At first glance, alertness seems equivalent to attentiveness, which is defined as “showing the worth of a person or task by giving my undivided concentration.” But attentiveness refers to a person’s focus on a specific responsibility, whereas alertness refers to a person’s awareness of circumstances beyond that immediate focus. The two work together: attentiveness means giving undivided attention to a particular task, while alertness requires still being aware of outside influences on that task, such as supplies running low or the need for a last minute change.
Alertness is like peripheral vision. It keeps us aware of our surroundings while we focus on one particular object.
It is much like sitting at a control panel covered with dials. As the number of dials increases, knowing how to quickly scan all the dials to notice what is going wrong and what is going right becomes vitally important. Through well-developed alertness, we can focus our attention productively on the greatest needs, while remaining alert to new developments.
Alertness enables us to architect conditions when needed. If we are working on a project or a goal and are unaware of the thoughts and opinions of those around us, we may be missing out on an opportunity to either gain ideas from others or to overcome their objections and bring them on board. Alertness demands awareness of details and groups or individuals that can influence outcomes. It’s being aware of what is going on around us and how it may impact us and others.
One evening, when I was watching a show called “The Unit,” a military special operations unit was training to enter a school where children were being held hostage. To prepare them for this assignment, they used a big empty building and created a diagram of the school’s hallways and classroom with masking tape. The soldiers practiced entering the building and classrooms numerous times, while actually just walking between lines of tape. Watching this made me reflect, and ask myself, do I prepare myself to be alert to every possible outcome and every possible variable, no matter the circumstances? Do I think things through not just once, but multiple times to consider all options and all angles, in order to recognize threats and opportunities? Even though no one’s life may depend on it, our everyday alertness has the potential to make a difference in our own lives and in those around us.
Sometimes, it’s much easier to focus on being attentive to only one task, rather than trying to pay attention to multiple things at once. But attentiveness needs alertness to be truly effective. In the end, we can focus on the things that are really important only by honing our ability to see the whole picture.
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