When was the last time you were so focused on something, that when your friend said "hi" it actually caused you to jump? It's probably more recent than you think. Perhaps you got caught up using your phone, had your nose buried in a book, or were thinking about all of the glorious posts we've made at APE Survival and lost concentration on what was going on around you. Kidding. Well, sort of. Situational awareness is one of the most important skills to develop. Period.
Why you need to stay aware Poor situational awareness greatly increases the chances you'll make a mistake and put yourself in harm's way, from simple accidents to well, getting on the wrong side of nasty people. It's gotten worse with smartphones, if you think about it, how many people do you pass on the sidewalk who have their faces buried in their phones, earbuds in, and are pretty much just like a walking zombie. Sure, they're not really causing any harm apart from maybe bumping into you, but their lack of awareness is putting them at risk. Maybe they walk straight into a streetsign, or even more risky, walk into oncoming traffic. Not paying attention has serious consequences, and not just from accidents. Being oblivious also opens you up to deliberate acts of violence. Criminals wanting to steal what you have rely on this lack of awareness to take advantage and catch you by surprise. Now if we look at an even bigger picture, with natural disasters and terrorist attacks, paying attention can also give you valuable seconds to take cover and save your life. Perhaps you notice a backpack being set down as the owner runs off, or realize the water at the beach is rapidly receding before a tsunami hits. Paying attention is a critical survival skill.
How easy situational awareness can be lost Its often referred to as the "bubble" or "tunnel vision" as you start focusing on a task at hand, and lose your ability to pay attention to everything else that's going on around you. Remember when you were at work pounding out those invoices and you just "got in the zone" and it took one of your co-workers throwing a stress ball at your head to actually snap you out of it so you could answer their question? This is what I mean. Don't get me wrong, focus can be a good thing, because your mind is putting all of its resources on the task you're doing (which makes you more effective and efficient), however you lose touch with everything else that's going on around you. In addition to focus, other ways you can lose your situational awareness include becoming too complacent, overloading yourself with too many things, and wearing yourself out. At one point or another, we've all fallen into the complacency category. It's normal to assume that things around us are all working normally, and the vast majority of the time this will be the case. The trick though, is to never let yourself become complacent. You need to train your mind to start planning for the worst case scenarios as soon as you enter a new situation, spotting potential causes of trouble, exit routes, or anything you could use for cover or as a defensive item. Of course, worrying unnecessarily is another problem in itself, but situations can change in seconds, and already having these kind of tactics planned in your mind can stop you from becoming a deer stuck in the headlights. Overload is a common response that hurts your situational awareness when you find yourself caught up in a problem. If there's an emergency it's very easy to get overwhelmed with the disaster, from what's actually happening, to the sirens, screams and chaos unfolding around you. In this situation, it can be very easy to lose track of everything that's going on around you, which puts you at risk of accidents, as well as at the mercy of any malicious people wanting to take advantage of the chaos. Try not to get fixated on one particular aspect of the disaster, and stay vigilant on what's actually going on. Finally fatigue is another big factor that reduces situational awareness. Sleep is something your body needs to rest and recharge, and when it all comes down to it, you're not going to function well if you're tired. It takes longer to get things done, you miss things, and you're generally not operating at full steam. A lack of sleep makes it difficult to maintain your situational awareness, and even remaining constantly vigilant for long periods of time can stress you out and cause mental fatigue. Even soldiers aren't on 24/7, so take the time to step down when you start feeling fatigued and give your brain time to rest and reset.
Learning to develop mindfulness At the core of it, situational awareness is really just about being mindful. Paying attention to the things that are happening all around you, and while this is predominantly a meditative technique, taking a breath and focusing on what's going on is a great technique to stay vigilant. Build the habit of scanning an entire room, and if you're somewhere public do a regular stock-take of what's going on. Is anyone giving you an odd look, who is in your general facility and what are they doing, what's the atmosphere of the room like, and so on. Pay attention to the smaller cues to really understand what's going on. You can boost your situational awareness by first realizing that it takes a consistent effort to be constantly aware. Of course it's fine to check your phone or listen to music when you're out in public, just take the time to ensure you're also paying attention to the moments, and you're not putting yourself in a vulnerable spot. Staying aware can gain you critical seconds or even minutes before a disaster plays out, and these moments may just save your life.