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How can cognitive skills help me in the world of work?

Cognitive skills are how we think, learn, remember and work things out. We use them in our everyday lives and especially at school and work.

In this guide, we take a particular focus on higher cognitive skills and how they are used in the workplace as well as future trends and how you can develop them.

‘Higher cognitive skills will be in greater demand in 2030’

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What are cognitive skills?

Your brain uses cognitive skills to think, read, learn, remember, reason and pay attention. Children start to develop these skills from an early age, as they begin to tell things apart, group them into categories and make judgements about them.

Young woman with pen in mouth and work on desk
We use cognitive skills for day-to-day tasks and
higher-level thinking

We all need basic cognitive skills in day-to-day life. These help us do things like identify objects, remember things and make simple predictions. Without them, it would be impossible to go shopping, cross the road or write a WhatsApp message.

According to Learning XR, cognitive skills allow us to do the following:

  • Pay attention to a task for a period time.
  • Pay attention in spite of distractions.
  • Remember information while doing two or more things at once.
  • Recollect information learnt in the past.
  • Recall information while using it.
  • Reason, form ideas and solve problems.
  • Make sense of sounds.
  • Think in visual images.
  • Complete tasks quickly and accurately.

Types of cognitive skills

Cognitive skills can be divided into basic and higher, as we will explore in the next section.

Basic cognitive skills allow us to do things like record information and understand it. At work, basic cognitive skills allow us to carry out:

  • Data input
  • Information processing

We also rely on higher cognitive skills or “higher order cognition”, which includes:

Cognitive skills at school and work

We use basic cognitive skills for everyday tasks, such as taking notes in class, as well as other aspects of academic and professional work, such as remembering key dates, memorising formulas, or inputting data into spreadsheets.

At school, higher cognitive skills allow us to complete more advanced tasks, such as solving a problem in maths or piecing together evidence to construct an argument in a history.

At work, these skills may be paired up with particular professions. In a report on the jobs of the future, McKinsey match the following higher cognitive skills with different jobs:

  • Advanced literacy and writing: Editors, paralegals, writers.
  • Quantitative and statistical skills: Financial analysts, accountants.
  • Critical thinking and decision making: Doctors, insurance underwriters.
  • Project management: Purchasing agents, front-line supervisors.
  • Complex information processing and interpretation: Market research analysts, lawyers.
  • Creativity: PR specialists, music composers.

The benefits of higher-level cognition

Crossword with pen and ink eraser
Doing puzzles can improve your cognitive skills

Developing strong higher cognitive skills can help make up for weaknesses in other areas. For example, if you struggle to memorise things – for example, through rote learning – learning to conceptualise data can you help bypass the need to remember lots of information.

Exercising higher cognition tends to lead to deeper and fuller understanding and knowledge of the subject matter.

Developing higher cognitive skills will help you:

  • Make decisions.
  • Solve problems.
  • Be creative.
  • Understand, follow, create and adapt rules.
  • Be self-reflective and self-critical.
  • Change your thinking patters.

The cognitive skills of the future

According an analysis by McKinsey, the next decade will see an overall shift from basic to higher-level cognitive skills in the world of work. Between 2016 and 2030, higher cognitive skills will take up 8% more time and basic cognitive skills will take up 15% less. Basic cognitive skills will till take up 14% of hours worked, compared with 18% now.

It will not be an even picture for higher cognitive skills, however. Creativity, critical thinking and decision making and complex information processing are all expected to rise in demand. Demand for advanced literacy and writing, and quantitative and statistical skills could all remain steady or even decline due to automation.

Improving your cognitive skills

There are lots of things you can do to improve your cognitive skills – and some of them might surprise you!

According to Indeed, you should start by:

  • Reducing your stress levels as stress affects cognition. Try out mindfulness, exercise and listening to calming music to alleviate low-level stress.
  • Looking after your body helps your brain perform better. Getting plenty of exercise, eating a good, nutrient-rich diet and drinking lots of water will all help.
  • Your brain is like a muscle – exercising it is a great way to keep it active. Reading, puzzles, learning new things (such as a new skill, hobby or even recipe) and even video-gaming can all help.

At school, push yourself to develop those higher cognitive skills. Instead of simply learning by rote, see if you can:

  • In maths, identify underlying patterns or rules.
  • In history, read historical sources critically to identify possible problems.
  • In art and design, or design and technology, concentrate on a particular practical task for an entire lesson.

If you’d like more information about developing your cognitive skills, check out our guides to critical thinking and problem solving.