What is unconscious incompetence and why does it cause weight loss fail

Do you know why so many weight loss resolutions fail?

It’s because of unconsciously incompetent people resolving to lose weight without a clue. They assume gaining weight was a snap so losing weight will be just as easy. They know many people who have tried and failed but they are certain they will succeed because they’re smart and determined.

Guess what? Intelligence and even determination aren’t a weight loss success guarantee. Many weight loss attempts by smart, determined people fail because they thought all they needed to do was to eat less. When they tried they found out that eating less is a lot harder than they thought it would be.

That is the definition of unconscious incompetence. Many people quit because they thought they could do something and when they discovered they were incompetent, instead of sticking with it and moving up the competence ladder, they quit. Some people would rather give up than experience the unsettling feeling of incompetence.

You're eating a juicy burger and I've got to eat this salad? I'm not sure I can do that.

You’re eating a juicy burger and I’ve got to eat this salad? I though that would be easy but I can’t do it. Unconscious Incompetence

Here is a story to illustrate the conscious competence ladder.

A good friend of mine just bought his first house. He’s 52 and had always enjoyed the convenience of the services one gets with condo living. He eagerly anticipated owning a house and the pride and sense of accomplishment that would come with the responsibilities of homeownership.

He was delighted that the snowblower in the garage came with his purchase. He had lovely images in his mind of his getting out in the cold, dressed warmly, to remove the freshly fallen snow from his driveway and walkways. He imagined the supreme feeling of accomplishment when he had a clear driveway.

Being a practical guy, he knew before his dream would come true he needed to ensure the machine was in working condition. After a $300.00 bill and a promise he’d get an email with a video to demonstrate the operation of his machine, he was ready for the snow to fall.

Unconscious Incompetence

I’ve never used a snow blower before but it looks easy. Unconscious Incompetence

Snow started falling. A lot of snow fell. My eager buddy dressed himself for the task at hand and went out to try out his snowblower. The repair shop never emailed the operation video, but no matter, my friend is smart and determined and he did receive instructions verbally.

Too bad he never tried starting it while it was still in the shop. In fact, he never tried to start it until he needed it. He saw plenty of people start snowblowers. It looked easy. He saw many people operate them and that too looked easy. So why was he not able to start his snowblower.

He did everything exactly as he was told by the repair shop. He repeated the steps multiple times and the snowblower wouldn’t start. He didn’t have the owner’s manual but he found it online and carefully read the instructions and it still wouldn’t start. His mental image of using the snowblower started to change. It no longer seemed easy. It wasn’t easy.

Days later he eventually he got help getting the snowblower running. He then discovered that when there’s a lot of snow and it’s been collecting over several storms and melting and getting rained on in between, it isn’t easy to remove with the snowblower. In fact, it’s impossible to remove with a snowblower.

My friend is smart, capable, determined, dedicated and industrious. Despite all of those admirable characteristics, he was unconsciously incompetent when it came to snow blowing. He then became consciously incompetent when he discovered it wasn’t as easy as he thought.

In other words at first he thought he could do something and discovered he couldn’t. That’s unconscious incompetence. Then he knew he couldn’t do something and that’s conscious incompetence.

When the next time snow falls, he will be consciously competent. That means he has to pay careful attention to the operation of the snowblower and by doing so, he will get the job done and be improving his skills operating the machine.

I'm really doing it now, but it wasn't as easy at first as I though it would be.

I’m really doing it now, but it wasn’t as easy at first as I though it would be. Conscious Competence

Eventually he will have had enough experience with the snowblower to be unconsciously competent. He will be able to blow that snow with ease, exactly where he wants it to go, without a lot of concentration. He’ll be one of those guys who makes it look easy to the people who have never tried it before.

Losing weight requires the dieter to go through those same levels of skill mastery. It seems easy but when they try they run into challenges they didn’t expect. They include being hungry, emotional eating, pressure from others to eat, impulse eating, dining out, etc. Many people quit at this stage.

From that unconscious incompetent start they become consciously incompetent as they learn to successfully manage all the challenges that they face. This is an important step in gaining the skills and confidence needed to get to goal.

I guess I can stick to this, but it's hard.

I guess I can stick to this, but it’s hard. Conscious Competence

The more they practice their weight loss behaviors and strategies the easier it will get, but at this stage it takes determination and concentration. They are still learning, but mostly they are honing their skills. They are now consciously competent.


At first it was hard to eat salad while he ate the juicy burger, but now I do it happily because I like what I get (weight loss) for sticking to salads.

At first it was hard to eat salad while he ate the juicy burger, but now I know I can do it and it doesn’t matter what he’s eating. Unconscious Competence

Finally health and weight management behaviors have become second-nature. They are as natural to practice daily as the old, unhealthy behaviors they replaced. They are now unconsciously competent.

The Competent Curve

Jackie Conn

About Jackie Conn

Jackie Conn is married and has four grown daughters and four grandchildren. She is a Weight Watchers success story. She's a weight loss expert with 25 years of experience guiding women and men to their weight-related goals. Her articles on weight management have been published in health, family and women's magazines. She has been a regular guest on Channel 5 WABI news, FOX network morning program Good Day Maine and 207 on WCSH.