What Is Cognitive Ability? How To Improve Your Cognitive Skills

By Indeed Editorial Team

October 28, 2021

This article has been approved by an Indeed Career Coach

In any professional field, you use cognitive skills to solve problems in the workplace and improve the quality of your work. Displaying cognitive skills both in an interview and on your resume can also make you a more appealing job candidate. You develop cognitive skills throughout your life, but strategically improving them can help you better use these abilities in the workplace. In this article, we will define cognitive skills, provide examples and explore how you can improve your own cognitive abilities.

What are cognitive skills?

Cognitive skills, or cognitive abilities, are the ways that your brain remembers, reasons, holds attention, solves problems, thinks, reads and learns. Your cognitive abilities help you process new information by taking that information and distributing it into the appropriate areas in your brain. When you need that information later, your brain also uses cognitive skills to retrieve and use that information. By developing cognitive skills, you help your brain complete this process more quickly and efficiently, and you ensure that you understand and effectively process that new information.

In the workplace, cognitive skills help you interpret data, remember team goals, pay attention during an important meeting and more. These skills help you recall previous information that may relate to your organization’s goals and help you make important connections between old and new information so you work more effectively.

Read more: The Importance of Cognitive Ability in Your Career

Examples of cognitive skills

Cognitive skills are often divided into nine different categories. Each of these cognitive skills reflects a different method that your brain uses to effectively interpret and use information.

  1. Sustained attention

  2. Selective attention

  3. Divided attention

  4. Long-term memory

  5. Working memory

  6. Logic and reasoning

  7. Auditory processing

  8. Visual processing

  9. Processing speed

1. Sustained attention

Sustained attention helps you focus on a single task for a long period of time. In the workplace, this skill allows you to stay focused and motivated to continue a single task until you complete it. Sustained attention helps you to resist moving on to other projects and instead to work toward long-term goals.

2. Selective attention

Selective attention allows you to focus your attention on a single task even when there are distractions around you. It helps you decide where you will place your attention among many different choices and enables you to stay on that task. For instance, you could practice selective attention by answering emails instead of checking your phone or socializing with coworkers.

3. Divided attention

Sometimes you need to have your attention in multiple places, and divided attention helps you retain information while successfully completing two or more tasks at the same time. For example, you could be finalizing your current project while also completing the preparation stages of your next project. Divided attention helps you complete today’s task without forgetting the ideas you have for next week’s project. 

4. Long-term memory

Long-term memory allows you to recall information from the past. This skill may help you remember the main points of last week’s meeting, and it may also help you remember the colleague’s name that you learned three years ago. Long-term memory also helps you to remember prior workplace training and apply it to current tasks.

Read more: Best Games You Can Play to Improve Your Memory

5. Working memory

Also known as short-term memory, working memory helps you retain information while you are using it. For example, if you are working on a project and do not have to look at the instructions again to remind yourself of the next step in the task, then you have a strong working memory. Short-term memory skills can also help retain points you discussed in a recent conversation.

6. Logic and reasoning

Logic and reasoning skills help you solve problems and generate ideas. You use logic and reasoning skills when you identify the needs of a consumer and go through a process of brainstorming and problem-solving to meet those needs. You also use logic and reasoning when you analyze data or compile reports.

Related: The Best Ways to Strengthen Your Logical Thinking Skills

7. Auditory processing

Your brain uses auditory processing to make sense of information that comes in through your ears by blending, analyzing and segmenting sounds for immediate or future use. This cognitive skill can help you actively listen to customers, leaders and colleagues by not only internalizing sounds but also by interpreting and helping you productively use the information you heard.

8. Visual processing

Visual processing helps you effectively interpret images. Strong visual processing skills allow you to analyze designs, proofread important documents and make sense of visual representations of data, such as graphs and tables. 

9. Processing speed

This final cognitive skill helps you quickly and accurately perform tasks. When you have high processing speed, your brain is able to more quickly interpret information and apply it to a certain task. Strengthening this skill can improve your productivity by helping you efficiently and effectively complete tasks. With high processing speed, you can swiftly identify your customer’s needs and begin brainstorming solutions.

Read more: Skill Assessment Tests: Definition and Examples

How to improve cognitive skills

Strengthening your cognitive skills can help you perform better in almost every aspect of your job. Improving your attention skills can not only help you stay on task, but it can also help you be a more active listener, which can improve your relationships. Building your logic and reasoning skills can also help you generate creative solutions to difficult challenges. Here are a few ways you can improve your cognitive skills:

  1. Reduce stress

  2. Care for your body

  3. Practice focusing

  4. Exercise your brain

1. Reduce stress

Reducing your stress levels can help you focus and improve your attention span. Try to remove yourself from stressful situations if you can. If you cannot remove yourself, try stress-reducing activities. At work, you could take a brief walk around your workspace or, if possible, put in some headphones and listen to music to focus your thoughts. At home, consider taking time to exercise or do yoga. 

You can also reduce stress with simple meditation techniques by sitting in a quiet place, focusing on your breathing and being mindful of your thoughts. These stress-reducing strategies can improve your ability to concentrate and build attention-related cognitive skills.

2. Care for your body

Maintaining your physical health can improve your cognitive skills. Drinking plenty of water, eating a balanced diet and getting at least seven hours of sleep every night can improve your attention-related abilities and help you perform better in the workplace. Sufficient sleep can also drastically improve your memory skills, as sleep helps your brain sort through and store memories.

3. Practice focusing

You can actively improve your attention and memory skills by purposefully focusing your mind throughout the day. When you are at work, find ways to remove distractions, and see how long you can remain focused on a task without losing concentration. This could include placing your smartphone in a drawer or wearing headphones if your workplace allows it.  

You can also improve focus by engaging more senses. While at work, read a customer’s concern out loud, or if you are at home, try memorizing a poem or a favorite passage in a book by reading it repeatedly out loud.

4. Exercise your brain

Like any other muscle, you can find activities that target and exercise certain areas of the brain, improving the associated cognitive skills. Consider these activities to strengthen your cognitive abilities:

  • Read a book during your break or before you go to bed. 

  • Find puzzles that you enjoy, like a crossword or Sudoku.

  • Play chess or another game that engages your mind. 

  • Write a story, or memorize your favorite song.

Challenging mental activities can help you improve your memory, focus, reasoning and processing skills. 

Read more: 6 Simple Ways to Improve Your Memory

Using cognitive skills in the workplace

While you can apply cognitive skills to improve almost any workplace situation, there are a few specific ways you can exercise your cognitive skills at work:

Identify patterns

You can combine logic and reasoning skills with memory skills to recognize patterns. These trends may appear in data, or they may be a repeated result that you recognize in the workplace. Recognizing that sales increase after certain marketing initiatives, for example, can help you focus on strategies that best reach your audience. 

Analyze resources

Use your reasoning skills to look at data and reports more thoroughly. Consider not only what makes a customer like a certain product, but why. Ask critical questions about your audience, and analyze data instead of just skimming a report. Being analytical about problems can help you find creative solutions.

Focus your attention

Use the cognitive skills that help you focus to enable you to more productively handling tasks. By effectively focusing on specific projects, you can complete them more quickly and with greater accuracy, allowing you to move on to other tasks. Staying focused can also help you gain more from meetings, actively listen to colleagues and work with goals and milestones in mind. 

Read more: How to Improve Focus in the Workplace: Strategies and Tips

How to highlight cognitive skills

In addition to using cognitive skills in the workplace, you can also highlight your cognitive skills during your job search to help you become a more appealing candidate. Here are a few ways to display your cognitive skills while looking for a new position: 

Cognitive skills for your resume

A well-written and well-structured resume can itself be a representation of your strong cognitive skills. Clean structure and spacing illustrate your visual processing skills, for example. When you target your summary and objective statements to the details in the job posting, you display logic and reasoning skills that demonstrate how you can contribute to the company’s mission. You can also include cognitive strengths like problem-solving and active listening in your skills section.

Example: “Marketing professional with three years of market research experience. Analyzing consumer buying behavior and seasonal trends to create effective product marketing campaigns for target demographics.”

Related: 6 Universal Rules for Resume Writing

Cognitive skills for your cover letter

A cover letter requires that you professionally address your potential employer, creatively present yourself as the right candidate for the job and illustrate how you can benefit the company. As you meet these requirements through your cover letter, you display your ability to creatively solve problems, which in turn shows your logic and reasoning skills.

Example:  “I value planning sessions with my team because I am able to share my ideas with others and collaborate on creating the best product design. I always use data from previously tested designs to show the potential value in certain visuals that appeal to our target customers.”

Cognitive skills for job interviews

An interview will likely present many opportunities to display your cognitive skills. When answering a question, you can display your memory skills by referencing your research into the company or the original job description. You can show your attention skills by actively listening and responding to your interviewers. You can also demonstrate your logic and reasoning skills by solving hypothetical problems that the interviewers may present.

Example: “I understand that your company hosts a marketing conference every year to bring together professionals from different areas of our industry. These conferences would provide me valuable insight into what other companies are doing to meet the needs of their customers as well as the creative solutions they’ve found to increase brand loyalty.”

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