Breathing and the 4 stages of competence

The 4 stages of competence is a theory related to the progression from being incompetent to competent at a skill.  Here is the summary of this theory plucked from its’ Wikipedia article:

The Four Stages of Learning provides a model for learning. It suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, then consciously use it. Eventually, the skill can be utilized without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence.

You can see examples of this in many different skills that people tend to pick up over the years.  Take driving a car for instance.  At first you have no idea how to make it start, stop, perform basic maneuvers or the like.  Then you make a conscious effort to learn the controls, basic maneuvers and proper behaviours behind the wheel.  After much more practice you develop a strong competency for driving.  You can maintain speeds, perform smooth turning, accelerating and decelerating, and even parallel park in a spot that you wouldn’t have thought possible before you practiced.  That’s all nothing new, but what I hadn’t considered for so long was the fourth state of competence: Unconscious competence.  Anyone who’s driven for a long time has run into situations in which they get in their car, start driving, then their mind might start to wander, and suddenly they realize they’ve reached their destination with almost no recollection of the trip.  They’ve pushed the skill into unconscious competence in that they don’t need to ACTIVELY think about it.  Think about the times you’ve driven down the highway and you’ve seen someone doing their makeup, talking on the phone or even eating their breakfast with one hand while smoking with the other (Not you of course!  You’re far safer than those yahoos).  The only downside of unconscious competence that I’ve come up with is that you can’t actually progress in a skill once you’ve shifted it to your unconscious mind.  I plan to discuss this further in a future post.

Breathing is one of those skills that gets pushed into unconscious competence likely at birth.  This is a good thing.  If a baby had to actively think about breathing, (s)he’d likely get distracted by something new, shiny, fast moving, and forget to breath.  I reason we start breathing as babies in the optimal way with some automatic modifications when situations call for it (choking, crying, eating, exhaustion, etc…), but these likely get modified over time due to external influences like stress.  I used to think when I was young that stress was one of those things that wasn’t a big deal, but as I’ve grown older and experienced more, I’ve realized stress to be the biggest stimuli for change.  I don’t think stress is necessarily bad, more that it can cause changes on you, positive or negative, depending on your reaction to it.

I read an article on Lifehacker a few weeks ago entitled You Might Be Breathing Ineffectively. Here’s How to Fix That that I liked.  While it offered some quick quotes from a site called Selfication that I’ve not yet browsed such as where you should feel the breathing inside your body and having 70-80% of your breathing performed by your diaphragm as well as listing the advantages of this.  While this is some useful information, and I should really get to the full Selfication article, it at least got me thinking about my breathing.  When I really focused on it, I figured that my breathing was far too shallow.  In addition to this, over the following days, I was somehow able to remember to focus on my breathing when doing various activities (sitting at work, playing ping pong, playing video games, driving) that often times I was breathing through my mouth instead of my nose.

Since reading that article, I set a goal for myself to improve my breathing and continue the intermittent focus on my stress levels and how it was affecting my breathing.  I plan to make my breathing deeper and done through my nose.  I don’t have an endgame in mind with this goal, though I have a feeling that its’ benefits will spill over into other aspects of my life that I don’t expect.

I’ve been doing a pretty good job of changing my breathing habits over the past couple of weeks.  I’ve encountered a couple obstacles in doing so.  For one, since I wasn’t as used to the bandwidth of air moving in and out through my nose, I was pretty stuffed up.  In fact it made me have to really work my diaphragm to get air through that thing, but that all cleared up over the following few days and I assume it helped strengthen my diaphragm in the meantime, so that one has been overcome.  Another obstacle I’ve run into that I’m not sure how to deal with yet is my annoyance at the sound of breathing through my nose.  Maybe it’s because it hasn’t been as common for me to do so, but now that I’m doing it much more, especially when I’m in bed trying to sleep, I will often note it, then my mind will sometimes focus in on it and annoy me.  I imagine this will go away after time in much the same way as the congested nose, but I’m still not a fan of it.

There have been some good things coming out of all of this as well.  One habit of mine that I’ve been trying to overcome for years is that my shoulders often creep up (more so in times of stress) which causes my whole upper body to tense up.  This happens more frequently while under stress, but it was happening too much in general.  It leads to various pains (I’ve noted back pains and chest pains, especially after prolonged shrugging).  In addition to that it comes across as not being confident or comfortable in whatever situation I find myself in which is not an image that I want to project.  When I’ve focused on my breathing at various times during the day, I’ve found that whenever my breathing is deep, from the diaphragm, through the nose, that I’m my shoulders are low and relaxed.  Sure, this is anecdotal evidence, but it’s enough proof for me that this must be helping my overall stress level, and this is one of those spill over benefits that I assumed would be associated with this change.

Until next,


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