Okay, fellow creatives, hands up if you’re guilty of project-hopping. You know what I mean – you start working on something, only to be struck by a new idea or a burst of inspiration for one of your other projects. You change tasks – just briefly, you tell yourself – and before you know it, you’re two hours into a Pinterest rabbit-hole, gathering tutorials and inspiration for a stylised photoshoot you’re planning with three racehorses, a castle, and Madonna, if her schedule allows for it.
It’s not exactly the most efficient use of your time, but as creative types, we can’t help it – we’re hard-wired to follow those flashes of motivation as they appear. Who knows when you might be so inspired again, after all?!
But as much as the word might make your skin crawl, it’s important to exercise some discipline. By turning your workflow into a funnel of productivity, you can put the muse to good use – giving you way more time and freedom to pursue your next projects.
I’ve spent years running my own business, and honestly? After a while, you learn a few things, mostly from trial and error. In my case, I learned from filling too many of my waking hours, busting a gut trying to get through everything. The problem? I hadn’t streamlined my workflow.
It took a while, but I learned how to do it – and now, I have something dangerously close to a work-life balance. Weird, but so not impossible. Want to know how I did it? Read on!
Leveraging, or outsourcing, is one of the most important things you’ll ever learn to do as a self-employed creative. You might be able to work 80 hour weeks right now, and you might be able to juggle everything in your life while you’re doing it, but sooner or later, something’s got to give. Running yourself into the ground means that eventually, the quality of your product will suffer, too.
So how do you fix it? First of all, you start with a spreadsheet – those colour-coded bastions of joy and organisation. For the next week, I want you to document everything you do for your business, every day. And I do mean everything – jot down the time you spend replying to emails, the time you spend making and answering calls, ordering prints, editing, doing your accounts…
At the end of the week, you’ll not only have a comprehensive list of the essential tasks that make your business function, you’ll also know just how long you spend on each of them. Chances are, a lot of your time is wasted on admin tasks that just about anyone could do. The great news? It’s not that hard to find someone to do them.
I’ve always outsourced my accounting. It only takes me one shoot to make the money that a bookkeeper costs me, but the hours I rescue every month allow me to spend an afternoon really fine-tuning my marketing – a job I actually like to do! I can get creative with marketing, but I can’t really get creative when I’m trying to figure out how a latte at Pret should be filed in my expenses.
There’s loads that can be outsourced. Social media, for instance, is a really common one to send elsewhere – it takes up a tonne of time, and there are loads of students who aren’t just willing to do it, they’re really good at it, too. Or you could outsource your mailing list maintenance, your bookings…the list is basically endless.
Rules are made to be broken, but there’s one I’ve stuck with for years: Keep It Simple, Stupid! (Rude, but fair.) Never has this been more apt than with software. As a photographer, you’ll be bombarded by adverts for new, expensive software constantly – software to file your images, to edit them, to create slick albums and web portfolios out of them.
Great. But do you actually need all the functions in these pieces of software? And is it really worth remortgaging your house for them? Probably not. In fact, going for the all-singing, all-dancing option can dent your productivity – you’ll start to wonder, and worry, if you ought to be using more of the features.
Instead, stick with what you know, and make sure you know it inside-out. If you’re a die-hard Lightroom user, that’s great! There are loads of ways to simplify your editing process, organise your files, and publish to the web from within the programme. Find some tutorials and make sure you know all the hacks, before you’re persuaded to spend money on something you don’t need.
Alright, Pinterest rabbit-holers and project-hoppers – this one’s for you. It’s going to be painful, but this is the tough love medicine I know you need – because I’ve been there, too. You want to get things done? You’ve got to learn to pick a task and stick with it – all the way to completion.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying you need to edit all 2,000 photos from a shoot in one sitting. But at the beginning of each day – or the end of the day prior – you need to make a list of your Most Important Tasks (or MITs). This should include 3-5 jobs, which could include selecting your final images from those 2,000 starting files, or writing a blog, or following up on five leads.
If you have a longer list, prioritise your tasks by writing A, B, or C next to each job. A jobs are your most important tasks, so complete those first, and then move onto the Bs, and so on. But resist the urge to do a bit of one, and then a bit of another – do a job in its entirety, stop for a coffee break, and then do the next job. Compartmentalising will help you focus, which means the job will get done twice as fast.
Before I implemented this system, I could start an email at 10am, and find it unfinished, hidden by 35 other browser tabs, at 3pm. Suddenly, the thought of trying to get that email finished – and I mean, what was it even about? – was the most overwhelming thing ever. Now, I just feel focused, uncluttered, and delightfully productive – and I can finish working at a decent time, too.
Don’t quite follow me? No worries. Picture this: it’s a busy day in your studio, and because your kids need to be collected from school later, you’ve got to try to get through your list of jobs between 10am and 3pm. How are you going to plan your day?
Your priorities are probably things like sending orders, designing albums, and ringing clients. All essential tasks, yes, but unless the deadline for them is today, they might not actually be the best use of a limited working day. On these short days, I actually find that it’s most productive to working on building my business.
First, split that time in half. Until noon, I want you to make those important calls, close sales, and hit send on that order. Then, I want you to down tools, take half an hour to breathe, eat something nice, and refill your mug of essential caffeinated nectar. Refreshed and reinvigorated, I want you to devote the final two and a half hours of your day to growing your business.
What sort of tasks will you be doing? It’s all the forward-facing stuff: social media scheduling, sending press releases and images to local press, applying for a stand at an event, putting an advert in a magazine. Anything you can do to get your name, and your stunning images, in front of new faces.
You can spend all your work hours producing your clients’ images, sure. But unless you commit to working on your business too, eventually you’ll run out of clients.
I have so many conversations with photographers that go a little something like this: “well, I’d love to do X, Y, or Z, but I have five shoots booked in this week, and then a wedding at the weekend, and then I have to fit client meetings in on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, and I’ve got a set of images to deliver on Sunday, and…”
Honestly, I’ve been there. I’ve been that person who thought that constantly working meant that I was a success, and having an afternoon off meant that I was a failure who wouldn’t be able to provide for my family. But you know what? It’s crazy. It’s foolish. And it leads to burn-out, which can kill off your inspiration and make you resent what you do.
The cure? Leave white space in your diary, even if, at first, that white space just represents time spent in the studio. Even better, make it represent movie night, or a day out with the kids, or a weekend away, or two hours to just sit with a good book. You are an essential part of your business, so you need to make sure your headspace is a happy one. Life’s too short for 80 hour work-weeks.
Have you been a victim of your own workflow? Or have you suffered from burn-out? Do you have any of your own miracle cures for bossing your to-do list? Drop them in the comments!