During my teaching career, as part of professional development classes, we learned about the Stages of Competence. This concept refers to how we–children ans adults alike–grow and change in accordance with new learning, finally incorporating that learning into our everyday behavior.
Newsflash: It doesn’t happen all at once.
Let’s look at the steps as they apply to you as a child learning to walk.
- Unconscious incompetence: You don’t know and you don’t care. Walking? What’s walking? Someone nice is carrying you. Or you’re fine with crawling. Low center of gravity, low risk of failure.
- Conscious Incompetence: You realize that’s something’s wrong, but you’re not sure what. You notice others are walking. You try standing while holding on to a chair, a table leg. You fall. This isn’t going well. You try again. You fall.
- Conscious competence: You make a concerted effort try this new behavior. It’s not natural yet. You are practicing. Someone holds your hands as you make tentative steps. They help you not to fall. Sometimes you can manage a few steps on your own. People around you reward you for your attempts by smiling and clapping their hands. They give you hugs and kisses.
- Unconscious competence: Walking has become so natural, you don’t even realize that it’s a skill. You can walk anywhere, anytime, without even thinking about it. Congratulations! You’re a walker. You might even be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
When it comes to establishing healthy habits, what stage are you at? I think most of us get stuck in the middle somewhere, never quite giving ourselves enough time practice to new skills. Those habits never have a chance to become second nature. I’ve read that it takes twenty-one days for a behavior to become a habit. Three weeks. For some of us slow learners, it may take longer.
Give yourself time.
Don’t move on too quickly. Keep practicing that new behavior until you no longer have to think about it. Until you no longer need a reminder. Do you need a reminder to brush your teeth before bed? To wash your hands after using the toilet? Probably not. (Hopefully not.) It’s become a habit.
When it comes to healthy habits, choose one to practice and reward yourself for it until it’s firmly established. Then move on. Baby steps, remember?