When you work for yourself, you’re not just a dog trainer… you’re a business owner. And that means doing a whole lot more than just training dogs.
Yet so often, even when we have the best of intentions, the tasks that need to happen for our business that aren’t directly related to the work we need to do every day for our clients — things like marketing, answering emails, or reconciling receipts — fall by the wayside. We know they’re important. We know they need to happen. Yet they never seem to get done.
That’s fine… for a while. But when those types of tasks get put off for too long, problems begin to emerge.
You realize you forget to book a new client and now you need to cram them into an already overbooked schedule. Quarterly taxes are due, and you have no idea how much money is where so that you can make the payment. Or you let your marketing slip, and now you’re staring at a wide open schedule and are going to have to struggle to make ends meet next month.
If this is all sounding a bit too familiar, know that you’re not alone… but also know that it doesn’t have to be that way.
The 30 minutes that can make or break your week
Late last year I made a small change that has had a huge impact on my ability to ensure these types of tasks get done. I introduced a weekly planning session, 30 minutes once a week, to my regular schedule.
I first encountered (but dismissed) the idea when I listened to the audiobook for Getting Things Done (often abbreviated GTD), a popular productivity book by David Allen. It was several months later that I re-encountered the idea while listening to an episode of The Productivity Show, a podcast by Asian Efficiency. One of the hosts was talking about how much adding a weekly review to his schedule had impacted his productivity and his overall progress towards his goals. He outlined his process, and it seemed simple enough — I decided to give it a try.
A Sneak Peek at My Weekly Planning Session
I’ve now been conducting weekly reviews consistently since the beginning of the year and their impact on my business, my productivity, and my progress toward my goals has been huge. I’ve made more real progress in the last 9 months than in the previous several years.
I do my reviews on Sundays. First, I look at the calendar and add any meetings or appointments that week to my daily tasks. Then I add any tasks that need to be completed in advance of those appointments to the appropriate day’s to do list (for example, if I’m conducting a podcast interview, I add writing questions for the interview to the day before). Then I go through my current projects (including my list of current goals I’m working toward), and fill in the remaining work time that week with the next step for each project until the week is full. I try to only book about 6 hours of work a day — because inevitably, work will come up that needs to be handled in the moment that is not on my list… and leaving myself a bit of time each day allows me to get that work done, too.
In 30-minutes or less, I now have a really good idea what’s on my to do list that coming week and what the current status is of each of my current projects and can make sure nothing is falling through the cracks on accident.
Planning Your Own Weekly Planning Sessions
The key aspect of a weekly planning session is sitting down before the week begins to make sure you know what tasks most need your attention that coming week. Doing so allows you to ensure your time is spent on those most important tasks, instead of letting it land where it will, on whatever screams at you the loudest that week.
It prevents shiny object syndrome.
The exact process or tasks that you’ll want to consider as part of your weekly planning session are up to you. I recommend looking over any upcoming appointments for the week, and making a list of any prep work that needs to be done (and then scheduling time to DO that prep work). I also recommend reviewing your goals for the quarter and for the year, and making sure the tasks you add to your list for the week fit into those goals.
Other than that, what you include is up to you — customize your sessions so they make sense for your business. And then schedule them for the same time each week, so that they become part of your weekly routine.
Currently, on Sundays I take a yoga class and then go out for brunch. During brunch I set up my laptop and do my planning session and then reply to overdue emails (there are always overdue emails…). Yoga and brunch are nice little mini rewards for sticking to my habit, setting me up for success — and the habit in turn sets the rest of my week up for success as well.
The one tool both dog trainers and astronauts can use for more successful systems
Fifty years ago, astronauts aboard the Apollo 13 lunar spacecraft radioed Mission Control with the now iconic phrase, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” recounted Katy Milkman in an episode of her podcast, Choiceology (“A Successful Failure” with guests Cass Susntein, Kirabo Jackson, and Andrew Chaikin, if you want to go give it a listen). In that episode, historian Andrew Chaikin shared how the team of astronauts used a simple tool — the checklist — to navigate the multitude of complex and dangerous procedures to ultimately bring the crew home despite a devastating equipment failure.
Checklists may seem simple, but they can be a powerful tool for breaking complex systems into simple, repeatable steps, limiting potential errors.
To keep my weekly planning sessions on track, I have a simple checklist that I work through each week:
- Review Calendar(s)
- Add prep work to my to my daily to do lists
- Check current project statuses
- Add tasks for each project that needs attention that week to daily to do lists
- Review master goal list, ensure I’m on track
Just walking through that list each week helps ensure nothing falls through the cracks.
But that’s not the only place a check list can be useful — having a list of all the things you need to pack for your private lessons each day can help ensure you don’t leave important equipment at home. Having a check list that you review when hiring a new employee can ensure important paperwork doesn’t get overlooked. Almost any process you completely regularly for your business can likely benefit from a quick check list, documenting the steps that need to be taken, to help you perform those tasks consistently.
And creating them can be easy! The next time you do the task, just take a few minutes before beginning to jot down what the steps are that you’ll need to complete. As you go through the task, check the steps off — and add any you may not have thought to include when you were writing the list in advance. Once you’re done, either save the list somewhere like Google Drive, or create a repeating task in the task management tool of your choice. Done!
Doing the Thing: How to Stick to Your Plan
Of course that’s all well and good when you actually DO the things. But intending to do the things and actually doing them are… not the same. Not the same at all. So I want to talk about a few options for helping keep yourself accountable so that you follow through on those good intentions.
Fortunately, you’re a dog trainer. That means you understand the most important components of behavior change! Now the trick is just to apply them to yourself.
Step One: Antecedent Arrangement
In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear talks about the importance of “choice architecture.” Choice architecture is the process of designing your environment to make a desired habit or behavior more likely. For example, if you want to practice guitar more often, leave your guitar on the couch. If you want to read more, each morning place your book on your pillow, so you can’t forget to read a few pages before going to sleep.
As dog trainers, we’re incredibly familiar with this concept: it’s antecedent arrangement.
That’s all I’m doing by attending yoga and then brunch — tying my weekly planning sessions to an event that’s already on my calendar with an aspect of outside accountability (I have to RSVP in advance to Yoga). Now, I have to actively choose to break that chain in order to skip my planning session… doing the planning session becomes easier than not doing the planning session.
Step Two: Add an Aspect of Outside Accountability
I mentioned that I’ve tied my sessions to my yoga class. Another option for adding a degree of outside accountability is to pay for someone else to keep you accountable. For example, I meet with my book keeper once a month — before that meeting, I handle all of my Profit First accounting. Having that meeting on the calendar helps ensure that work gets done.
Don’t have a bookkeeper or other obvious professional to help keep you accountable? There are now paid services that will meet with you to help you ensure you get work done. The three I’m familiar with are:
- Focusmate: You get 3 free sessions per week, and they pair you with a partner and the two meet up virtually to co-work. You spend 50 minutes on a call together each focused on your own tasks, getting work done.
- Worksitter: Worksitter is part VA and part accountability partner. For $10/hour they’ll “babysit” you while you do a task, or they’ll help by doing some tasks for you, working as your virtual assistant. They offer a free session to let you try it out and see if it’ll work for you.
- Focused.space: The most expensive of the three options at $32 for a drop-in session or $27/session if you sign up weekly sessions, this is also the option the people I know who have used all three services like best. Focused sessions are completed with a trained host, who helps talk you through your goals for the session and make an actionable task plan. From their website, “focused is great for work that’s hard, tedious, overwhelming, or so important and heartfelt that you don’t know how to start. Whether you have a daunting task list or need to make progress on a project you’ve been putting off—focused can help you.”
After all, we tend to break promises to ourselves all the time — even if we’d never cancel on someone else without reason. It’s why New Years resolutions have such an abysmal success rate. So add an aspect of “someone else” to the most important tasks you need to achieve to improve your consistency.
Step Three: Bring a Reward into the Moment
Seth Godin has been quoted as saying, “The best way to change long term behaviors is with short term feedback.” As dog trainers, that shouldn’t be news… training works best when a consequence (be it reward or punishment) is closely associated with the behavior that led to it.
When thought about within this framework, is it any wonder we all stink at goals that we know will benefit us in the long-term but that require action in the now?
To circumvent that, we need to find ways to bring a reward into the present moment.
One option that James Clear suggests is having a giant calendar where you cross off each day you work on your new habit. Even if you have false starts or skip a day here or there, eventually you’ll come to point where you’ve chained together 7 or 8 days in a row… and your goal becomes not breaking the chain.
Personally, for me, having a working brunch on Sunday mornings is its own reward — I enjoy it enough that it helps ensure I continue to show up.
If you enjoy public recognition, you might instead post in a group like Trainer’s Growth Group with your goals and give us an update each time you follow through on your new habit, and we’ll all cheerlead for you! If private recognition is more your thing, have a friend agree to cheerlead for you, and you can tell them each time you complete the task. They can also check in if they haven’t heard from you about it in a while.
Whatever method you choose, find a way to give yourself feedback shortly after completely the task that feels good for you, and provides you with a reward that’s in the moment, rather than holding out until you see the long-term impact 6 months or 12 months down the road.
Building Habits for Accountability
Running a business often means wearing a lot of different hats — and keeping a lot of different balls in the air at once. Having the right systems in place and help ensure nothing breaks.
Or, to again quote James Clear, “Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.”
In his book, he compares changing habits to shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees — if a pilot flying leaving LAX heading for New York were to adjust the heading just 3.5 degrees south, he’d land in DC instead.
Small changes, making the right small decisions day after day, week after week can make that kind of difference for your business.