How can you improve your skills of observation?

  • Practice being observant and not just in new places. While you might decide to try and be more observant this is not something that you can easily remember when there is a lot going on, and only practicing will help you to observe naturally. Start by sitting in your living room or bedroom and make it your objective to try and spot something new. This might be a small mark on the television, a scuff on the wall or a book on the shelf you didn’t know you had. Similarly practice observing the outside world through the window – even as you sit in the car waiting for someone.
  • Just trying to be more observant is not really an effective objective. Rather try to think of a methodical way to examine any particular room or environment. For instance try working from the top left of your visual field to the bottom right and noting anything that you see of interest as your eyes sweep across the room. In addition it helps to scan an area from right to left because we are used to this eye movement – that is what we use to read. As a result, we have become inherently lazy to scan an area thoroughly. You will be amazed at how much more you observe by just changing the direction of your sweep. So sweep your eyes from right to left!
  • If you are being or trying to be observant then it’s much easier to be observant for something, so it’s a good idea to plan what you’re going to be looking for before getting set. And don’t be observant for ‘anything unusual’ as that’s simply not specific enough. If you are looking around a potential home to rent or buy for instance then make a list before you go of specific things you want to look out for such as mould, peeling paint on the walls or if you are looking to buy a new car, what should you be looking for in particular?
  • Try to “engage” with the items you observe. For example don’t just ‘look’ at the mark on the wall, rather try to establish where it might have come from, what made it etc. As Sherlock Holmes points out, there is a big difference between seeing and observing. For everything that you see that is out of place, ask yourself why it is there and how did it get there? What does it tell you about the bigger picture?
  • Set up your own quick quiz to start learning to pay more observational attention to your surroundings. Here’s an example of a quick observational quiz: Ever been to your neighbour’s house? Is it a two story house? If it is, how many steps are there to reach the second story? How many bedrooms are there? How many beds are there in the bedrooms? If you’re not sure, you see, but you don’t observe. In short it is all about detail and teaching yourself to take in as much as you can.
  • Spend some time everyday just watching people. You see people all the time. But do you really ‘observe’ them? Their expressions, body language, gestures, their attire, the newspaper or magazine that they’re reading, it’s all part of who they are, and offers insights into their personality, background and behaviour. With time and practice, some ‘people-watchers’ can even predict what the person is going to do next. It’s a great way to spend time and is remarkably insightful after some practice. Just make sure people don’t think you’re stalking them, or that you are a pervert of some sort. The airport is usually a good place to people watch because most of the people are oblivious to being watched.
  • Start focusing more on your peripheral vision. Peripheral vision (side vision) is the ability to see objects and movement outside of the direct line of vision. Failure to use peripheral vision means that you will only be observant of what is right in front of you. Using peripheral vision means seeing everything at once and ultimately – seeing much more. Visit to see exercises that you can perform to improve your peripheral vision.
    Since we are almost always submerged in the high tech lives that we live in, this will probably be the most difficult technique to practice. It requires you to turn your cell phone/ipad/tablet off and putting it away. Without the distraction of your device you will become so much more aware of the present.
  • Be a mental list-maker. Make a mental record of things around you see how they’re placed and check to see whether they’re the same when you next see them, soon it will become second nature to you.
  • Concentrate on improving your three most used senses – sight, smell and sound. The fact that these are the most used of our senses often means that we take them for granted and make assumptions regarding what they detect. It is here that you must find ways to fine-tune and find ways to become more refined in the way in which you use these senses, in order to make better use of them. Remember that being observant doesn’t just mean using your eyes – it means using all of your senses to assess your surroundings. Try closing your eyes and listening out for all the sounds around you – the sound of the road in the distance, murmurs of people talking in adjacent buildings perhaps, or the sound of distant music, birds in the garden etc. Again, try to imagine what these sounds indicate. Listen to what people say. Yes, you do listen to people. But are you ‘really’ listening? All too often, we find ourselves ‘listening’ to somebody while working at the computer or watching something on the television. Make it a point to give your full attention to the person who is talking. Remember that listening is an art in itself. When you notice your dog or cat smelling something, try to determine what they are smelling or try to ascertain how the scentl got there.
  • Take note of yourself. Your handwriting and other things that come to you subconsciously, like the way you speak, the words and gestures that you use are all part of who you are. If you want to be more observant of others you first need to be observant of yourself and your habits or mannerisms. A fun way to explore this further is to record yourself whilst giving a talk on your favourite hobby or subject. Take note of what you plan to say and what meaning you plan to convey at the outset. When you review your recording try to determine whether or not your objectives were apparent. Notice how you spoke, pay attention to your voice and tone as well as your body language and gestures.
  • A fun way to train your observation skills is through playing games. Practice using spotting style puzzles. Puzzles in which you’re asked to spot the difference between two seemingly identical images, puzzles that ask you to find hidden images or words, and puzzles that require you to navigate your way out of a maze, are all ways of fine-tuning our powers of observation. Practice these frequently and time yourself to find things quicker and quicker without panicking. Other games can also train your observation if they get you to react to things that appear on the screen. Try this fun Sherlock Holmes observation game and check out our Observation Test video. Another fun website to check out for a quick series of observation tests is but if you would rather take a more serious approach, check out the study guide for Police Memory and Observation training.
  • Take a painting class. Drawing and painting are very heavily dependent on your powers of observation because you need to pay particular attention to all the details as you transfer them from what you see to your canvas or sketchpad.
  • Most people know that the majority (70%) of our communication is non-verbal but few take action into actually understanding the science behind our body language, we take formal qualifications in writing, reading and even coding, but what about Body Language, take some time and understand it, probably one of the most important points to becoming a great observer.
  • Practice, practice, practice. When walking down the road glance at the car driving past, try to remember the make, colour, how many people are in it and the registration number in one glance. Or glance at a poster and see what you remember from it…there are loads of things you can ‘test’ yourself on. You could set tasks like finding someone in a waistcoat when you’re out – guarantee you’ll be looking so hard you can’t help but take information in.
  • Running commentary can also help to improve your observation skills and you can involve your kids whilst driving to school (great game for keeping them focused on something other than fighting with each other). You can use ‘running commentary’ like…on my left there are 2 kids, playing with a ball, behind me there is a blue car, with an Umhlanga license plate, up ahead there is a bend to the right, there is a granny with 4 shopping bags and she is wearing a green jersey. Silent or internal commentary will also suffice because you do not want anyone of accusing you of being a weirdo or a nutter! But it seriously helps you remember and trains you to be more observant.


How can these techniques help me?

  • Being observant is something that can make you look like the smartest in the room, and something that can be highly beneficial to you in other ways too. Noticing little details gives you more information to work with and thus helps you to make better and more informed decisions. You will also notice things like her new haircut and ultimately end up being happier for it!
  • It will offer you an amazing insight into how people think, react, and behave in general. This could have startling revelations in your private and work life, no matter what you do for a living or who you are married to. Heightened observation skills can also help you appreciate people around you more and possibly help you know what they are feeling and thinking. It will allow you to respond proactively.
  • Heightened observation skills will help you become a better photographer because you will be able to choose the exact moment to click as the moment unfolds, like the exact moment when your child smiles at you or when the dog responds to his/her new toy with elation, or to catch the surprised expression on your sister’s face as you unveil her surprise birthday present. As your photos improve so too does the affirmation that your hard work is paying dividends.
  • Being observant can help you to avoid an accident if you are able to spot a potential hazard – an oncoming vehicle, someone across the street throwing something, a ball rolling out into the road or a taxi pulling out in front of you. But if you want to be like Sherlock Holmes and spot every piece of information and data in any given room or environment, then it’s going to take a little bit of practice and technique.
  • Your honed observation skills will allow you to stay alert and observant so that you are able to detect and avoid any situations that can potentially be harmful to you or your family. These observation skills can help you at work, at home as well as when you are out and about. In the unfortunate event that you do fall victim to a crime, your observation skills will allow you to better describe the perpetrator to the police or your security company. You will be able to take note of things that others, with lacking observation skills are likely to miss. These include, the perpetrators age, gender, ethnicity, build, height, weight, hair colour and length, facial hair, clothing type and colour. With vehicles, you will be able to take note of the year, make, model, colour, licence plate, number of occupants, body damage and any unique markers such as bumper stickers or decals.
  • Ultimately, heightened observation skills keep you SAFE!