Unconscious Competence, Frugality and Your Money


In psychology, there’s a popular model of how people learn that describes how someone progresses from being a complete beginner at a skill to being proficient at it.

In the first stage, called unconscious incompetence, you’re stumbling through your first attempts at something. You’re not just bad at it, you have no idea what you need to know to be competent at it.

In the second stage, called conscious incompetence, you’re still bad at something, but you have a much better idea of what you need to do to actually become competent at it.

In the third stage, called conscious competence, you can do something pretty well, but only if you really focus intensely on what you’re doing.

In the final stage, called unconscious competence, you can do something pretty well without even really consciously thinking about it.

I’m observing this in my own life as my oldest child begins to learn how to drive. At first, he could barely back the car out of the driveway without endangering the structural integrity of our mailbox. He was clearly an example of unconscious incompetence.

Over time, he gradually learned to drive down the street reasonably well, but he knew that he wasn’t ready to do things like parallel parking or driving on the interstate. He’s basically at conscious incompetence. He knows he’s not yet a very good driver, but he knows what skills he needs to work on.

Later, he’ll move in the direction of conscious competence. He’ll be a decent driver as long as he maintains his focus on the road and what he’s doing.

For many drivers, however, driving has moved into unconscious competence. We do most of our driving without really thinking about it too much, other than in a few difficult moments.

Here’s the thing: most of the things we do in our daily lives are at the level of unconscious competence. We know how to do those things fairly well, and over time our procedure for those tasks is done with minimal conscious thought. We just do them.

We do it when we do the laundry. We do it when we drive to work. We do it when we do the dishes. We do it when we do some of our work tasks. We do it when we eat supper, make coffee or get groceries.

Here’s the thing: most things we do with unconscious competence are things that we do well enough, but not great. We figured out a level at which we could get the result we wanted — getting to our destination safely, getting our laundry clean, getting the groceries — and then it quickly passed into unconscious action.

Here’s the kicker, though: if you want to improve your efficiency and results at something, you have to move back into the conscious competence level and/or the conscious incompetence level. You have to go back and question everything you’re doing in your normal routine, look for where your experience or other information shows you that there’s a better way of doing it, and then practice that better way until you become unconsciously competent at the new way — in other words, you step back, look at how you’re doing things, improve that routine very consciously, and keep practicing the improved way until it’s how you do it unconsciously.

This is very similar to the concept of deliberate practice, which highly skilled individuals use to keep refining those high-level skills, but it pays out a lot of value in everyday life when you apply it to everyday skills.


So, how does this help us with our money?

Simply put, stepping back from an unconscious routine in our daily lives that involves using things we’ve paid for or using significant amounts of time, figuring out better ways of doing that routine, learning and mastering that new routine, and making it our new unconscious standard for doing things will pay a ton of money and time dividends over the years.

I’ll give you a prime example of this: laundry.

Most of us do our laundry without thinking about it. We grab what’s in the dirty clothes, wash them, fold them, and stick them back in our drawers, and we do it all as a routine that we barely think about.

Yet, all through that process, we’re using up money and we’re using our time. Every load of laundry we do uses laundry soap. It uses hot water. It uses electricity to run the washer. It uses electricity to run the dryer. It puts wear and tear on the washer and dryer. Similarly, every basket we carry and every item we fold gobbles up a little nugget of our time.

By stepping back and looking at each element of that routine, figuring out how to optimize each bit for both money and time, consciously doing the routine in a new way until it becomes natural, and letting that new way become the natural unconscious way of doing things, we establish a new normal for our laundry routine that eats less time and less money and less energy than before.

(In fact, I wrote an entire post about optimizing one’s laundry routine for time and money not all that long ago.)

Sure, it takes time to do this, and it definitely means you’ll be using some focus and attention on your laundry routine for a while. You’ll probably dump a few hours into figuring out the best way to do things and then invest a few hours teaching yourself how to do laundry the new way before it becomes unconscious.

Still, imagine that every time you did laundry after this, it cost a quarter less and required 10 minutes less of your time from start to finish. Forever. For the rest of your life.

If you do one load of laundry a week and you live for another 40 years, that adds up to $520 and 347 hours of your time saved.

That’s an absurdly good return on your time and effort if you invest a few hours maximizing your routine and then spend every laundry load for the next few months really mastering that new efficient routine.

Now, imagine doing the same thing with all of your routines. You can optimize dishwashing for money and time. You can optimize meal planning and grocery shopping for money and time. You can optimize actual meal cooking of your, say, 20 favorite meals for money and time. You can optimize your commute for money and time.

The secret of all of these is to make the conscious decision to step back from unconscious competence – the way you do things without really thinking about them – into conscious competence and even conscious incompetence for a while. Question how you do these things. Approach all of it from a beginner’s mindset. Is there a cheaper way to acquire the materials I use? Is there a faster way to do the tasks I’m doing? Is there a way to do this such that it’s more useful for me later?

Remember, even a tiny improvement in a routine you do every day or every week pays out enormous dividends over the rest of your life. Given that it doesn’t take too long to tease apart a normal routine and optimize it, and then it just takes some focus to push it into your head so that it’s the new normal for you, it’s a spectacular bargain.

My advice is to look at each routine one at a time in this way. Tear apart your laundry routine, then focus on doing it the right way and keep your attention on that new routine until it is completely natural. Then, move onto the next routine – dishwashing or grocery shopping or whatever.

Step back from the many routine things that you’ve practiced to unconscious competence. Question them and tear them apart, and rebuild them to save yourself money and time, then practice that new way until it’s completely natural.

You’ll be glad you did.

Good luck!

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