Attention To Details: Keep Your Pockets Closed, Part II

The key is execution. Problem solving and planning are important but, if you don't execute well, it is all for nothing. Driving the solution and executing whatever the action successfully requires a lot of attention to detail. What chaos is telling you, what the information you have is showing you, what the team and other people are saying, and, more importantly, what the situation on the ground is dictating. If you don't pay attention to the details you will most likely fail. Hope and luck are not good plans.

It takes a lot of discipline to continue to pay attention when the mind has already gone to the I-got-this-let's-go-do-stuff mode. When you think you have it that's when you really need to stop, look around, and pay attention. Look at the whole picture, then look at your “notes”, and then compare them. Do they match? How does your picture of the situation compare to what's in front of you?

“One of the ideas that pops up in almost every lesson in military training is that extreme attention to detail matters. That in every situation, focused and unbroken awareness matters. That, in the worst cases, is the difference between life and death. And so this level of attention to detail is stressed at every turn.”

— Patrick Rhone

Listening intently, reading with purpose, and noting the pieces that are key to the execution of the task at hand require that you be intentional with what you do. The more you do a thing, the more you can simplify it. Then you can focus on the details that matter, freeing valuable mental effort that can be used during the execution phase.

Pay attention, details matter, more than you think.

Why? Read On...

Standing in a semi-circle formation, we listened as the Sergeant was reading what the next 72 hours would bring. This was the tail end of the advanced training, and we needed to pass this and a few other "missions" in order to make it to the unit we were volunteering for.

He read what must have been a full book of things we needed to achieve, things we needed to observe, terrain that we needed to navigate, and the "enemy" forces we were likely to find along the way. He also mentioned required equipment, and the need to keep our pockets closed.

Yes. We were told since the early days of basic training that we needed to keep our pockets closed. On our pants, shirts, and jackets. Every button needed to be buttoned. The collective punishment we were given when one of us was found with an open pocket was often epic. On one occasion we ran for 5 miles to the back of the command’s main building. There, full to the top, was a big green trash container. It was big, weighing several hundred pounds and smelled like rotten fish on a hot summer day. That container became our best friend and we needed to give “him” a tour of the base. Literally. We would not stop carrying it, until every building in the base was visited. It took 5 hours, but hell we did it… We never understood the obsession the sergeant had with this. But it became ingrained in us, and we made sure we had our pockets closed.

At the end of the debrief the sergeant closed his notebook, looked at us, and said in a very serious voice:

"Guys, do not forget your water. Do not forget your personal trauma kit. Do not forget the compass, and do not forget your personal map. Pay attention to what I just said, keep those items at the forefront of what you do, do not forget them. And keep your pockets closed!"

We were exhausted from months of training, mentally drained from practicing in 100F degree weather with a full kit. What did this guy want from us! I did pay attention, but I only made a mental note of a few things, hoping someone else would remember those other details that didn't stay in my head.

That night, I had my ruck ready, but as I was walking to meet with everyone else to get to the insert point for the 72 hour mission, that feeling that maybe I was forgetting something kept on nagging me. But too late now. I hoped I had all I needed.

Well, of course we all forgot something.

We did poorly during the mission. We failed basic tasks due to what we called "lack of information", and several of us came unprepared with the basic list of things that the sergeant purposely said we were going to need. This resulted in some things going very badly, with some injuries avoided by the skin of our teeth.

During the after action review (AAR), we were on the receiving end of the sergeant’s impassioned opinion which stressed his disappointment. He was disappointed that we did not pay attention, thinking that since this was training things couldn't go wrong.

"Lack of information? I gave you all the information you needed. I listed all the kit you were going to need, how to pack it and what NOT to forget. Did you make sure the kit was ready before you went to eat? Did you make sure each item needed for your team was ready? And your personal items? Yes?" We didn't answer. "I didn't think so... Oh, and by the way, all of you say thank you to that guy over there. You are all going to go for a nice run until I tell you to stop instead of going to get food and a shower, because his pocket is open. Go!"

And we ran. We ran for miles. Still in our field kit. Still with our rucks and rifles.

All that was needed was for us to pay attention to what the sergeant had said in his brief. He was right, he gave us all we needed and we failed him, and more importantly, we failed ourselves by not paying attention. Had this been a real combat mission, some of us would probably not have made it back. What if the mission was to rescue someone? What if the mission was to prevent the next terrorist attack? Yes. Fucked up. Details matter. There is a reason for that.

We learned.

From that point forward we would take notes, and before anything else - rest, food - we would prepare the team kit first, then our personal kit, and then would double check each other. It became a part of us, just like closing our pockets. Paying attention was the thing that would keep us alive in one of our missions later on. It was that attention to detail that allowed us to improvise and get out of a very dangerous situation with everyone on the team alive.

Details matter.

Oh, and the pockets? Well, think about it: if you make it a habit to close your pockets, you force your mind to pay attention to that fact. And in doing so, you begin to form the discipline you need to see things through to the end.

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