Improving cognitive skills such as attention, memory, and information organization boosts your ability to focus, learn, and solve problems.
By Arthur Gibbs
It’s human nature to want to continually improve all aspects of our lives.
We seek to get more fit and healthy, to be happier and more successful.
But imagine how life could be if you could think more clearly, learn faster, remember more, make better decisions, and solve problems more easily.
These core mental abilities are known as cognitive skills or abilities.
It’s now known that you can actively enhance these skills, just as you can grow bigger muscles, by exercising them.
What Are Cognitive Skills? Cognitive Skills Defined
Cognitive skills are defined as “of, relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering).” (1)
The National Council on Measurement in Education calls a cognitive skill the ability of an individual to perform the various mental activities most closely associated with learning and problem solving. (2)
Basically, cognitive skills are how your brain understands and processes new information and recalls past knowledge to help you deal with living.
List of Cognitive Skills and Abilities
Before discussing how to improve specific cognitive skills, let’s take a look at the types of mental functions that are considered cognitive skills and learn a little about each.
1. Attention & Response
Attention is the ability to choose and concentrate on relevant stimuli. (3)
It is the process of focusing your mind on a specific task and sustaining that focus even when distracting external factors are present.
It is one of the most essential cognitive skills — we use it all day, every day.
There are at least three types of attention:
- Sustained attention is the ability to maintain focus while doing a task for an extended period of time. (4)
- Selective attention is the ability to focus and process information from only one part of the environment while excluding all others. (5)
- Divided attention is the ability to process various information and perform different tasks at the same time. (6)
Of course, in life, you need to do more than be attentive — you have to react.
And this is where a second cognitive skill comes in.
Response is the activity or inhibition of activity of an organism resulting from stimulation. (7)
So response does not necessarily mean taking action all the time.
It may mean restraining yourself from taking any action and continuing to focus your attention where it should be. (8)
Learn more —
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2. Memory & Processing
Whenever you’re trying to remember something, be it a past event or a learned skill, you rely on your memory.
Memory, as a general concept, is the process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms. (9)
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Long-term memory is the recollection of an unlimited amount of information beyond the immediate past.
This type of memory has an infinite preservation time.
There are three sub-types of long-term memory: (12)
- Episodic memory is the personal recollection of a specific event. It is unique for every person; different people generally have a different episodic memory of the same event. (13)
- Semantic memory is an idea or concept not drawn from personal experience (i.e., ideas and concepts that are common knowledge). (14)
- Procedural memory is knowing how to perform different procedures (i.e., motor skills). (15)
Short-term memory, also commonly referred to as working memory, is the temporary storage of small bits of information, usually for only 15-30 seconds.
Your short-term memory also acts as a filter, deciding what’s worth keeping and what should be discarded.
Processing also plays an important role in memory formation.
Processing is the capacity to access memories relevant to a given situation, including the speed with which a mental task is done. (16)
It is the time that elapses between receiving information and understanding and responding to it.
The activities that require processing can vary from something simple to complex cognitive tasks. (17)
3. Information Organization & Inductive Thinking
Information organization includes planning, problem solving, sequencing, and anticipation, among others.
It is the ability to reason, form concepts, and solve problems using unfamiliar information or new procedures. (18)
Information organization begins with planning.
Planning is defined as the ability to “think about the future” or mentally prepare for performing a certain task or achieving a specific goal. (19)
Problem solving, then, is the capacity to understand and resolve problems where a solution is not immediately obvious. (20)
Inductive thinking or reasoning begins with the apprehension of some specific information, then proceeds to logically derive general conclusions from that information. (21)
For example, imagine buying a smartphone, putting it in the back pocket of your jeans, and bending it when you sit.
You get a replacement phone, put it in your back pocket and bend it too.
At this point, you’ll likely conclude that any smartphone placed in your back pocket will bend if you sit on it.
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How to Improve Cognitive Skills
Like other skills, cognitive skills are improved by exercising them.
You’ll notice a pattern with these “exercises” — their primary objective is to just give the brain what it needs to be healthy and fit.
How to Improve Attention & Response
In this day and age, distractions are everywhere.
It’s hard to avoid them, but with a little practice, you can improve your focus and increase your attention span.
Having a lot on your mind induces stress.
Stress impairs your cognitive performance by diminishing your ability to focus. (22)
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By removing or avoiding stressful situations, you’re able to devote more of your attention to productive uses.
For the stress you cannot avoid, counteract it with physical exercise.
Any activity from walking to yoga to an aerobics class will help you release stress in a healthy manner. (23)
A University of California at Santa Barbara study found that taking an hour a day for mindfulness training improved working memory and focus. (24)
Meditation is practiced in many ways, but the basic goal is to quiet your mind by simply monitoring your thoughts. (25)
Regular meditation helps calm the body and mind and increases the ability to concentrate.
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Studies have shown that dehydration can lead to a decrease in attention and concentration. (26)
How much water should you consume via food and drink each day?
Men need at least 2.5 liters (84 ounces), while women need 2.0 liters (64 ounces) according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). (27)
Get Enough Good Sleep
An insufficient quantity or quality of sleep deprives your brain of its ability to focus.
One tip to get sufficient high-quality sleep is to set aside enough time to sleep so that you don’t need to set an alarm to wake up. (28)
How to Improve Memory & Processing
There are many ways to improve memory, one of our critical cognitive skills.
Here are a few of the better ones.
Sleep Some More
Sleep is so important for your cognitive health, we’re mentioning it again!
An especially valuable benefit of sleep is the memory consolidation that occurs.
Sleep allows the brain to sort various memory fragments into more usable long-term memories.
To memorize something, you must be able to focus your attention on it.
Try to remove as many distractions from your physical and mental environment as you can.
Notice that the effort you spend improving your attention (see above) also benefits your memory.
This is another common feature of cognitive skills improvement — exercising one skill usually helps others.
Engage All Your Senses
Whether you’re memorizing a poem or the definition of a new word, use as many of your senses as possible.
Read that poem or word definition aloud.
Just like that, you’re using two senses — sight and hearing — instead of just one.
This is referred to as multisensory learning, and it’s more effective than using one sense. (31)
Exercise Your Brain
Read books, solve puzzles, play chess or board games.
Write, play music, plan a garden.
Engage in any mental activity that you enjoy and find challenging.
You need to exercise your brain by doing challenging activities to keep your memory sharp. (32)
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How to Improve Information Organization & Inductive Thinking
Problems are inevitable at home or at work, and information overload is common.
Cutting a problem down to size and overcoming it requires a few steps: (33)
- Gather the data relevant to the problem.
- Categorize the information into meaningful components.
- Devise several ways to approach and resolve the problem.
- Weigh your options and choose the solution that seems best.
To better understand what you’re dealing with, it’s helpful to divide a large problem into a series of smaller ones.
This will help you grasp the different factors involved and keep you from being overwhelmed by the task.
To get better at problem solving, exercise your brain with puzzle games like Sudoku or video games that involve strategic planning and promote critical thinking. (34)
These activities also help develop inductive thinking.
When you start connecting the dots in your mind and seeing patterns, you can better anticipate what will happen next.
Cognitive Skills Can Be Improved at Any Age
It doesn’t matter if you are a toddler just learning about the world or an octogenarian wanting to stay mentally sharp.
It’s possible for anyone at any stage of life to enhance their cognitive skills.
The approach may differ, but the end goal remains the same.
Traditional education is important for cognitive skills development, but pre and post-schooling are just as vital in determining adult cognitive skill levels. (35)
Various exercises have been developed for improving the cognitive skills of growing toddlers. (36)
Similarly, even older adults with declining cognitive abilities can train particular cognitive skills to minimize their overall mental decline. (37)
Improving Cognitive Skills: The Bottom Line
The human brain carries out an amazing array of complex tasks with abilities that we collectively call cognitive skills.
Attention, memory, and information organization are just some of the various cognitive skills that, when exercised regularly, improve your ability to focus, learn, and solve problems.
Healthy lifestyle habits such as sufficient high-quality sleep, stress reduction, and activities that engage the brain in constantly challenging ways are the “exercises” that help improve cognitive skills and abilities.
About the author
Arthur Gibbs is the current executive content director for Project Macro. He has covered health care, lifestyle trends, and business for more than 10 years for different publications. Born and raised in NYC, he prefers biking around the city and traveling the world searching for the next mountain to climb.