Do you have a folder full of ebooks, magazines and classes on your art sitting there waiting for you to open and read?
Do you spend more time than you need soaking up information and tutorials?
Do you make list after list of everything you need and want to do? Then you look at that list and don’t know where to start?
Do you ever feel overwhelmed with everything you want to do, want to learn, or want to accomplish?
Do you at times wish someone would direct you and tell you what you should be doing? Yep, me too.
There are many pursuits I love outside of photography, but I’m overwhelmed with the work I have as a photographer. I have so much to learn, so much to do, and so much I want to accomplish. I wonder if that’s even close to normal.
I recently heard the term multi-passionate, and it definitely describes me. Someone who wants to do many things that aren’t related. I think many creatives exist as multi-passionates. But as a creative, it’s taken me a long time to learn a big lesson – you can’t do it all at once. Something I know from coaching athletes but never thought to apply to my creative life.
Let me back up to say yes, you can do it all at once. But, you’ll feel like you’re spinning your wheels even though you may love what you’re doing. You get the feeling of overwhelm and frustration that you aren’t progressing.
That’s why I’m a big believer in focus. Choosing one area or maybe only a couple and concentrating on those. I’m not advocating giving up everything else entirely. Instead, choose an area and put most of your attention there until it no longer needs so much attention.
You can still dabble in your other interests, or put them aside for a little while. For example, I love design. I was a studio art minor in college and I love it. And I love photography. I also love web design and the problem solving that comes with it. Obviously with a husband, two tiny people I need to care for, my other interests and relationships, I don’t have the time to pursue everything. I need to choose a focus for the now. I still pull up Illustrator and play in the small pockets of time I find, but I decided my focus is photography.
What if you’re already focused on only one thing? You may feel like there is so much to learn and do, but of course we’re all limited in time. Even becoming better at one thing feels overwhelming.
Remember all those ebooks and classes sitting in a folder? Drill down even more and choose specific areas of improvement. For example, if you love newborn photography, then choose which area to improve first. Should you focus on composition, processing, skin, light or styling? Choose one and get to know it well.
Freeze, Give Up, or Go All In?
Every year that I coached high school track, the first week a gaggle of optimistic freshmen showed up, and all I saw was a gaggle of issues in each runner. But I couldn’t throw all their issues at them at one time. They’d look at me with wide eyes and an open mouth wondering where to even start. Or they’d feel so overwhelmed they froze, and wouldn’t work on improving anything. Even worse, they gave up. The determined ones though tried fixing all of it at once, usually making it worse. Yep, my first year coaching was a learning experience.
If instead, I told my athletes to focus on the proper form for their arms and nothing else, they concentrated and focused on that without apprehension, confusion, or feeling overwhelmed. Then, once they succeeded in fixing that problem, I moved on to the next area for improvement, like stride length. Many times, magically, when they focused on one area, other problem areas worked themselves out. It boils down to the more you practice, the more confidence and direction you’ll have.
It’s the same idea for photography, as I’m sure it is in every creative pursuit. A beginning photographer often will start naively, doing as a beginning runner might. They do what they love and don’t worry about imperfections, nor do they know what they’re doing wrong. But then, they want to improve. They search out tutorials, find mentors, take a class or workshop, and join a group. Then their eyes are opened to all the things they need to fix, pay attention to, or do. Suddenly it’s all so overwhelming.
Welcome to that place where some give up, others freeze by watching tutorials and reading, and others try fixing it all at once.
I’m sure as a creative, you find yourself in one of these situations. Do you stare at the long list you made with an open mouth wondering where to start? Do you freeze up and put it off or give up? Do you grit your teeth and try to do it all at once? Me? I tried to do it all at once, making things seriously hard on myself.
If you know this, then take a deep breath and step back. Choose one area to focus on. You may want to choose something that is close to the basics, something everyone should know and do. For example, if you’re a beginner then focus on learning manual mode or, at least, shutter and aperture priority modes. If you’re seasoned, choose a type of light you don’t shoot much of or an area that you know needs improvement. Focus on one thing and practice. Stop reading and watching and instead do. Come back to the videos, classes, and books when you need help but get out there and practice.
Improvement or Direction?
If you still feel overwhelmed or like you’re all over the map (I still do), then choose a direction. If you have no idea what genre to choose I have an exercise for you; every week choose one genre and shoot it. Make sure you go out more than once and shoot, and frequently process those photos. There’s a boatload of genres to choose from but here’s a good list to get started: Landscape, photojournalism, lifestyle, portraits, styled, studio, macro, nature, street, a storytelling series. This process will get you moving in a direction.
Among that gaggle of freshman, most of them didn’t know what direction to go in. Should they do long distance, short, or jump? We told them to choose one. Try it out and if they didn’t like it move to another event. That’s the beauty. There are options and you can give up one to do another.
If you already have direction but still feel overwhelmed, then organize your improvement. Choose an area to work on next – processing, composition, light, style? There is always room for improvement and definitely room to push your creativity, but focus on one at a time.
The thing is, when you make up your mind to improve and focus on one direction and area, it takes time. It takes less time than trying everything at once, but it still takes time. Your muscles need to remember, your brain needs to synthesize, and you need to acclimate. Be kind to yourself and enjoy the journey.
Here’s your assignment. First choose to focus on one or two improvements at a time. Second, put down the books, articles, Youtube videos, and take actual steps in the direction you choose. Consider those small steps accomplishments. Third, block out a specific amount of time every day to work on those areas of focus. Even if that block of time is less than an hour one day and only an hour another – block it out and focus in that block of time.
For example, as a coach, I focused on one problem area at a time for each athlete. Say I wanted an athlete to work on how they finished a race. I blocked out time for that person to work on it with me or an assistant. Otherwise, we’d never get to it. Excuses, giving in to tiredness or other important matters like studying always intervened. So, everyday at the end of a regular practice we’d set up cones and work on finishes. We scheduled it in, making it a priority.
As a creative, I block out a piece of my morning to write and process my photos, so I know my important work gets done. If I want to focus on improving an area of my shooting I schedule it in. Otherwise, I’d never get to it. Excuses, giving in to my tiredness, or other important matters, intervene. Don’t give in to those! Your focus is the most important thing.
It is an important point that you turn your focus into a must, and not a should. You must get that done each day. It’s required! Everything else falls under should or would be nice and is secondary.
Don’t throw all those ebooks away just yet. Instead, choose your focus, find the ebooks and tutorials that fit and focus on only those. Most importantly, get out there and create!