The Performance Benefits of ‘Kit Fiddling’

The tools and equipment I carried for most missions never changed all that much. Mainly because when your job is to defuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs) you never really know what you’re going to have to deal with. Sometimes we have the luxury of driving around in a van full of every piece of equipment we could ever need. However, when working alongside Special Forces units I could only take what I could carry whilst still being able to keep up with the fittest and best soldiers in the world. For that reason I packed light and I packed well because, after ‘keeping up’, I had a job to do. Over the years, I’ve noticed that I have borrowed some of these extreme military habits when preparing for seemingly less demanding or critical circumstances such as backcountry skiing expeditions, mountaineering trips or key work events and presentations.

No matter how big or small the event, some level of ‘packing’ is required. Be it stuffing your pockets as you run out of the door for a normal day or meticulous preparation for something far more complicated, your success or failure depends on how well you packed. Despite this, it’s an often overlooked, yet crucial, aspect of preparing for high performance.

We’ve all seen the movies when an elite unit receives orders for a mission and they spend every moment until they deploy packing, adjusting and repacking their kit. Well, that actually happens but Special Forces Operators aren’t the kind of guys to get in from a job, sling their kit in a pile in the corner and forget about it until the next time they need it. As soon as they can, Operators have restocked their equipment and are good to go at it again. So, why spend so much extra time repacking and checking over their kit?

It’s a habit nearly all elite performers I’ve met share and in the military we called it ‘kit fiddling’. I developed the habit but it wasn’t until I started trying to identify and analyse common habits that Irealised quite how important it is.

Here’s some of the reasons why you should prepare by ‘kit fiddling’ too;

  1. The Obvious – Forgetting something common and simple has a huge impact on your success. On most Bomb Disposal tasks or adventure sports, lives are at stake so it’s obvious that rigour be applied to every aspect of preparation. That doesn’t mean you should pay any less attention day to day when the risks are lower. Something just as obvious is remembering your wallet or purse when you leave for work. That’s a ‘minor inconvenience’ that is unlikely to kill anyone but can quickly create one failure of a day and failure is failure.
  1. Increased Focus – Every object tells a story or, in this case, is part of your mental rehearsal. When I packed for a mission, I would be critical about every item I prepared;
    • What do I need for what stage of the plan? (chronological analysis)
    • At what stage of the plan do I need this item? (abstract analysis)
    • How am I going to use it and where is it best placed to be most effective?
    • What alternative situations might occur when it could come in useful?
    • What’s my response to these new hypothetical situations and what else do I need to prepare?

This mental walkthrough is a great pre-game rehearsal and it focuses you and your subconscious reactions for hundreds of deviations to the plan. No plan survives contact with the team let alone the enemy. Things will go wrong; expecting it, preempting it and preparing for it will mean you’ll have, at worst, a half formed response you can build on. It means you are less likely to be surprised and you’re better placed to cope hopefully avoiding the panic that is certain to paralyse any chance of success. Working chronologically through the plan is a great start but it has inherent bias towards success. Taking each item out of chronologic context and critically analysing it will show the real benefits and possible alternatives beyond the obvious intention. As an example, this works exceptionally when preparing information packets / slides for critical briefings and helping understand the message each section conveys.  Working through a check list and ticking stuff off as you ‘pack’ is a great way not to forget things but you’re missing out if that’s all you do

  1. Mindset – High performance events are mentally, physically and emotionally draining but it’s incredible how adaptable and resilient we become through exposure over time. Breaking an upcoming performance into smaller manageable chunks helps you become comfortable with the enormity of the situation. I remember piecing together and checking over my bomb suit when I was first issued it thinking that if I get it wrong it might really come down to these layers of material and armour to literally hold it all together. It was really important to deal with that well in advance of my first encounter with a real bomb. To come to terms with that thought somewhere safe and stress free was one less thing to deal with and take up capacity I couldn’t spare at the critical moment. If you’ve ever played competitive sports you’ll understand the rush and distraction that’s possible as soon as you realise you might just win or lose. It’s enough to snatch failure from the jaws of victory. Keeping those distracting thoughts at bay is incredibly hard. Dealing with them in advance is easier and leaves you to focus on doing what you need to do.
  1. Stress Reduction – Everyone has a certain capacity for stress. For some it’s greater than others; for many high performers they need the pressure of terminal exposure (do or ‘die’) to really drive them to greatness. However, there’s nothing that throws you off your game more than last minute fluster and panic. Stressing about your equipment or level of preparedness is taking up valuable capacity for the task at hand. Worse, it increases anxiety and fear that both impair sound decision making. Defusing an IED is stressful enough without having to worry if you equipment is calibrated and giving you correct readings. Additionally the enormity of some situations can be overwhelming. At no point was I ever happy with the prospect of being millimetres away from an improvised bomb that would literally tear me apart at the slightest mistake. The only way to put yourself into a situation like that is via incremental progression. Like a rock climber focusing on one handhold at a time. ‘Kit fiddling’ brings the stress forward before the critical point of no return and saves maximum stress capacity for when it’s really needed.
  1. Constant Progress – I’ve already discussed how the practice of packing gives you the opportunity to analyse everything and is beneficial pre-performance (pre-mission). It’s also critical post and inter-mission. I spent my career reviewing my and my equipment’s performance in order to get as close to perfection as I could. Ruthlessly getting rid of tools that didn’t perform as I had hoped, tools I didn’t use or worse, couldn’t rely on. Adding back into my packing only those items I couldn’t do without or new items to fill evolving requirements as my techniques and performance grew. All the time asking questions such as;
    • Did I have everything I needed to be successful?
    • What worked well last time and what can I prepare to improve things next time?
    • What in the heat of the moment did I wish I had with me?
    • What can I cut loose that’s adding no value but taking up focus, effort or time?

There are, of course, some pitfalls to be aware of:

    1. Optimism Bias – As humans we have a remarkable ability for pattern recognition. In many cases, filling in blanks to predict what’s about to happen. When done successfully this leads to ‘gut decisions’. We also have the ability to talk ourselves into these gut decisions long before we ever make them, such as during our mental rehearsals and preparing for the unexpected. It’s easy to get excited and rush into a course of action because you have a shiny new ‘tool’ or a great pice of information prepared for just this occasion. The risk here is not realising that this isn’t quite the situation we envisaged. It seems a lot like the one we were expecting but there are critical differences meaning we should either stop and re-assess or walk away all together.
    1. Obsession – Preparing is a great way to reduce stress but it can be a dangerously negative outlet for panic, allowing some the opportunity to bury their head in the proverbial sand of a nearly pointless task. Being 100% prepared is ideal if unachievable. On almost every occasion, 80% will suffice if you focus on how to apply every percent.  To quote an often repeated Army phrase ’80% on time is better than 100% too late’.
    1. Overconfidence – No amount of preparation can make up for laziness on the day and there’s potential to relax too much and loose focus. If you prepare and pack early, do it again closer to the time to make sure the benefits are fresh, the situation hasn’t changed and you’re fully focused on what you’re about to do.

Packing isn’t a chore or something to be left to the last moment. Packing is an opportunity to ‘kit-fiddle’.