There’s a concept I train in corporate workshops. It’s called ‘The 4 Stages of Competence’ and although I understood how it was useful in helping adults understand what they’d go through when they learned a new skill at work, I hadn’t thought about its relevance to me and things I would need to learn as I changed my habits.
In fact, it’s only with hindsight that I see its application. After reading this, I’d love to know how you see this applying in your life.
The 4 Stages of Competence
1. Unconscious Incompetence
You don’t know what you don’t know.
At this point, you’ve never tried doing what you’re about to do. You have little information about what’s required or how well you’ll cope.
As an example, my 9 year old daughter wants to drive my car. She believes she can. She thinks it involves steering and staying clear of obstacles. She knows there are pedals and a gear stick involved (manual not automatic) but she doesn’t know how they work or why they’re important so she overlooks these in her enthusiasm to achieve her goal.
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to achieving the goals we set is that we usually set them when we’re at this stage – so we don’t fully grasp what’s involved or how difficult it will be. We have a theoretical understanding – just like my daughter knows the car has pedals – but our lack of knowledge and experience makes us underestimate the challenges involved in learning.
2. Conscious Incompetence
We become acutely aware of what we don’t know and what we can’t do.
The distance between where we are now and where we’re trying to go seems far greater than it did before we started.
This phase is the one where we’re most likely to mistake our mistakes for failure.
By now, we have a little bit of experience. We have a better understanding of the requirements and can now measure our lack of skill against those requirements – but we’re still ‘incompetent’.
Let’s stick with the driving example for a moment (but let’s pretend she’s 17 – I’d prefer not to teach my 9 year old to drive!) This is where she might repeatedly stall the car, miss opportunities to merge with traffic or roll backwards on a hill so the driver behind her blares the horn in fear and frustration.
There are many reasons why most of us keep going through this phase when we’re learning to drive – the main one being we really want our independence!
Far fewer people make it through this phase when the goal is habit change – be that leadership habits or drinking habits.
Uncertainty that the result will be worth it. Doubt in our abilities. Doubt that it will ever feel natural or easy. Fear that we’ll look like idiots. Fear that we’ll alienate people.
Fear of failure in all its forms.
In this phase, we come face to face with our insecurities without any guarantee that all the work will pay off – or even be worth it if it does.
This is the phase where most people quit. The lesson is that conscious incompetence is a normal part of learning and all we have to do is reframe our thinking – and here, we’re back to growth mindset. Instead of thinking, “I can’t do this,” you ask yourself two questions:
- What do I need to learn so I can get better at this?
- What is the best way for me to practice?
I think the reason most of us succeed in learning to drive is that someone has already answered these questions for us and created programs where all we have to do is show up. When it comes to habit change, we have to answer these questions for ourselves.
3. Conscious Competence
In this phase, we are gaining skill but we have to think hard about what we’re doing. It doesn’t come easily.
I feel like I’ve reached this point – I no longer doubt my ability to abstain from alcohol and sugar, no matter the situation. But it’s not habit yet. It’s at the front of my mind all the time.
4. Unconscious Competence
The new habit is completely embedded and we don’t have to work hard to keep it in place.
It is a myth that this takes just 21 days. The more difficult the habit change, the longer it takes to reach unconscious competence. I am 99 days in and I am not yet at this point. The latest science suggests an average of 66 days to reach this point, but even then, it was based on habits like eating an apple with lunch or drinking a glass of water when you wake up. Hardly super challenging!
So the message is this: Keep going! When it feels like you’re failing, you’re not. All you have to do is keep going.