A $1 Worth of Awareness

[This is an archived post from Mad Science Defense, currently on indefinite hiatus, and may not reflect the usual tone and content of Author J.R. White and/or the Storyteller at Large Blog. If you have arrived here via links from a website elsewhere in the tactical and combatives training community, we wish you the best in your skill development journey.]


A Dollar’s Worth of Awareness

I was in the middle of my strength & conditioning class, jogging through the parking lot with a 20lb medicine ball on my shoulder, when I saw him.

He had that look, almost stereotypical in how he popped up on my radar as a threat. Scraggly physique shrouded in layers of tattered clothes that may have once been light but now bore the mottled darkness that indicates someone who sleeps in the dirt. Clearly tweaked out of his gourd, twitchy, and rambling angrily to himself. The vicious cadence of his hoarse chattering was the first thing that I noticed, but his right hand buried in the folds of his shirt got my attention pretty quickly, too. When the breeze moved the cloth aside I saw something dark and oblong protruding from his clenched fist. He was about a car length or so away from me, tracking along on my side of the parking lot fence.

All of this made me very unhappy.

So what did I do? Well, honestly, since he didn’t seem to notice any other humans in existence and wasn’t headed toward me or anyone in my group, I just kept on jogging. I was happy to put as much yardage between us as I could, and when I came back around he was lost in the distance.

All of this got me thinking about Situational Awareness. If you’re not familiar with the term, it can basically mean anything from just keeping your eyes up and paying attention to your surroundings, to a magical sphere of invulnerability that floats around you by the mystical strength of your tactacity. Since the latter definition is nonsense and the former is too broad, let’s look at a better way to describe and understand Situational Awareness.

The best way I’ve found to think about Situational Awareness I learned from Rob Pincus’s excellent book Counter Ambush (although he credits the original idea to motorcycle racing instructor Keith Code in his book Twist of the Wrist).

Think of your awareness, your general focus on events and conditions around you, as a single dollar. You can divide that dollar and spend it on anything you want, but you can’t ever have more than that $1 at a time. So as you walk down the street, you may spend 40 cents of awareness on the walk in front of you, 10 cents on each side, 5 cents on background noise and the remaining 35 cents on the text message your buddy just sent you. Then you get startled as a cyclist whizzes past, because you didn’t have any change to spend on the road behind you.

That’s the thing about our awareness and ability to focus; it is finite. And the more intensely we focus on one thing in our environment, the less we can focus on anything else. It’s less like a radar and more like a searchlight; when something of interest catches the light we focus in on it and all else falls into darkness.

So what can you do today to increase your situational awareness? How do we spend that dollar wisely? Here are four suggestions.

Recognize the power of distraction as both a passive hazard we inflict on ourselves and an active tactic of criminals.

The first step towards dealing with a problem is accepting that it exists. We are constantly distracted throughout the day, and this affects our ability to be aware of our surroundings. Two types of distraction are especially important to understand: distractions we inflict on ourselves, and distractions used as a criminal tactic. Examples of the former include personal electronics, games and other ‘distractions of choice.’

As for distraction as a criminal tactic, muggers and other close-contact aggressors are well aware of how situational awareness really works. They know they can use an accomplice or other means of distraction to draw your focus in one direction and attack you from another. The video below is a real world example.


Reduce or eliminate self-inflicted distractions when and where we can.

Since we recognize that distraction intensifies our focus in one direction at the expense of others, we can start to make behavioral changes to “spend our dollar” more wisely. One of the first changes to make is to reduce our focus on distractions we control. That means not scrolling through the Facebook feed on your smartphone* while walking in public. It means not liquefying your eardrums with the iPod while out for a jog alone. And it sure as hell means not texting while driving.

*-As someone who runs a lot of his business from the smartphone, I know this one takes a lot of self-discipline to address. I am no stranger to this, but it has to be done.

Learn to intermittently break focus away from the distractions that we can’t avoid so we can widen our awareness of other events around us.

There are some distractions in life that we can’t avoid, as well as some that we simply wouldn’t want to. If you’re out at the playground with the kids, you have to watch them. If you’re out on a date with your significant other, you can’t help but be distracted by them and you’re going to miss out on some fantastic parts of life if you’re not willing to enjoy that distraction. Some of the distractions in life are what make it fun, meaningful and worth defending. So I’m not going to tell you to shut down all the awesome parts of your earthly existence so you can sit in the proverbial corner swiveling your head like an owl and waiting for the next potential threat to wander by. I won’t live like that and neither should you.

What we can do, though, is teach ourselves to break focus every few moments to take a quick look at what’s going on around us. Pausing for just a second to spend a little of our awareness dollar on the rest of the surrounding world before slapping that money back down in front of whatever we’d rather be focused on can go a long way toward increasing your awareness and improving you attention to detail. I have two kids now, and I can tell you that breaking focus with one to get a quick bead on the other has averted a great deal of property damage alone.

Learn to recognize threats.

Learning to recognize a potential threat quickly is a huge advantage, and it goes hand in hand with your situational awareness. If you’re not aware that a potential threat is in your area, you don’t get a chance to recognize it, and if you are aware of someone or something in your area, but are unable to recognize it as threatening, you haven’t made any progress in averting the potential conflict. The ability to recognize potential threats is an important part of Warrior Expert Theory as espoused by Rob Pincus of I.C.E. Training Company, and there are several ways to improve your ability to recognize threats. These include getting professional training, researching common threats in your area by speaking with local law enforcement, and studying footage of attacks such as the BBC video above.

We live in a very distracted culture, with all sorts of entertainment and instant gratification waiting behind a touch-screen or under a ‘play’ button. Don’t let the distractions in your life damage your situational awareness so badly that you can fall prey to a criminal attack, or that you miss out on some of life’s greatest moments. Neither is a positive outcome.

Until Next Time!

Justin White

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