Habit and Skill Development: The Four Stages of Competence


By: Martin Grunburg

The last two weeks we’ve focused on the simple idea that rather than trying to distinguish and separate habit and skill (something even top behavioral psychologists struggle to differentiate), it may serve us to take a moment and wrap our minds around their powerful similarities. Let’s strengthen the link between these two important concepts.

In psychology there is something known as the “four stages of competence,” originally described (get this) as “The Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill” (emphasis on the skill).

The four stages of “learning any new skill” or “competence” relates specifically to the psychological states we experience as we progress from incompetence to competence amid the acquisition of a new skill.

What’s fascinating to me is that the highest level of competence is identified as “unconscious competence,” emphasis on the unconscious. Couldn’t that just be labeled the “habit level of competence“?

For example, let’s think about a concert pianist or really any virtuoso — maybe even a jazz musician. When such an artist is performing at their highest level, there is little if any conscious thought involved. For instance, the pianist isn’t thinking, “Now, do I put my index finger on the C?” They are completely captivated and “in the moment.” You could also say they are “in the zone.” (For more on the essence of the zone, check out this post http://www.thehabitfactor.com/2016/01/the-key-to-peak-performance-and-the-zone-is-habituation/ or find even more here in The Pressure Paradox where I explore the topic extensively.)

Let us revisit exactly what the four basic levels of learning or competence are comprised of:

Phase I: Unconscious Incompetence: At this level, the person doesn’t even know what he/she is doing or how bad at any particular skill or task they are. A good example of this might be the skill of managing others: Many managers, especially new ones, begin at this first level — and this can be a dangerous place for your career should you not evolve and move to the next level. For instance, a new manager might not even know that he or she is a bad manager; this ignorance might prevent him from moving to the next phase of learning and may even result in being fired.

Phase II: Conscious Incompetence: They know they are not good at managing people, so they begin to learn. They start adjusting their management “style”and develop some basic management skills. They are still not too good at the skill/task (in this case managing people), but they at least recognize that fact and they are taking steps to learn and become better.

Phase III: Conscious Competence: At this level the manager is much better at managing people (they are competent), but the skill/task remains challenging. It’s hard work, and they continue to practice and learn how to become a better manager. They put in the effort day after day until they reach . . .

Phase IV:  Unconscious competence: Now, after years of management experience and routinely practicing, modeling and learning the behaviors of a skilled manager, the skill of managing people has finally become “second nature.” This, of course, explains the desire of most companies to hire people with experience. At this level of competence — the highest level — the manager’s decisions and actions are “habit-like,” requiring very little conscious effort and exuding a high level of competence.

Moving to “Mastery”

When it comes to mastery and “success,” it’s a bit of a cliche these days to cite Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule,” yet it’s unavoidable here ; ). In his great book Outliers, Gladwell sets out to dispel many of the common myths behind what it takes to become a “success.”

Throughout the book he cites numerous “outlier” instances responsible for helping to create one great success story after another. However, there is one constant among all the great success stories. Do you care to guess what that one constant is?

It turns out that the one thing each great, successful personality had in common was an unrelenting pursuit of their craft/goal. Each “success” would put in a minimum of 10,000 hours refining and honing their craft.

Now, care to guess what we develop when we put 10,000 hours of practice and effort into any one craft/skill? Correct! We develop the corresponding HABIT/S! After that amount of time, these individuals achieve the highest level of unconscious competence….mastery.

The takeaway, then, is fairly straightforward: When you think about habit development, think first about how to refine the skill — practice the skill repeatedly. The repeated practice with consistency, over time, will yield a new level of expertise — a habit-level of competence or “unconscious competence.”

The other commonality between habit and skill is this: Both reside in the “older” parts of the brain. So, as one practices and practices and practices some more (recall conscious incompetence and competence), it seems that the brain begins to shift the slow, cumbersome and conscious behaviors/skills to a faster and more reflexive part of the brain where conscious thinking is limited. The cerebellum and the limbic regions of the brain (the older brain) reportedly store unconscious, reflexive behaviors, skills and habits!

Now, consider what the military and first responders do: They practice, practice and practice some more. The goal is to move slow, conscious behaviors (performed in training) into the faster, reflexive parts of the brain so that in any emergency their behaviors become “second nature” and habit-like.

This is why mastery is truly a product of habituation. For instance, the greatest musicians have thousands of hours of practice and often become totally relaxed and seemingly “unconscious” (in the zone or flow) when they improvise, and yet the first-time performer is slow, timid and obviously very conscious of their performance. This is why a new teenage driver’s car insurance is sky high and it’s nerve-wracking to drive with them, yet when you drive you can be eating, talking on the phone and listening to music. And finally, this is why Tom Brady has the ability to demonstrate absolute focus, calm and confidence while under immense pressure with hundreds of millions of people watching him on one of the world’s biggest stages: He’s habituated to the experience (and just won his fifth Super Bowl).

The other takeaway is this: There is no escaping the hard work! ; )

Get after it — and enjoy the process, the journey!