One of the main motivations for our move to Australia was the hope of a better lifestyle. Since arriving Down Under I’ve embraced this by building a set of positive habits to help bring that about. Early rises, daily runs, green tea, reading and writing are all part of the ’new me’. Bacon butties have even been replaced by fruit and yoghurt for breakfast, and my alcohol consumption has dropped dramatically. I'm conscious that when jumping into similar health regimes, I've been motivated for about 2 weeks and then it’s all blown up with a return to lie-ins, beer and pies. So given I'm only 11 days in I should probably remain cautious about this being life-long change. Yet I'm confident I'm on the right track.
The Healthy Habit
Normally diets and exercise programmes are decided on a whim, usually when you’re having a ‘fat day’ or some such. This isn’t a deep seated motivation and so once the try-hard bluster has passed the new lifestyle normally drops away.
I haven't always been a big bloke. 7 years ago I was training 3 times a day for triathlons. What feels like yesterday is actually now 'once upon a time'. When I was training I was strongly focused on building positive habits in terms of nutrition and training. I knew that dedication to healthy eating and exercise would lead to positive results. Most of this was automated by habits, I would train and eat well without thinking about it or missing anything. Indeed the thought of not training and breaking the habit was worse than the physical pain of training.
Ultimately the need for hip surgery and laying up for 6 months meant that all of my good habits ended and a descent into unhealthy living began, yet to be reversed.
What's different this time from my subsequent failed attempts is my determination to rebuild these positive habits, knowing that in the long term they will reap health benefits. Instead of worrying about results - how many kilograms I have lost this week, how few calories I ate, how far I can run, etc - my goal is to ensure I perform the habits daily and trust that the results will come. It’s easier to focus on pulling on the running shoes each morning than it is to worry about the longer term goal. One step at a time.
The Photography Habit
For those readers who are already fit and healthy I’ll halt the fitness talk here. I may post another time if anyone is interested in my plan and my progress.
However thinking about this led me to reflect that most success in our lives is achieved through adopting positive habits, whatever they may be. And this would include photography.
For example, I recall that a real turning point for my photography was when I realised that it wasn’t enough to just go out with the camera when I could or when I felt like it. Instead I made a conscious decision to sacrifice other things (sleep mostly!) and develop the habit of going out for sunrise every Saturday morning.
When that alarm went off on Saturday morning regardless of the rain on the window or a lack of phojo (photographic mojo, gerrit?) I would pull on my outdoor gear, grab my camera bag and go and make photographs. More often than not these would be rubbish. In some ways my Lightroom catalog is littered with the equivalent of photographic corpses, those mornings where I’d force myself out to make photographs and come home disappointed wondering what the point was.
Poor Results are Inevitable
But from such frequent and repeated trips out I have also made some of my best images. On mornings that looked totally rubbish, the light would change or I would suddenly find a subject or composition I loved and everything would click. I always like to think that the mornings of disappointment are not wasted rather they’re necessary steps to become a better photographer and produce better images.
Your process and your vision are muscles that need exercising, and you have to keep them in shape. As with running you won’t run a personal best every time you pull on your runners, but those slower runs help you build up to deliver the PBs in later runs. And so you can’t produce your best work every time you venture out, but all of those failed attempts lead you to the point of doing so. Dedication and hard work are always rewarded.
I often hear photographers say is that they’re lacking phojo (I say this too btw). I wonder if having this habit of just going out helps get through that. Not focusing on the result, or expecting a moment of inspiration, but just putting the shoulder to the wheel and working through it.
I’ve found that when I’m struggling I don’t see a distant light at the end of the tunnel getting closer and closer. Instead I tend to burst out of the darkness into the bright light most unexpectedly. Once my eyes adjust I know what I’m doing and what I want to achieve, and I enter a state of flow. That’s not going to happen sitting at home.
I think particularly for the developing photographer turning photography into a habit rather than something you fit in makes a huge difference. It helps put us in the right place at the right time, knowing we wouldn’t be there without the times that didn’t work. It helps us to get beyond lack of motivation rather than hoping for inspiration to strike. It helps build our Vision, improve our process, and practice at becoming a better photographer.
Don’t expect and don’t worry about producing great work every time; it's impossible, just like a runner won’t set a PB every time. But if you keep getting up, keep going out, then the results - I guarantee - will follow.
5 Things that Might Help
Here are 5 things from my own experience that might help with building your own photography habit:
1. Find a Trigger
The trigger is the event that makes you perform the habit. Think of it as "when X happens I do Y" where X can be any notable event and Y is photography. For me the X is 'when I wake up'. For you X might be when lunchtime arrives, and Y might be go for an hour long walk with your camera. Or when you've had your evening meal then you go out with the camera.
A habit is much easier to maintain if there is an identifiable trigger because then it is easy to automate the decision making in your head.
2. Remove obstacles
Obstacles are those things that block you from the habit, normally as a result of some internal thought process. "The forecast looks rubbish." "It's raining". " "My new lens hasn't arrived". "I'm tired". "I'm hungry and have no food". "I don't know where to go for the best image". And so on. My head can throw up an inexhaustible list of reasons not to go out.
Make it easy for you to just do the habit without thinking. Have the bag packed up and everything else you need by the front door. Prepare something to eat the night before. Put the alarm clock on the other side of the room so that you can't switch it off and keep sleeping. Getting up is the hardest bit, once you're up everything else is easy.
You want to make it as easy as possible to get from your trigger to on location as possible, and remove the opportunities for your mind to trick you into not going out.
3. Communication is Your Friend
Most of us are time challenged because of family and work commitments. It's unlikely your boss will be very sympathetic when you try to negotiate for photography time (worth a try though!) but hopefully your partner will be. Those that love us want us to be happy and want us to achieve our goals. They will try to help us if we're not being unreasonable.
Try to agree a weekly 3-4 hour period or whatever you can where there's an expectation that you'll go out. Saturday early mornings were perfect for me and I'd often be home for breakfast so it didn't disturb family life too much.
Be aware of danger number 1 here - time creep. This is where you start pushing your luck and keep asking for more and more time. Then your partner no longer sees 'photography' as that positive thing you really want to do, but rather sees it as a threat stealing you away from your family responsibilities (been there, done that!).
4. Prepare to Sacrifice
Believe it or not, there ARE enough hours in the day, it's just that we either don't use them wisely or are trying to do too much. We are all trying to cram more and more into already busy lives.
If photography is a priority in in your life then that probably means that other things need to take a back seat. That might mean getting less sleep and drinking less on a Friday night. It might mean missing an important football match or your favourite TV show. It might mean spending less time on social media to get other things done so that you can go out. It could mean any number of things. The important thing is that if you already have a busy life then 'finding time' for photography on a frequent and regular basis becomes nigh on impossible. If it's something that's important to you then make the time by giving up something else.
Conversely photography might be something that you like to do when you have the time or when on holiday. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, enjoy it for what it means to you. Be realistic and see your results in the life context in which you make them, rather than falsely judging yourself against the masters of photography who dedicate their life to it. Better yet, don't judge yourself against anyone and you'll be much happier!
5. Be Kind to Yourself
Yes, conditions were rubbish. You didn't get a good image. You didn't bump into Inspiration once while out in the field. It was a waste of time. And so on. Don't do this. Remember we're in it for the long game, and that means some days will just be totally rubbish. I have more failed shoots than successful ones, it's perfectly normal.
They are balanced by the awesome days. Perhaps not fully, but remember the phrase "it's morning's like this that make it all worthwhile"). Stay positive. Believe in the habit. Believe in next time. If seeing other people's amazing images make you feel even more inadequate, unplug from social media for a while.
Keep On Keepin' On
Hopefully that gives you some food for thought and some ideas for building the photography habit. Many words have been written on the 10,000 hour rule, the 10,000 photos rule, that work and dedication always win out and so forth. Photography is no different. Just because this is 'art' doesn't meant that we have to leave our fate in the hands of mystical muses and eureka moments of inspiration. As Pablo Picasso said, "Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working". Build the habit. Keep going out. The results will certainly follow.
I read Superhuman by Habit recently which helped me to recognise my good and bad habits, and issues I've had in the past with habit forming. As with most good advice it's not rocket science and some part of me knew it already, but this book really laid out the challenges we have with habit forming which I instantly recognised. If you feel like you have also been a poor habit former in the past, then this short and pretty cheap book may help you in the way that it's helped me. You can get it on Amazon here (affiliate link).