you are using new office software, working memory helps you learn and retain the guidelines on how to use it. Having good short-term memory skills is also good for retaining any key points that are made in a meeting or conversation.

Logic and reasoning

Logic and reasoning skills help you solve problems efficiently and come up with new ideas. For example, you use logic and reasoning when you identify the needs of a consumer, brainstorm and problem-solve to meet those needs. You also use logic and reasoning when compiling reports and analysing data.

Related: Deductive Reasoning in the Workplace

Auditory processing

Your brain uses auditory processing to make sense of information that you have heard. Having this cognitive skill helps you to listen effectively to people in your workplace, whether they're a customer, a colleague or your boss. Auditory processing helps you to internalise sounds, interpret and effectively use the information you heard.

Visual processing

Visual processing helps you interpret the things you see. For example, in a workplace setting, visual processing skills may allow you to analyse designs, proofread important documents and make sense of visual representations of data, such as graphs and tables.

Processing speed

Finally, the processing speed cognitive skill helps you to perform tasks quickly and accurately. With a high processing speed, your brain can interpret information more quickly and apply it to the task you are undertaking. By strengthening your processing speed, you can improve your productivity by completing tasks more effectively and efficiently. For example, having a high processing speed can help you identify your customer's needs more quickly so you can assist them.

Why should you improve your cognitive skills?

Improving your cognitive skills can help you perform better in your job. Strengthening your attention skills can help you can stay focused on one task for a long period of time, or multiple tasks all at once. Strong attention skills can help you become a more active listener, therefore improving your workplace relationships. Building on your logic and reasoning skills can help you come up with solutions to difficult challenges, and strong memory skills can help you remember all the training you've received for a job. Some workplace benefits can include:

  • Greater efficiency

  • Higher productivity

  • Better relationships with co-workers and clients

  • Improved problem-solving

How can you improve your cognitive skills?

Here are a few ways that you can improve your cognitive skills:

1. Reduce stress in your life

Aim to reduce the stress in your life by removing yourself from avoidable stressful situations and taking part in stress-reducing activities. If you work in an office, try to get up from your desk often, take brief walks or listen to music to focus your thoughts. At home, make time for relaxing activities such as yoga or meditation. Reducing your stress levels can improve your attention span and help you focus.

Related: What are stress relievers? 10 effective stress relievers

2. Take care of your body

Find ways to take care of your physical health, as this can improve your cognitive skills. By drinking plenty of water, eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep every night, you can improve your attention span and performance in the workplace. Getting at least seven hours of sleep a night can benefit your short-term and long-term memory and sustain your cognitive skills at work.

3. Practice focusing

Begin improving your attention and memory skills by choosing points of focus throughout the day. While you're at work, remove distractions and see how long you can stay focused on one task without losing concentration. For example, you could place your smartphone in your coat pocket and aim to not check it for at least two hours. You could try wearing noise-blocking headphones or listening to quiet music if your workplace allows it.

4. Exercise your brain

Look for and take part in activities that target and exercise certain areas of your brain. These can provide fun ways to improve your cognitive skills. For example, reading a book or doing a puzzle like Sudoku or a crossword are great ways to exercise the brain. You could also play chess or another game that engages your thinking.

How to highlight cognitive skills during a job search

Here are a few ways you can display your cognitive skills during a job search:

1. Include your cognitive skills on your CV

You can highlight your cognitive skills on your CV in many ways. By using a clear structure, you can illustrate your visual processing skills. Listing your logic and reasoning skills shows the employer how you can contribute to the company's mission. You should also detail your cognitive abilities such as strong problem-solving and active listening skills.

2. Demonstrate your cognitive skills during a job interview

A job interview provides an ideal outlet to showcase your cognitive skills. When answering a question, you can highlight your strong memory by referencing any research you've conducted about the company. By actively listening and responding well to your interviewers, you can demonstrate your attention skills. If the interviewer asks any scenario-based or hypothetical questions, you can show them you have sound logic, reasoning and problem-solving skills.


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