Situational Awareness: How You Can Master Survival, Work and Life

Situational awareness

A skill shared by special forces and law enforcement is one you can learn at home and eliminate threats, master your job and win any conversation

Situational awareness. In the military training I received, this was the most important principle. Your brain is a super calculator capable of multiple scenarios, reactions, and hypotheticals, so why not use it to defend yourself, master your job and take the initiative against of life’s hurdles?

Sure, situational awareness does sound like an echo of military professionals to impose some sort of stringent regime, but it really isn’t that. It is something that is so easily adaptable no matter who you are or what your job is. It’s your own computer program to run in strategic situations. Whether you work in an office, outdoors or are a student studying at university, situational awareness is a skill you can learn and benefit from.

Remember that ultra ex-military government spy character called Jason Bourne? Where he’d manage to walk into a crowd with an earpiece while being traced and still the world’s biggest government couldn’t track him? That’s an example of someone being extremely situationally aware. Here’s an example from Bourne on extreme situational awareness, and it gives you a pretty fair idea of how to do it.

What Exactly Is Situational Awareness?

For me, situational awareness is the level of understanding, identification, and application of your surrounding environment. That is what I prefer to refer it to, however, some of you are probably thinking that basically means: know your surroundings. If you thought that then you are exactly right.

What you should to realize is situational awareness is suitable for any occupation. Here are a few roles that use it every single day:

  • Taxi drivers are constantly aware of their surroundings when driving in busy areas, with unpredictable traffic and their personal safety at hand
  • Pilots and air traffic controllers are stringent about their surroundings in everything from weather statistics, weight limits, fatigue, other traffic, timings and the added pressure of a large responsibility of passengers and staff
  • Police are faced with environments every day such as entering a house with a domestic violence dispute where they have to understand the emotional signs of body language, potential threats from people and nearby objects, risks and their own bearings

These are only three occupations that I can think of off the top of my head, but if you look at it closely, you probably use some level of situational awareness every single day of your life. For most, this is just an automatic reaction to every day life. You are already using a level of situational awareness on autopilot.

Situational awareness in a survival scenario

For the survival aspect of this, we can use situational awareness in the context of being stranded on an island. Think about this scenario, you have been on a boat, it sinks and you wake up to being on a desolate and unpopulated island. What would you do?

  • You can feel the weather and assess how much time it will take for you to get thirsty
  • Assess the work level you should be doing to work without sweating
  • Gain an idea of where to get water by identifying mountains that feed into the ocean or thick trees
  • You think about what priorities you have, such as water, fire, getting help

You get the idea. The list of awareness in surroundings and situations is endless, and that’s all we can do just by standing on the beach with our feet planted in the sand.

Why would a skill like this be useful for preppers and survivalists? It is an element of self-analysis that you can train on now by regularly conducting your own self-assessments and being aware of your different situations. While a lot of preppers rely on their tools and supplies to get them through an emergency, there might be times when the only tools you have are your body and your mind. When you work on this situational awareness skillset and you do have the right supplies, you are unstopable.

You can see the evolution of a strong situational awareness in the new American Assassin film. Picture: Maxim.

Mastering situational awareness with the OODA loop

In the 1970s a US Air Force Colonel called John Boyd developed the OODA loop. Since his first publishings on the idea, it has been copied and applied through the strategic world from law, boxing and MMA, chess, military studies, policing and medical studies.

The OODA loop is the way you need to start thinking about every problem in your situation and surroundings. It stands for:

  • Observation
  • Orientation
  • Decision
  • Action

To apply these to an understandable example, think about these terms in the boxing realm. We are up against a strong fighter who lines himself up for a Situational Awareness: The OODA Loophigh jab to the head. We have just made an observation that strong fighter is about to punch. In the orientation, we think: if the fighter hits me, I am out or if the fighter punches and I block, I am safe. So I commit to a favorable decision which is to block the punch, and I carry out the blocking action against the fighter. The loop comes into effect as the fighter has now exposed himself, so I run through the OODA loop sequence to this time decide whether to hit back.

You can see how relevant this becomes in small-scale and large-scale emergencies, disasters and conflicts. The OODA loop can run on everything from the evacuation plan you should have to address a flood, to strategies a government would use to respond to a terrorist attack.

When you walk into a room like what Jason Bourne did in that clip above, and you are analyzing exits, potential grabbable weapons, and possible threats, you are committing the OO of the OODA loop. When the sh-t hits the fan in that environment, you are potentially running through the possible sequences of DA loops until you enter a new territory to make new observations and orientations.

What else can the OODA loop apply to?

  • Someone has been checking you out at the bar, what do you do?
  • You are entering into a conversation with a hostile neighbor, how should you approach?
  • A dog is coming to attack you, how do you defend yourself?
  • A person is moving toward you in a dark alleyway at night, how do you assess the situation?

All of these situations can use the OODA loop and your situational awareness to become aware of your surroundings and the other person, what their intention is, how actions would work, what decision would fare the best and commit to an action.

Being the observer to learn your surroundings

This is something that would be common for anyone coming from a hostile environment, whether you have lived in a war zone or have been involved in a war. People who have been exposed to extremely hostile environments tend to observe more and find suitable places to do so.

Military personnel who have been in hostile war zones for some time are a common pick for doing this, but also for people who have been involved in urban terrorist incidents.

The first type of observation is your own positioning. Many of these people who have been experienced hostile areas will choosing to sit where they are able to clearly view the entrance of a room, say a restaurant or cafe, and be able to reach an alternative exit if need be. This would be preloading the OO in the OODA loop, so that should something such as an urban terrorist attack occur, you would only have to carry out the decision and the action of making a safe escape.

The other type of observation is observing other people and details. I covered this before briefly but essentially you should be looking out for details such as:

  • Escape routes
  • Potential weapons
  • Suspicious people
  • Other circumstances that may be relevant to the cause of concern for your personal safety or anyone you are with

Keeping this in mind, watch the following video to test your situational awareness

Did you pick what happened in the background? Well done if you did. You are one of the few.

For this type of situational observation, I recently came across some people who had attended training camps in Israel teaching these methods to members of the public as a way to address public concerns about the surge in urban terrorist attacks. Training was also used to identify what times to avoid places such as shopping malls and making citizens aware of potential terrorist attack hotspots by teaching them to shop in smaller high-end stores and to practice routine disturbance and avoid daily patterns so that they were not leaving their homes at a predictable time. This may be extreme measures to you but this is the necessary awareness citizens must make of their situation when they are in an urban war zone.

Training was also used to identify what times public should avoid places such as shopping malls and encouraging citizens to become more aware of potential terrorist attack hotspots through teaching alternative shopping methods, practicing routine disturbance in avoiding daily patterns so that they were not leaving their homes at a predictable time. This may be extreme measures but necessary steps citizens must make of their situation when they are faced with an urban war zone.

The brain game played in scout groups and sniper schools

To increase their skill in situational awareness and memory, children in scouts and even the US Marine Corps sniper school in Virginia play Kim’s Game. The name itself comes from an old novel called Kim, but the game is quite simple. A tray is covered with various items such as spoons, pencils, bullets and various other pieces of kit that either the snipers or the scouts would be familiar with. A towel is held over the items and people get one minute to view all of the items. The competitors then list the items that they saw, the winner is the one who can list the most.

I have undergone similar training in the military which went as follows:

  • Camouflaged items were hidden in a dense jungle-like area of 5 meters wide and 10 meters deep
  • Trainees were given 10 minutes to view the area from one position and look for items
  • Trainees were then required to do a physical exercise with an excessive amount of repetitions
  • Trainees were then required to recall the items they saw immediately after the exercise

What you can read to improve your own awareness skills

There are a number of texts available on situational awareness. Author and ex-special forces soldier Jocko Willink works situational awareness strategies into corporate, leadership and self-development fields frequently through his podcasts and talks. His book, Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seals Lead and Win, is a great place to start if you are new to this broken-down to basics, elemental, type of thinking. For books that are more closely related to how you can develop your own situational awareness skills check out The Gift of Fear and Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life

If you found this article useful, let me know in the comment section below and sign up for my weekly Six Point Sundays where I sent out my six picks on prepping, survival, self-sufficiency, and safety to your inbox.

Situational Awareness: How You Can Master Survival, Work and Life
Situational Awareness: How You Can Master Survival, Work and Life
Situational Awareness: How You Can Master Survival, Work and Life


  1. Trae

    September 14, 2017 at 4:37 am

    Have read about the ooda loop a few times, but the way you explained it in the article help me further understand it.

    • Ben Brown

      September 14, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      Thanks. To be honest, when I first came across it in military readings I was lost as to how to understand it. It wasn’t until someone explained the OODA loop in reference to a ‘bar fight’ that I understood fully how it worked.

      The boxing was a more clean example of using it in action.

  2. Adam f

    September 14, 2017 at 8:19 am

    Wow thanks for this post. You are right I do use it every day but just as a personal safety issue this is an amazing mindset to practice and increase!

    • Ben Brown

      September 14, 2017 at 12:44 pm

      Thanks! And yes I really had to include the video in there just to show what sort of important events people could use SA in such a manner

  3. Mike Treader

    September 14, 2017 at 8:25 am

    That last video made me realize all of this is important to so many people, students, police, military, whoever you are you need thiS!

    • Ben Brown

      September 14, 2017 at 12:48 pm

      Exactly right. Cheers!

  4. Sheila

    September 14, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    Great article! You have a gift for explaining things.

    • Ben Brown

      September 14, 2017 at 12:44 pm

      Thank you Sheila

  5. Mic Roland

    September 14, 2017 at 6:26 pm

    Nice description of SA. The Bourne thing probably discourages a lot of people. Even when they try deliberately, they can’t memorize six license plates or estimate a man’s weight, etc. Not being Jason Bourne doesn’t make someone a washout for SA, though. Simply being aware of one’s surroundings is a huge first step.

    Most folks I see in the city (working downtown), are trying to NOT be aware of their surroundings. They intentionally shut out the “boring” reality with phone calls, texting or music — a more interesting substitute reality. Their intentional oblivion is why a mugger can get within inches of them unnoticed.

    A great first step to practicing improving one’s Situational Awareness would be to NOT opt for substitute realities. Don’t listen to music or podcasts while you walk. Don’t text or call while walking. Instead, observe the reality around you as you walk.

    — Mic

    • Ben Brown

      September 15, 2017 at 11:50 am

      Hi Mic,

      That is a great bit of advice to people who want to practice SA. Just even as the first step in an urban environment, look up and be aware.

      Thanks for writing in.

  6. Jenni FALMLEN

    September 21, 2017 at 5:36 am

    I learned some if this S.A. while emiyed at a prison. Retired now, thanks for reminding me how essential this is.

    • Ben Brown

      September 21, 2017 at 9:03 am

      That is definitely a place where you need to have eyes in the back of your head. Thanks Jenni!

  7. Steve

    September 30, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    Because I am always “SA” (especially while driving) I was able to easily detect that I was being followed, turned the trick, and boxed the car tailing me into a corner, of which I had him trapped. Turns out he was a private investigator for an insurance company. Because I was more “SA” than him, I got the upper hand. I have never been followed or tailed since!

    • Ben Brown

      October 1, 2017 at 9:16 am

      Steve, that is great to hear someone use it get the upper hand.

      So many people believe that these private investigators are able to follow them without being noticed, but with the simple awareness of one’s own surroundings and the basic principles of observation, you can spot these guys from a mile away.

      Well done and thank you.


  8. Rusty

    October 11, 2017 at 4:05 am

    Something I work on every day and every shopping trip with the family.

    • Ben Brown

      October 13, 2017 at 2:33 pm

      Good to hear Rusty! There are so many different applications where this can be used. Hope your kids see the fun side of it!

  9. Curtis Nelson

    October 24, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    Excellent article Mr Brown! I watched the Evan video and I caught a couple of the “tell-tale” signs, but there were a few that I missed that were in plain sight. I think that this is an awesome article that people should read. Thanks again.

    • Ben Brown

      October 24, 2017 at 5:49 pm

      Thanks Curtis. That’s a very eye-opening video for everyone from police to schools!

  10. Mentifex (Arthur T. Murray)

    February 9, 2018 at 11:37 am

    Because of my political activities and my catch-and-release creation of AI Minds with open-source artificial intelligence, on some rare occasions I am certain that I am being not so much followed as simply observed, and on other occasions I simply assess the minuscule likelihood that I am under surveillance. As Mentifex I practice tradecraft of losing tails and I listen to know if I am being talked about in my five-plus languages of relative fluency. Since we all die eventually, I don’t worry about the efforts to triangulate me, and I actually enjoy taking countermeasures or interacting with the “swallows” sent to compromise me.

  11. Aaron

    February 21, 2018 at 4:57 am

    Wow this was a great primer! Thank you.

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