Career Development

The Importance of Cognitive Ability in Your Career

May 2, 2019

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Cognitive abilities are a collection of natural skills that occur on a neural level within the brain. We typically use these abilities without thinking about it, and they include skills like listening, perception and attention. Being attentive to and developing your cognitive abilities can also help you be successful throughout your career.

Whether you are searching for a new job or changing careers, understanding how you access memory, process information, apply reason and perform analysis can help you during the hiring process. Additionally, noting your cognitive strengths might help narrow down career options to those in which you have natural talents.

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What is cognitive ability?

Cognitive ability refers to naturally occurring skills of the brain used for both simple and complex tasks. These skills relate to how an individual processes information, recognizes patterns and analyzes problems. Collectively known as cognitive ability, these skills can be honed by focusing on areas that need improvement.

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What are the types of cognitive ability?

In order to define the areas of ability, cognitive types can be broken down into categories of attention, memory, processing and logic and reasoning. Since these areas relate to each other, weakness in one area may signal weakness in another. Cognitive skills can, however, be improved with practice over time as soon as they are identified.

Here are the types of cognitive ability and ways they might present as weaknesses:

1. Attention

Attention is the ability to stay focused on a task over a period of time despite distractions or having multiple tasks to perform at once. Focus is critical for strong job performance as it can affect the impact you have in your role. Attention directly relates to memory function, helping you strengthen both short-term and long-term memory recall.

Attention deficit might be a factor if you have trouble staying focused or are easily distracted. Going from task to task, making frequent mistakes or not finishing projects on time are three examples of a cognitive skill weakness. If you have experienced any of these habits, you may benefit from improving your attention and focus.

2. Memory

Memory your ability to recall information, whether it is recent (short-term memory) or from the past (long-term memory). Weak memory can alter perceptions about facts, tasks, dates and times.

If you find you need to reread material or ask for directions midway through a task, your short-term memory may be lacking. Trouble recalling names or struggling to remember important facts may be indicators that your long-term memory would perform better with improvement.

3. Logic and reasoning

These cognitive strengths refer to the ability to assess a problem and find a solution. Strong problem-solving skills are a direct result of your ability to use logic and reasoning.

Do you frequently ask what to do next, feel overwhelmed or have trouble understanding instructions? Improving your logic and reasoning skills can help increase cognitive capacity and expand your capability to find solutions to complex issues.

4. Auditory and visual processing

Auditory and visual processing involves interpreting the information we receive through sight and sound. Auditory and visual processing works in conjunction with other types of cognitive tasks such as understanding symbols (like letters and numbers) and visualizing solutions. With this cognitive ability, the speed at which information is processed is also a factor. 

Cognitive tasks like understanding written text, deciphering a map or following directions are supported by the ability to comprehend. If it is difficult to find your way using a map or if you struggle to solve math word problems in a timely manner, this could indicate that your processing speed may benefit from improvement. In general, strong auditory and visual processing skills mean less time spent trying to understand new information.

Read more: Learning Styles for Career Development

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Why do cognitive skills matter?

Cognitive skills matter because they can help you be a strong performer at work when you focus on developing and improving them. Some job applications and interviews include quizzes, questions or scenarios that assess your cognitive abilities. Employers hiring for roles that require strength in a certain cognitive skill might ensure candidates are capable before extending a job offer.

Here are a few qualities employers might look for when assessing your cognitive ability during the hiring process:

  • Understanding material
    Comprehending material presented to you is an important part of any job. Whether it's a training manual or a project outline, the ability to digest material through reading comprehension and recognition means you can be self-sufficient with tasks.

  • Recognizing patterns of events
    The ability to recognize patterns lends itself to strengths in solving problems, establishing efficient processes and identifying opportunities. These skills are beneficial in any role no matter your industry or job level. Focusing on improving pattern recognition over time will help you grow in your career.

  • Analyzing problems and finding options
    The ability to analyze a problem means you can inspect it objectively from all angles to find solutions and determine the best outcome. By expanding your thinking in different directions, you can develop skills to find creative solutions to even the most complex problems at work.

  • Brainstorming
    Many roles require candidates who can come up with several creative ideas and solutions. Some industries that value brainstorming skills include the arts, advertising and marketing, tech and business. Practicing creative brainstorming with puzzles and other mental activities can help you improve brainstorming skills for potential tests during the hiring process.

  • Focused attention
    You will be required to complete several different tasks with varying deadlines and urgency levels in nearly any job. By improving your focus, you can prioritize tasks and organize your schedule. Doing so can help you achieve goals specific to your role, increasing your chances at promotions and other career opportunities.

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How to improve cognitive ability

While you certainly have strengths in some cognitive abilities, you might notice other are areas for improvement. Remember, these skills can be developed over time with consistent practice. The human brain's ability to learn and evolve means you can always progress a cognitive skill that may not be as strong as others.

Here are a few ways you can develop cognitive ability:

  1. Engage in physical activity
    Studies show regular physical activity can improve hormone function, which enhances memory. Cardiovascular fitness translates to better blood flow which supports brain function. Physical activity improves motor skills and coordination, while endurance training has been proven to provide protection for the brain.

  2. Accept new challenges or experiences
    Not only does a new experience expand your processing skills, but it can also improve reasoning and analysis skills by exposing you to new ideas. Meeting different people and seeing new places can introduce you to new ways of thinking, communicating and problem-solving. This can improve memory, test your reasoning skills and speed up your ability to process information.

  3. Play brain games
    There are a variety of brain games available for mental exercise online and on your phone’s app store. These are not only often fun to play, but they can also improve your cognitive weaknesses and develop your strengths. Practicing with these games a few minutes per day can affect your problem-solving and processing skills.

  4. Get quality sleep
    Sleep is one of the most important factors for mental health and cognitive strength. Getting an appropriate amount of quality sleep allows your brain the time it needs to repair and regenerate by processing the information you have learned throughout the day. Sleep triggers the brain to file, store and compartmentalize information for retrieval later on.

  5. Reduce stress
    Reducing stress plays a significant role in overall well-being, but it can also strengthen your cognitive skills. This works by giving your brain the freedom and space to perform its functions as efficiently as possible. To reduce stress, you might consider a daily meditation for 10-15 minutes, or scheduling some time each week to turn off your devices and put your work away. Reading consistently can reduce stress while also improving your processing skills.

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Using your cognitive strengths

Once you have identified your mental strengths and weaknesses, you can take the appropriate steps to improve and develop them. If you are searching for jobs, understanding your abilities might help you identify a career or organization that will align with your strengths.

If you have had a professional career for several years, you may assess your current skill set to look for areas for improvement. Use these areas to continue growing towards your personal career goals whether that means changing industries, earning a promotion or developing your industry expertise.

When you consider the importance of cognitive ability and its role in everyday life, you get a better idea of how these skills work and how they apply to nearly everything you do at work.

From physical activity to sleep, you can improve your cognitive skills in many ways. Books, puzzles, walks and stress reducers will certainly enhance your learning ability and strengthen cognitive skills to succeed in your next interview.

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