The Pros & Cons of Mental Auto-Pilot



Just after I woke this morning, I began operating on auto-pilot: Got dressed. Walked downstairs. Poured a cup of yesterday's coffee. Warmed it up in the microwave. Logged onto my computer profile. Each of these tasks was successfully completed without a single conscious thought. (In fact, I didn't even consider them until writing this blog!)

This Unconscious Competence is the fourth and final stage of how we can categorize performance proficiency. Some call this final state of skill and knowledge maturity as auto-pilot...AKA: doing/knowing without thinking.

So what are the previous three stages?

Unconscious Incompetence is when one has his or her "head-in-the-sand." This isn't necessarily an insult; this can be a state simply because we can't possible know everything. In fact, we can't even possibly know that those things even exist. They may include things like a remote foreign cultures...or emerging technology...or hyper-specialized niche.  Who do we find in this category?: kindergartners.

Conscious Incompetence is an early phase of learning. In some ways, this is also a state of vulnerability; we accept we are not proficient or knowledgeable in a certain field. For example, I know that the piano exists...and I know that I do not know how to play it. In this step, we can determine whether or not we give effort to learn or not.

Conscious Competence is a state of focus and concentration. During this phase, we eat up mental bandwidth on the task at hand. A new teenaged driver might have spend most of his/her brain power on thinking about each and every aspect of driving a car, from the technical...to other vehicles..to the route. Because we are narrowly focused, we cannot do much else in ways of multi-tasking. In this state, we can become distracted and allow our performance to slip.

Unconscious Competence is often seen as skill mastery. We are completing tasks without thinking about them. Foreign language fluency is one such example - where a person no longer has to mentally translate each word or sentence before speaking. Though this state, we free up mental bandwidth for other tasks and functions. 


But is there a downside to operating on auto-pilot?

Some argue that auto-pilot puts us into a state of mind where we turn off our brains, rather than use the free space for other needed tasks. We become so comfortable in our routines or processes that we lose our situational awareness. We are content. We plateau. We close ourselves off to discovering what else we don't know (i.e. where else are we in a state of unconscious incompetence?

Auto-pilot is what frees up our brain power and focus. But if we don't use that open bandwidth for seeking new opportunities for growth, we move through life with blinders on.

A state of Unconscious Competence sets the stage for learning and awareness. But we must seize the opportunity! Or we will be passed up by those who continually explore and discover new areas of growth and potential.

***

Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor. He studies human performance, decision-making, and learning science. Follow him on Twitter at @LouHayesJr. 

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