Build an Accountability Exoskeleton

Some people are simply born with self-discipline.

I am not one of those people.

Making decisions exhausts me. Commitment is hard. My brain tends to switch gears automatically like a faulty transmission when I hit a rough spot or things get difficult.
Or I have to make a tough decision and I’m just not sure what to do next.
Or just life is hard.
Everything is hard.
(man, my recent blog posts seem to have a theme… hmm… displacement sniffing…)

Obviously, this behavior pattern can result in things like… having 2/3 of a book written for over a year, but never finishing it. Or having a dog with 200 partially trained behaviors and none of them under any kind of stimulus control. Or having a young dog that you have every intention of doing things with, but you aren’t sure where to start and you don’t want to ruin her like you did your previous dog so you just do nothing.

I think we all agree that it is the nature of dog training that we have to approach it like training for a sport. That means practicing. A LOT! And even more than how often we practice, it matters quite a lot HOW we practice. We must focus on applying the principles of “deliberate practice” to make the most of our training time and progress efficiently.

But deliberate practice is HARD. And staying focused and sticking with it for the amount of time it takes to process to high levels of training takes discipline.

Well dammit.

And I know I’m not alone. In so many training groups, online or in-person, many of us complain about how hard it is to stay focused and work toward a goal. Especially when you’ve spent all day working to train someone else’s dogs, and now you are home, and you finally get the kid to bed, and you have to choose between training your own dogs or watching Netflix. (I changed the wording here after I was informed that “Netflix and chill” means something else entirely. But really, either way works.)

Planning in advance helps a lot because it relieves you of that layer of decision making on an already tired brain. But it’s awfully hard to find the motivation to get the dog out and do the training.

Taking a class helps… if you stick with it (stupid discipline again) and do the training. But there is still often a gap between learning the skill and making it into a habitual practice, especially since classes are often short and focused on a single puzzle piece of what we need to put together the whole picture. It’s on us to keep building with those pieces and keep our eye on the top of the puzzle box.

So for those of us that weren’t born with this magical self-discipline to keep us focused, what can we do?

Well, fortunately, we can build ourselves an artificial scaffold of discipline in the form of accountability. Sort of an external shell… like Iron Man, but made out of accountability.

Of course, this problem is not unique to dog trainers. This is a common human problem that shows up whenever there is a complex path to some outcome… fitness and weight loss, human sports performance, etc. And it’s something that is talked about and studied in those worlds, which is really cool because we can extrapolate and use a lot of what they do for our own purposes.

“Accountability in sport is doing what you say you’re going to do and executing the task to the best of your ability. Then being able to put your hand up and say ‘this is what I need to do better’ if you don’t get it right.
Being accountable is not making excuses, not blaming others or whinging and complaining. Accountability in sport is taking ownership of something and making sure you ‘know your job and do your job’ 100% of the time.” – Bo Hansen, Athlete Assessments

We need to set up a system of mechanisms that help us stay accountable to reach our goals.

In the sports psychology world, there is a concept of “4 layers of accountability”. And I love this model because it really works quite well for us dog trainers and is fairly easy to apply. It’s a nicely chunked down process that gives us a system we can use to apply good behavior science, antecedents, and consequences, to modify our own behavior long term.

The 4 layers of accountability

1. Individual
These are the things you do to set yourself up for success. In this category are most of our antecedent arrangement plans. For someone trying to build a habit of going to the gym every morning, experts suggest laying out their gym clothes the night before. The clothes make doing the first step in that behavior chain really easy and serve as a big visual cue. For us, that can mean setting out the training equipment before you need it. Setting up a whiteboard with your training focus for that week. Sticking a post-it note to your tv remote. Anything that can remind you to stay on track.
Self-evaluation and tracking your performance is also part of individual accountability. Videoing your training sessions, keeping a journal, or simply checking a box when you actually do the thing.  These are simple ways to motivate yourself. Not magic(unfortunately), but they work. Finding a way to “gamify” the task, even if if feels silly, will help you get it done.

After setting yourself up for success, surrounding yourself with group of like-minded peers working at the same level (or preferably slightly higher) is the next layer.  Having a group of people who understand what you are trying to accomplish and are invested in your success makes a huge difference in your outcome. In many studies, participants lost more weight, quick smoking successfully, or improved a skill more quickly and to higher levels when they participated in a regular support or accountability group.

Social support and reinforcement is a valuable motivator for social animals like us. Having a buddy or small group that are on the journey with you gives you a resource to bounce ideas off, encourage you when you feel stuck, and can help trouble shoot. Another benefit I get kind of into when I’m training with a group or buddy is that the group can serve as a little source of competition. Everyone is going to have an off day, but the chances of everyone having the off day at the same time are pretty low. And nothing gets me up and moving like seeing someone I know and respect (but also know is a real person) doing the thing I feel like is sooooo hard. And once my stubborn kicks in, well I’m pretty darn unstoppable.

3. Leader/Coach/Mentor
The job of the leader is to help you define expectations. This person sets the bar for you. Ideally, it’s someone who has experience on the path you are trying to walk. And it should be someone you respect enough to feel a little uncomfortable showing up to a meeting having not done the thing you said you would do.
Everyone needs a coach. Everyone!

Over time, you may find that you need to find different coaches to work with at different stages of your journey.
While taking a class, the instructor may serve this purpose (if it’s the right instructor). If you are lucky enough to have access to an instructor on a regular basis, you may be able to work together to put together a comprehensive program to lead you to the outcome you are looking for.
Your coach or mentor can help guide you through the process, identifying incremental steps, and providing  The greatest motivator of all is progress, and the right instructor (or collection of instructors) can be a powerful catalyst for action.

4. Public
This is the scariest level. My least favorite. If we were professional football players, we’d have our fans to answer to if we slacked off practice. Since, for whatever reason, good dog training doesn’t seem to draw a lot of spectators, we have to work a little harder. But the idea is to put it out there… whatever it is you are working on, tell people. Tell your friends or family. Make a statement on Facebook. Just put the words out there in the world that you are working on this Thing.
Again, this can be pretty motivating. Even though I spend most of my time alone in my cave, I do occasionally go out in public. And visualizing the next Clicker Expo reception and imagining someone coming up to me at the bar and asking “Hey, how’s that book coming?”… well, it really makes me want to have an answer, you know?

Of course, all of these things get harder when we feel geographically isolated from quality coaching or appropriate peers. Fortunately, the internet has made the world smaller. Online instruction and support groups can also be effective in filling those roles. So don’t let the fact that you live out in the country, 45 minutes away from anything, and in a complete desert of positive reinforcement training stop you! (I mean, if any of that were true for anyone.)

Grab your layers, and laminate them together to build your accountability supersuit. Then use it to ignite your training, battle evil villains (literally or figuratively) and save the world!


ps – If this resonates with you, and like me, you find yourself in desperate need of accountability mechanisms… check out my new experiment: The 2017 Autumn of Awesome!

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