Throughout my life, I have always had some issues with what I, my peers and my teachers referred to colloquially as "paying attention". By this I mean a very specific ability to not make mistakes. Some very good examples are:
- A mathematically competent adult getting a calculus question wrong because of a simple arithmetic mistake, such as 5+3=15.
- A well-prepared student getting a multiple choice question wrong because it was asking "which of the above are not true", but he mistakenly selected the ones that are true.
- A skilled roboticist damaging an expensive circuit because he accidentally wired the components incorrectly.
- Mixing up two terms which refer to different things, despite understanding very well the concept that either term refers to.
- Typos and simple grammar errors.
Note that I do not mean attention in the sense of being able to concentrate on and pay attention to a topic. I am specifically talking about the ability to not make mistakes (where mistakes are simple errors, which you know are wrong but do not notice at the time - not errors you committed because you lacked understanding of a key concept or because you didn't know any better).
While this "attention" obviously influences ability to do well on tests, it also affects my day-to-day work in 2 key ways:
- When performing an involved experiment, things such as mixing up samples, accidentally skipping a step of the procedure, forgetting to clearly label the samples and so on may ruin the whole experiment - either because the experiment no longer works when that simple mistake is made, or because the mistake has made the results uninterpretable.
- When working with a tool that does not provide much automated error checking, I can end up producing data or programs that are incorrect due to some mistakes I made. It may take me a very long time to detect these bugs - and until I do, all conclusions I draw from my results are unreliable (and I am not aware of this!). Even after I discover the bug, the work done up to that point is still wasted.
So, my question: Is "attention" in this sense (ability to make few mistakes) a skill, or innate? Is there any way for me to improve this skill? Can it be trained, or is it an invariant quality of a person that they can only accept and accommodate?
Note that, for the "making mistakes when doing something complicated" problem, there exist the solutions of
- "break it down into simpler chunks which you are less likely to make mistakes with"
- "restructure your complicated activity such that mistakes are rendered obvious".
I'm not very interested in these sorts of solutions, because restructuring the task is not always possible, feasible and efficient. Some things simply cannot be made any less complicated than they are.
Also, while I welcome discussions of the physiology of this problem, it is very unlikely that my problem is ADD or a similar disorder. As the saying goes, to err is human - but some humans err more than others, and I am interested in understanding why (and more precisely, what strategies are available to make oneself err less).