Photography in Isolation — Part 1: Goals

Let's start this series with a basic idea that will help you keep your sanity.

I should point out that since I left my job at a large publisher back in 2001, I've been, in essence, in self-isolation. That's been by choice. I've had a few opportunities to get back into the big business game and have people reporting to and working with me. I choose instead to work on my own just to give me some temporary distance from the corporate world I had been a part of. 

Sure, I shoot events and have clients I meet with from time to time. I teach workshops. But those are a smaller part of my time than the rest of what I do, which is to run my Web sites, write articles, test gear, write books, and so on. Those are done in my office by myself, with nobody down a hall I can talk to and no one I can delegate to.

Tack on the fact that I don't have a wife or even girlfriend, and no children, and both my office and my home are essentially self-isolating ;~).

So I've been doing this self-isolation thing for almost two decades. I'm the only one in the office right now (I do sometimes hire a couple of people for part time help when needed). Just like yesterday. Just like before the COVID-19 virus came along and changed things for many (if not most) of you reading this. 

Here's a key piece of advice based both upon my freelance experience and that of observing others: One thing I learned early on is that you need to wake up each morning with a plan. (If you want, substitute the word "goal" for "plan," but note what I write down below about achievement.)

It actually doesn't make a difference whether or not you will achieve or finish your plan that day. It's the process of starting each day knowing what you want to try to achieve next that's important. What is it you'll start working on after you get done with your morning ablutions and down your breakfast?

No, you can't wait until you're eating breakfast to figure that out. Your sense of purpose needs to start upon waking.

It's a mental sanity thing. When you rise in the morning with a clear idea of what you'll be doing, you're going to stay mentally healthy. You're invested in something. You have a goal. You have a reason for waking up in the first place. You spend your breakfast time thinking about the details of what you need to do, not floundering around wondering what you should do next.

Thing is, what you're going to do doesn't have to be something big. It could be as simple as "getting my desk clear of accumulated stuff." It could be "cleaning my gear and storing it properly." It could be "figuring out if I've got Photoshop/Lightroom set up properly." As we get deeper into this series, I'm going to present a number of things you might consider as a bigger goal, but you can get started with just small things you've put off.

Failure to have even a simple goal for each new day is just one way I've seen others who work in isolation start to slip towards depression. They don't have purpose, and it starts a slippery slope of negativity. You don't want to be on that slope. 

Thus, right up front I'd encourage you to start the list of things you haven't been doing, have put off, or want to do next. That list might get really long, which could be depressing to some, but it's the point from which you need to start. 

Notice that I wrote that you don't have to achieve your goal. This is the corollary to waking up with a plan each day. What you don't want to do is write out a list of things to do Monday, another set for Tuesday, another set for Wednesday, and so on. Because on Friday you'll find that, for one reason or another, you didn't achieve all those things and you get depressed a different way: you're underachieving. 

Nope, that's not the way I work. Sure, I set a goal of working on the D780 book—actually a particular section of it—for today. I may finish that section, I may not. The important thing is that I knew what I was going to set out to do, and then set out to do it. Other things can come up, or I might find that section is tougher and requires more work than I thought. It very well may turn out that tomorrow's goal will be the same as today's, because I just chewed off a multi-day goal, not one that can be done in a couple of hours. I learned a long time ago not to judge myself too harshly on how much I got done, but rather whether I knew what it was I should be working on, and starting working on that.

I mention this last part because some of the projects I'm going to suggest later in this series are not things you can do in a day. You might not even finish them before your government says "okay, go back to your regular work." That's okay. 

Apply yourself each day to a meaningful task. Take on that task as best you can. Evaluate at the end of the day whether you completed the task or need to devote more time to. Do that every day and you'll get through the self-isolation just fine.

Moreover, it's okay to fail. Failure allows you to identify weaknesses, things you didn't think about, how difficult the project really is, and more. Sometimes my plan is this: analyze why the thing I tried to do failed. Figure out what I can do to make sure a similar problem doesn't happen in the future. The scientists among you probably recognize this as just part of the scientific process: hypothesize, test, analyze, repeat. It's through applied repetition that the big discoveries are made and verified

Most of us have troubles self-analyzing. I've had 68 years of doing that as a nerdy only child with limited social skills, so I've gotten reasonably good at it, but it still helps to have "peer review" from time to time. It's why I read all emails and try to take them to heart, for instance. So if in analyzing why you didn't achieve your plan, if the reason isn't obvious to you, enlist trusted others to help you figure it out.

One final thought: for many of you, going from a daily work schedule and constant interactions with others to one where you're on your own and not doing much interacting—and then hopefully only via email or phone—requires you to adjust your "clock" but not adjust your clock, which seems like an impossibility.

Let's deal with that last part first: don't adjust your clock. When working in isolation you still need to eat breakfast, work, eat lunch, work, end the day and eat dinner. You still need to take breaks during your work stretches. There's a temptation to change things up: eat at your desk, work late into the evening because you can, and so on. Don't succumb to that. Stick to your basic schedule. Don't underwork, don't overwork, don't do non-work things where you're working. 

On the flip side, you're no longer spending time commuting, you're no longer being constantly interrupted by colleagues—though you might be by family, more on that in a moment—, you're not having to scurry off to meetings and then trying to catch up on what you should have been doing. Your basic rhythmic clock will seem "wrong." That's because you're used to cramming things into the time you have, and juggling a lot at once. 

Things will seem "slower" working in self isolation at first. Just adjust to that. Don't constantly jump to answer an email that comes in if you can avoid it. Just let things slow down to the pace they want to run at. As you run through some of the tasks I come up with or you decide are your goals during this period, take the time to think about them as you work on them. You're not in a hurry. No one's going to assess you on whether you completed your work at the end of the day. It's okay for what you thought was a one-day goal to turn into a two-day one. It's better that you get the work done right and completely, so just do that at a comfortable pace.

I mentioned family as a distraction. This is a tough one. They're going through the same thing as you, and you're all together, so the natural inclination is to just engage each other whenever you feel like it, which can be a distraction to your getting your planned goal accomplished. So part of your plan also has to be to incorporate your family into your time each day, too. Absolutely make more time for them, but try to block out "you" time for you to work on your goals (and encourage them to use that time to achieve theirs', too). I thought Mike Johnston had a great idea with his 45/15 plan. It doesn't have to be exactly that ratio, you could use 90/30 if that works for everyone. You can use anything that works for everyone and that they can agree to. When I'm at my mom's home, I tend to work in the morning, then be with her in the afternoon. The real important thing is to get everyone basically on board with whatever you plan is. 

Oh, and make time each day to reach out to others via phone, messaging, or email. Humans are social animals. You need to continue to network with others to stay sane, too, even when you're self isolated. If you get tired of talking to the same person over and over, reach out to an old friend and see how they're doing. 

As always, I'm still answering my emails every day. If you have a question that needs answering, I'll do my best, and may even immortalize it on this site.

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