Why learning gets harder before it gets easier

Learning to drive

Have you noticed how sometimes when you are learning a new skill that it gets harder before it gets easier? If you’re a small business mum, for example perhaps you’re starting to get your head around social media and how to build engagement; or you have committed to learning how to build a community list; or you have set out to get to grips with blogging; maybe you are learning a new piece of software such as Camtasia or running webinars.

As you start to learn, when it is a topic you are really motivated to learn, at first, it’s great. You’re really fired up and excited, you scour every article you can find, you join new Facebook groups, you watch videos, listen to podcasts, read books from the library (not everything is electronic, you know) and it’s brilliant. You are discovering the basics, it’s starting to make sense, you begin to understand what you need to do and what approach to take.

But then … oddly and counterintuitively, it starts to feel harder. This doesn’t make sense. You made such a good start. You were coming on leaps and bounds and now, whoah, you’re getting lost and muddled. It feels difficult, it’s confusing, and you seem to be going backwards. Sometimes, at this point, we give up. We tell ourselves “it’s no good, I’ll never be able to do this” or “I’m rubbish with technology, I’ll never get to grips with this” or “I never was that clever at school, it’s just easier to stop”.

WAIT … don’t give up. Not yet. Honestly this is normal. First let me tell you about the conscious competence learning model. This model came to mind in a workshop that I was running on Friday morning. The participants were doing real plays to practice listening skills. When I asked how they had found the session, some were surprised that they had found it harder than two weeks earlier. What’s going on? Are they poor students? Am I a poor facilitator?

When we are learning, we go through a series of stages, known as the Conscious Competence Learning Model.

Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence. 

When you first start to learn a new skill, you don’t know what you don’t know. You might even deny the fact that the skill has any use or relevance to you. You don’t know if you’re doing it well or poorly. However even order to develop a skillset, you need to become conscious of your incompetence to move to the next stage. If you compare this to driving a manual car, before you start taking lessons, you don’t know what the clutch is and you have no idea that you need to bring the clutch to the biting point to change gear.

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence. 

Once you start to become aware of how the skill is relevant to you, and how you can use the skill. You practice the skill; you become aware of others using the skill well; you notice when you perform the skill well and when you don’t. You realise that in order to improve, you need to practice. That old saying, practice makes perfect! When you are learning to drive a car, you can tell when you have changed the gear smoothly (as can your instructor). You are very aware too of when you have changed gear clumsily – usually because you have brought the clutch up too quickly. THIS IS THE STAGE when it starts to feel hard. You start to realise how much is involved. You develop an awareness of your current level of competency. You notice every time you perform that skill poorly. This is when some people might give up because they talk themselves out of it.  Others carry on – determined, stubborn, committed. If you are one of those that might give up, frustrated, cross with yourself … then please do read my earlier post on positive thinking for ways to change your mindset.

Stage 3 – Conscious Competence. 

This third stage is brilliant … you feel you are making progress. You perform the skill, without assistance, reliably and competently when you need to. You can demonstrate the skill to another person (perhaps the test examiner?) but you probably are not ready to teach the skill to another person. You still need to practice the skill to move to the next stage of Unconscious Competence. Occasionally you might make mistakes particularly if you are not fully concentrating.

Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence. 

When you have mastered the skill so that you can do it without thinking, it is so practised that it enters the ‘unconscious’ part of your brain, this is when you have arrived at Unconscious Competence. You could perhaps perform the skill while doing something else – for example if you are driving, you can now manage a conversation while you are driving and even while you are changing gear. You can read the road signs while you are driving so that you know which exit to use at an approaching roundabout. You might be able to explain to others how to change gear … but here’s the kicker. When you have been in the unconscious competence stage for a while, you might find it really difficult to explain to others exactly how you do it.

Could you explain to a complete beginner how to change gear in a manual car? Can you remember all the steps: lift your foot off the accelerator, press the clutch down with the other foot, select appropriate gear (do you remember how to find Reverse gear in the very first car you drove?), bring clutch up smoothly and at the same time press your foot down on the accelerator (assuming you are changing gear because you are going faster). Though also bear in mind, that once you have reached unconscious competence stage, it is easy to take your skill for granted and complacent.

I hope this helps to explain why sometimes when you are learning a new skill, participating in a 30 day challenge, attending a course … that sometimes it feels like the more you do, the harder it gets. If that’s how you are feeling right now, are you using a positive mindset? Be patient, this getting harder is simply a sign that you are on your way to Conscious Competence. What new skill are you practising this month?

Good luck!

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