This week I relay what is essentially very simple advice about getting things done. I’ll explain this in more detail, but when considering the implementation of a new workflow element, starting a new project, or jumping into life-changing situations, the hardest step to take is starting in the first place.
When I do classroom based workshop sessions, and talk to people about keywording images, I’ve noticed a common cause for why people don’t do this. I teach a highly optimized digital workflow, and keywording images really helps you to manage your image library and easily find stuff later, but some people see it as a huge task.
The ironic thing is that later in the workflow, people take their images and put them online, and add keywords at that point. They put them onto a stock site, and add keywords at that point. If you spend the time to do this early in your workflow, the keywords are there whenever you export your images, so you reduce duplicated effort later too.
People Hate to Keyword
People understand the benefits, but still neglect to keyword as part of their digital workflow, so I thought back to when I first started keywording my images and having asked a few questions, figured out the reason why, for many people at least. In the early years of digital photography, before tools like Lightroom came along, our workflow was often convoluted, switching between various applications, and this made it difficult to really settle in to a rigid workflow.
As better tools became available, we settled into what I’m sure many find quite a comfortable system of managing and working with our images, but those first few years left us with a large number of images that were not keyworded or changed in any other way that makes management of them easier.
We then learn the benefits of something like keywording, but the thought of going back through our backlog of images can be paralyzing. We sit there at a turning point, knowing that we should start to do something, but our backlog is looming behind us like a three ton pair of shackles around our ankles, stopping us from moving forwards.
I remember when Lightroom came out, and for the first time really, it became totally easy to keyword our images. I’m a big believer in doing workflow tasks as early as possible to save time later, so it made sense to start the process right there when you important your images, by adding some generic keywords to the entire set as you transfer them to your computer. Lightroom also gave us tools to be able to easily keyword individual images quickly, so all the barriers to keywording had been removed, and yet I still resisted starting for a while, so I considered why this was the case…
Well, I’d already been shooting for many years, and at the time, it just felt like a huge task to go back and keyword my work. The task felt so daunting, that I held off starting to keyword my new images, because unless I went back and keyworded my old work, only a tiny percentage of my image library would be keyworded. This might sound stupid, but that’s how it felt, and having asked around a little it seems that this is what puts at least some other people off starting to keyword as well.
If we think about it, at that point in time, before I started keywording, 100% of my images were without keywords. Approximately 55,000 images, and not one of them had a keyword added. But I knew that with it just being so easy now to keyword, it was stupid to not just start, even if I didn’t go back and keyword my entire archive, and that’s what I did.
Let’s think about this though. I started to keyword in 2007, and at the time 100% of 55,000 digital images in my library were without a keyword. This was the paralyzing aspect. I have keyworded every one of my images shot since that point. I have created another 180,000 images since then, which means that what was once 100% without keywords, is now just 23% of my library. 77% of my images are now keyworded.
What’s more, the first 55,000 images that I shot become less and less important to me over time as I become a better photographer, so in reality, at this point it almost feels as though pretty much every photo I’ve ever shot that is worth a hoot, has at least some descriptive keywords against it, and that feels like a bit of an achievement, despite the gloomy outlook when I started to keyword.
It goes without saying, but if I’d never started, I’d now have 235,000 images without keywords. It’s important not to let the past paralyze your future. If you reach a point that you know you have to do something, really, just start!
Of course, we can relate this to much more life-changing decisions too. Back in 2010 I had a big decision to make. I was in a day-job that was gradually losing it’s hold on me, as my passion for photography grew, and the photography business that I had been building as a side job was gradually looking more and more viable as a full time pursuit.
I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this, but there was a turning point decision that I had to make that helped me to push myself over the edge, and that was my first expedition to Antarctica. I’d been given the chance to join an exhibition helping to teach photographers on a voyage down there, but because I was already running my Japan Winter Wonderland Tours, I wouldn’t have enough annual holidays left to do both. It was decision time.
Of course, we already know how that turns out. I agreed to do the exhibition, knowing that I would have to leave my day job to do it, and that’s exactly what I did, but it wasn’t an easy decision. My old job was as secure as jobs are these days, and I was being paid well.
I recall talking with my brother about the possibility of leaving my job, and being much more sensible than I am, he suggested that I wait until I retire, when I can do as much photography as I like. My reply was that it would of course be too late to live my dream. Our Dad died at 62 years old from cancer. Hell, I almost died at 44 from a brain tumor, just months after starting my business! There was no way I would wait until I retired to follow my passion. I’d lined up my ducks. It was time to take a blunder buster to them all.
Break it into Chunks
Even on a project level, people tend to hesitate to get started, through lack of time or the required skills to really pursue it. They look forward to the finished project and dream of the fruits of their labor, but the task itself—doing the work—seems so daunting that it stays in the realms of our day dreams.
Of course, if you don’t start to take action on your ideas, you will never finish anything. If your fear is about the time required to complete something, don’t set your sights on completion as your immediate goal. Break your goal into more bight sized chunks. You may for example set yourself a goal of photographing every power station cooling tower in your state or country, which of course could take years!
To make this less daunting, you might set yourself a goal to photograph just one or two each month. You could probably find out how many there are and calculate how long the project is going to take you too. Say there are 20 of them, you could decide to do two each month for 10 months, and then give yourself a goal of doing an exhibition during month twelve. If you simply cannot commit to that amount of work, do just one each month and set your goal for an exhibition at the end of year two.
Either way, breaking it down into bight-sized chunks is probably going to make the overall task less daunting and more manageable, and more importantly achievable. Don’t allow this planning phase to become your goal either. It’s important to plan, but spending all of your mental energy on thinking about starting is exactly what we want to avoid. Give your plans the attention they need quickly, then start, and you will at least then be making progress. It’s better to be moving forward in small steps than to sit around dreaming about the project.
Don’t spent too much time trying to find reasons why you can’t achieve your goals either. Even if for example, you feel that your current skill level isn’t quite where it needs to be to really do your project justice, you aren’t going to magically develop the ability to do something just dreaming about it, or spending countless hours on line researching it. Research may be necessary, but you ultimately have to do something to become competent at it, and only once you are competent at something can you continue on to become good at it, and then to possibly eventually excel at it.
Once you’ve started and made some progress, hopefully lots of progress, there is another barrier that can be just as paralyzing as the fear of starting, and that is the fear of stopping! Once you get into a project, it can actually feel quite comfortable. You’re doing the work, making progress, but don’t let doing the work itself become the goal.
Of course, some goals such as starting a business don’t necessarily have completion as a goal. It would be pretty pointless starting a business with closing the business down as a goal, but for projects with a definite outcome, it’s really important to at some point send it out into the world. Be it a gallery exhibition, publishing a book or creating a hard copy or online portfolio, at some point you will have to stop, and send it out into the world.
Some projects will be iterative of course. We don’t build a working portfolio for example and then just let it stagnate after you’ve finished it. Indeed, part of your consideration when building something like a portfolio, physical or online, is its maintainability. Your first goal though would be to complete the first iteration. Only then will you have a portfolio, but it will hopefully put you in a good position to continue to update it for future iterations.
It’s really easy to think that because you are putting everything you have into something, that you are doing the right work. Don’t let simply doing the work become the goal. There’ll be plenty more work to do, to keep your momentum going, so try not to use your current work as an excuse for not moving on to the next project either. Just being busy does not necessarily mean you are doing the work that you really need to be doing at any given point.
Prioritization of your tasks and avoiding procrastination is very important if you really want to get a lot done. There may come a time when you have to put something on hold, or cut your losses and move on to something more important instead. Having the guts to abandon a project can sometimes take more courage than taking your project to completion.
The Role of Trusted Critic
Releasing your baby into the world is yet another daunting process though. Hearing negative feedback can not only hurt, it can be very damaging, especially when you don’t understand the motives of the person providing the feedback. It’s a good idea to get feedback from people that you really trust when possible, before going fully public. My wife, and sometimes a few good friends, are my trusted critics.
Sometimes my confidence in these people starts at the project conception stage. I share my ideas with them to see if they think what I’m cooking up will actually fly. There are no guarantees of course, but this can help to give us a reality check, and at the very least, it helps me to organize my ideas just by putting them into a logical enough order to be able to explain to someone else.
As I work through my projects, I sometimes get feedback midway, but always as the projects draws to a close. Sometimes it’s not necessary, and I am so confident with the results that I simply steam ahead, but even then, when time allows, it’s better to at least run it past your trusted critic or critics, to see if you haven’t overlooked something pretty obvious, which happens from time to time.
Whether you act on that feedback is still up to you of course. If you really are working from your heart, and you believe in your project, it can sometimes be necessary to steam ahead, even if that means making your own mistakes and learning the hard way.
Don’t be Afraid to Finish
It doesn’t matter how confident you are in your new project or product, when you are finally read to push the button, alongside any excitement you might feel, there is also at least some level of anxiety. When you put your baby out there you make yourself vulnerable to negative feedback, and that for most of us can be quite scary. Fear of the work required or fear of failure can stop us from starting, but the fear of finishing and making ourselves vulnerable can be just as paralyzing. You have to overcome that though, and as scary as it can be, take a leap of faith.
After all, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Of course, you can be hurt. Someone could say that your product sucks! At the very least it might not generate all of the attention that you’d hoped. In fact, I’d say that unless you just produced something that went totally viral, it will quite often not do quite as well as we’d hoped, but hopefully it will do as well as you’d expected.
Whether your project is as big a success as you’d hoped or not, you will learn from the experience, and be stronger for not only having started something, but for having finished it. Whichever outcome you gain, once you release your baby into the world, it’s time to take stock, then rinse and repeat. As we mentioned in last week’s episode, the more you do something the better you get at it.
Learn from Your Disasters
Even if your project really is a total flop, a disaster, you’ve still gained a chance to improve. Try to figure out what you did wrong. Why it didn’t go as well as you’d expected. Try to step back and really view the wider picture though. The contents of what you created could be absolutely killer, but suffered from a lack of visibility for example.
There is a constant struggle to attract the attention of your audience, and with so much information being created every day, this is not getting any easier, so you have to figure out ways to get your word out, and give people a chance to see your work. Believe me, just building something will not guarantee that the audience or customers will find you.
Work for Visibilty
Try to find some way to attract people to your site, store or wherever you need them to be to notice what you want them to see. Of course, for me, although doing this podcast has become a part of my life, something that I look forward to doing each week, it’s also been my greatest enabler. It’s why you are here right now, and why some of you will for example take a look at my portfolios before you leave, or maybe even find yourself on one of my workshops.
Attracting more viewers of my work was my plan from the start, by providing photography tips based on my own real-world examples. The business that has grown from this is more of an organic development, but it has happened because I have spent at least one day every week for the last ten years creating something that I hope is of value. Whether you are running a business, or simply want to attract more viewers of your work, for the majority of us, it will rarely happen simply by building a web page and just hoping people will stumble upon it.
So, to recap, as daunting as some projects may seem, it’s really important to get started. Put your hand to the wheel and start to make progress, however large a task it may seem to be. Break it into more manageable chunks if necessary. Have the courage to put something on hold to make way for more important projects, or have the courage to abandon it altogether when the need arises.
Find at least one, hopefully a number of trusted critics that you can rely on for honest feedback, and act on advice from them that clicks with you. Be careful of feedback from public sources where you have no way of understanding the motives of the reviewer, and when the time comes, send your baby out into the world, and be prepared to work for the attention of your audience, or even building the audience in the first place. And when your ideas don’t fly, turn your failures into successes by figuring out what went wrong, and avoid making the same mistakes in future projects.
Pixels 2 Pigment Tokyo May 16+17, 2015
I hope that has been of some use. Before we finish, I’d like to quickly mention that we have set up another In-Studio Pixels 2 Pigment Workshop here in my Tokyo studio for May 16+17, 2015. If you would like to join us to learn how to optimize your digital workflow from capturing your pixels through to stress free fine art printing, take a look at https://mbp.ac/p2p for details.
Pixels 2 Pigment In-Studio May 16+17, 2015: https://mbp.ac/p2p
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