Where Is Your Attention?


As we all heal from the recent tragic events, you may be asking yourself the question, "how can I be prepared should I find myself in an unthinkable situation in which I need to react quickly to save my life and the lives of those around me?" 

Many of the experts in the media this past week have said our best chance of surviving is to practice situation awareness. A good working definition of situation awareness is to be aware of our surroundings in a way that we prepare ourselves to react in a number of future potentialities (Smith and Hancock, 1995).  The concept of situational awareness was identified during World War I by Oswalk Boelke, who realized the importance of gaining an awareness of the enemy before the enemy advanced to a similar awareness (Gilson, 1995).

Much of the research and model development for situational awareness came from the aviation industry, where there is considerable pressure on pilots and air traffic controllers to develop better situational awareness as more of their job functions are automated (Jensen, 1997). These types of models are useful in any situation where there is a need for people to keep track of events.

The foundational capability for situation awareness is the requirement to control our attention; specifically, to be able to tune our attention to the present. This is harder than it sounds.  For example, research has estimated that our minds wander about 50% of the time (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). Think about it this way, how often have you driven to work and had no idea how you got there?

The reason for this is our attention is focused elsewhere.  You may think driving to work isn’t a threat to your life, but preliminary National Safety Council estimates that 40,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2016, which is about 110 people a day. 

One would have to wonder how many of these accidents could have been prevented if our attention was focused on our environment scanning for possible accidents instead of talking on the phone, texting, or allowing our minds to wander.  If we do not have control over our attention in everyday activities such as driving, how can we be expected to practice situation awareness at other times as the experts have recommended when we are in large groups such as concerts, sporting events, movie theaters, or airports?

Why not start tomorrow on your morning commute focusing your attention outward instead of being locked inside your head or multi-tasking?

Here are some tips help you get started:

  • Begin by scanning your environment for colors, shapes, people, etc.
  • You might consider engaging your other senses in addition to sight, such as smells or sounds in your environment. Using our senses helps ground us in the present.
  • When you notice that your attention, has wandered, merely use your breath to bring your attention back to present.
  • Don’t be surprised if you find this difficult. Most people do. But don’t give up. Maintaining your focus is a skill, and like any other skill, it takes practice to gain proficiency.

You might even find your practice of scanning your environment may pay off in unexpected ways, like seeing things you have never seen before or arriving at work more relaxed and ready for the day.  Taking small steps like this, throughout out the day to reign in your wandering attention, may be the one thing you can do to feel more in control in this out of control world.


Gilson, R. D. (1995). Situational awareness-special issue preface. Human Factors, 37 (1), 20-31.

Jensen, R. S., (1997). The boundaries of aviation psychology, human factors, aeronautical decision making, situation awareness, and crew resource management, International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 7 (4), 259-267.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.

National Safety Council Report (2016). http://www.nsc.org/NewsDocuments/2017/12-month-estimates.pdf

Smith, K., Hancock, P.A., 1995. Situation awareness is adaptive, externally directed consciousness. Human Factors, 37 (1), 137–148.

Stanton, N. A., Chamber, Chamber, P. R. G., & Piggot, J. (2001). Situational awareness and safety, Safety Science, 39, 189-204.


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