Whether it’s a morning crossword, a daily brain teaser, or you’re joining the Wordle craze, it’s never a bad idea to keep your cognitive skills sharp. Yet, although we train our bodies through exercise and a balanced diet, it can be all too easy to overlook training your brain.
However, neglecting your cognitive skills would be a mistake. With the demands of the modern workforce becoming increasingly fast-paced, well-developed cognitive skills are now vital. From empathy to creativity to attention span, it is essential to actively train your cognitive skills to stand out in a competitive workforce.
With this in mind, we’ll analyse the cognitive skills you need to focus on to get ahead in the future world of work. We’ll start by asking what cognitive skills are. Then, we'll look at how to develop your cognitive skills before exploring the specific skills you should prioritise.
This article is the third in our ongoing future skills series, stemming from our recent deep dive into the foundational skills you’ll need in 2022. Throughout this series, we’ll detail the interpersonal, leadership, digital, and cognitive skills you’ll need to get ahead in 2022 and beyond. If you haven’t already, check out the first two blogs of this series on interpersonal skills and self-leadership.
Ready to train your brain? Let’s get started.
Cognitive skills are the mental skills such as attention, prioritisation, adaptability, critical thinking, and memory that we use to assess, perceive, process, and act in various situations.
As Indeed puts it, cognitive skills 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.”
Similarly, Sharp Brains defines cognitive skills as “brain-based skills we need to carry out any task from the simplest to the most complex. They have more to do with the mechanisms of how we learn, remember, problem-solve, and pay attention, rather than with any actual knowledge.”
Sharp Brains also provides a concrete example of cognitive skills in action in the form of answering a telephone. While this may seem like an everyday task, it’s easy to take for granted that answering the phone involves many cognitive skills. For example, you use perception to hear the ring tone, decision making to assess whether to answer the call, language skills throughout the conversation, and social skills to interpret the tone of voice and interact with another person.
As such, we use cognitive skills daily — often subconsciously, without even realising it. Many cognitive skills are so ingrained that they become second nature like breathing. However, this doesn’t mean you can't train your cognitive skills. Quite the opposite. It is vital to continually develop your cognitive skills to ensure you remain mentally sharp.
In a workplace context, well-trained cognitive skills are becoming increasingly important. In a recent report, McKinsey identified cognitive skills as one of four ‘distinct elements of talent’ (DELTAs) that will be vital to the future of work. Forward-thinking workers would be wise to recognise this and focus on developing their cognitive skills.
Cognitive skills can manifest in many ways at work. From quickly interpreting and analysing data to paying attention and retaining information during meetings to problem-solving and thinking quickly on your feet, cognitive skills are the backbone of any high-functioning team.
Think of it this way: specific knowledge and facts are often updated and can always be taught and shared. However, strong cognitive skills such as agility and creative thinking are evergreen, allowing you to stand out.
To find out more, see our recent blog on preparing your brain for learning.
To start developing your cognitive skills, Indeed recommends taking three key steps. Firstly, it is critical to reduce stress and take care of your body. A clear, calm mind and a healthy body give you the best chance of developing your cognitive skills. So, focus on getting a good nights’ sleep, eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and practising meditation to relieve stress.
Secondly, practice makes perfect. For instance, if you want to improve your focus, practise focussing throughout the day. Try timing how long you can focus on a task before getting distracted. Then, set achievable goals to help slowly increase this number and improve your focus. The same theory applies to other cognitive skills, such as memory and problem-solving.
Finally, to develop your cognitive skills, you need to actively train your brain. Like any other muscle, your brain needs regular exercise. Training your brain to expand your cognitive skills can take several forms, such as reading more frequently, solving puzzle games like crosswords, Wordle, or Sudoku, or even downloading a dedicated brain-training app. You can also check out our blog on carrying the cognitive load of learning, which is packed full of tips from guest expert Lauren Waldman.
For further insights on training your cognitive skills, see our blog on fixed mindsets vs growth mindsets.
According to Mind Matters, there are six distinct types of cognitive skills: long-term memory, working memory, logic and reasoning, auditory processing, visual processing, and attention.
McKinsey offers further insights into the specific cognitive skills that employees will need in the future world of work via a survey of more than 18,000 people. According to their research, the following cognitive skills will be essential for high-performing employees:
That’s not all, as McKinsey also found that many of these skills correlate highly with employability, job satisfaction, and even income. For example, people with high proficiency in understanding biases are 10% more likely to be satisfied with their jobs. Similarly, those with high proficiency in work-plan developments are 27% more likely to earn a top-quintile income, making this DELTA the top indicator of a high income.
Moreover, those with excellent adaptability skills are 24% more likely to be employed. Again, this cognitive skill was the highest indicator of employability. Overall, respondents with high proficiency across all cognitive skills were 30% more likely to earn a high income, per McKinsey’s findings.
We’ve drilled down further, identifying the top four essential cognitive skills you should focus on.
1. Attention: According to Indeed, attention is the most important cognitive skill to get ahead at work. As they explain, “strong cognitive skills can help you resist diverting your attention to something else and stay focused on the most important task.” Attention can be divided into three sub-skills: sustained attention (focusing on one task for a long time), selective attention (maintaining focus despite distractions, such as replying to emails or chatting with co-workers) and divided attention (attending to multiple ongoing tasks in a day without losing track of your progress).
2. Adaptability: It should come as no surprise that adaptability is one of the most vital cognitive skills in 2022. After years of COVID-related disruptions, adaptability is now the norm in many workplaces. As a result, adaptable employees will be highly sought after in the future world of work. To learn more, see our blog on agile and adaptable teams.
3. Agile thinking: Going hand in hand with adaptability, agile thinking is also an essential cognitive skill. As McKinsey puts it, employees who can “quickly and independently learn competencies beyond their area of expertise” will stand out to employers. In the modern workplace, agile thinking involves thinking laterally at a moment’s notice, always having a backup plan (and a backup plan for your backup plan!), and being willing to learn from past mistakes to grow.
4. Prioritisation: Excellent time-management and prioritisation skills have always been important. However, with adaptability and agility also at a premium, the ability to juggle and prioritise multiple tasks, often with short lead times, will be a vital cognitive skill to get ahead in the future world of work. For further insights, see our blog on the art of prioritisation.