Ordering the Chaos: How to Stay Organized as a Self-Employed Photographer

Ordering the Chaos: How to Stay Organized as a Self-Employed Photographer

You are going to fail because you cannot fight the chaos. I don’t believe that, but this article is very sensible and the real first line of this piece wasn’t catchy enough: structure, organization, and discipline are the foundations of being successful and self-employed. If my formative years were anything to go by, I was the antithesis of all three. Thankfully, determination and maturity seeped in and I became obsessed with how I could be the most productive, organized, and disciplined without a boss or a separate office building and with the constant lure of Netflix.

I wondered if I am the best person to write this article; surely someone who has had a successful career as a lone wolf would be better placed. However, the counter-argument is that being my own boss is so fresh that I have done enormous amounts of research and numbers of experiments with my time and it’s all very much in the forefront of my mind. I cannot sit back and reap the rewards of 30 years worth of reputation and contacts; I need to be proactive. So here are my findings and what has had the most impact for me. As is always the case with these things, I am still honing and refining it, so tips in the comments are encouraged.



We've all got goals and I've always had goals, but the difference between having these goals in some dark reach of my subconscious chilling out with football trivia and Eminem lyrics, and having them written down cannot be overstated. Why? Well, many scholars have researched the area and similar results present themselves so here's one example: Dr.Gail Matthews a professor of psychology at California's Dominican University found in a study of 267 people that you are 42% more likely to achieve goals you write down. Even outside of actually achieving the goals, there is more to be had just from setting some. Firstly, it gives you direction by outlining exactly what it is you want from your career. Secondly it will act as persistent motivation to attain those goals. Thirdly you can celebrate achieving goals and reward yourself. The third point is an important note to make. Creating goals like "get better at lighting" are not able to be quantified or measured. A better alternative would be to "complete five photo shoots with five different lighting methods".

Perhaps I take setting goals to an extreme and perhaps this section merges a little with the next for me, but I don't just set a few rough goals. I have 'life goals' written down and set as my desktop background. These include things outside of my career but a lot are focused on photography and writing. Then I have yearly goals which are printed out and put on my office pin board above my computer which I cannot help but look at multiple times per day. Finally I have quarterly goals written down in my notepad alongside my to-do lists.


To-Do Lists

There was once a time where I didn't have to-do lists and in terms of quality of life changes, my discovery of their use is tantamount to discovering fire. Firstly, all the logic and psychology of the goals bleeds in to this section. Secondly, the busier you get, the harder it is to remember everything you need to do and by when. I do two main to-do lists: the first working day of every month and then every Monday morning for the coming week. Not only does this organize your month/week, it's somewhat cathartic to angrily scratch out that task you've not wanted to do. It also quantifies your productivity in a way that you can clearly see if you're not firing on all cylinders or if you're channeling Dwight Schrute in that episode where he tries not to waste any company time.



I don't care if you hate Excel, anything that would benefit from occupying a spreadsheet ought to be in one. Every last facet of my finances is in a comprehensive Excel document and it's all color-coded. Yes it's boring. Yes I triumphantly scratch it off my to-do list every week. Yes it's necessary. Also, your accountant will choreograph a thank you dance as a display of appreciation.

Image by Flickr user Reynermedia, used under Creative Commons



Your phone buzzes and your brain secretes endorphins as you dream a Whatsapp message filled with cat pictures, memes, and date requests. Sadly, it's a work email. Don't put your phone down and return those bloodshot eyes to the lifeless neon glow of Photoshop if you can help it and reply instead. At the very least, add the reply to your to-do list. The salient message here is this: reply to emails promptly. This isn't school and the client isn't that new person you've been gazing at lovingly during English class; you don't need to play hard to get. The more prompt you are with your replies and the more efficient you are at answering questions and resolving problems, the easier you are to work with. Nobody wants parts of their job to be difficult and if you inconvenience them they will eventually try and find an easier way.


Get Some Photographer Friends

Ooh, photographer friend. Perhaps too British a reference. The point is valid, however. Having other self-employed photographers as friends is utterly invaluable. Not only can you bounce ideas off them in times of lapsed productivity, their mere existence might have more of an impact on your goals than you think. In Dr. Gail Matthews' study I spoke of earlier, she also found that 70% of participants who sent weekly updates to a friend about their goals successfully achieved them. Also, Jim Rohn's famous quote "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with" is broadly true here too. If you surround yourself with driveless, lackluster photographers whom you can out perform with ease, you won't push yourself. If, however, you shoot the breeze with photographers also desperately trying to break in to the 1%, you'll find that rubs off on you. This is why I call Annie Leibovitz every week for a catch up. She never answers, but that's why I call her.

Image by Flickr user William Warby, used under Creative Commons



This one is less linear and requires some experimentation to see what fits you, but whatever that is, daily structure underpins productivity. I stole my morning routine from Chase Jarvis: I drink a pint of ice water when I get up, I go for a walk, and then I eat some breakfast. This tends to wake me up and get me functioning as I'm rather terrible at mornings (as Chase is too apparently).

How you work the rest of your day out does require some trial, error and honing. I was discussing this recently with another Fstoppers writer Jack Alexander and he uses a very flexible system. I prefer a little more rigidity and I am currently exploring the Pomodoro Technique.


Time Management

This is far more complex than it seems at first and an area I have become obsessed with. There was a realization that I first had when writing my Master's thesis: hours worked =/= productivity. How much time you have put in to a project is in no way synonymous with how much work you have done. There were days where I would spend 12 hours working on my paper where I'd write a few lines, delete them, read a paragraph or two of a relevant book, and then toss it away in frustration; I'd open YouTube for a few minutes and then regain full consciousness 13 TED talks and 7 Vine compilations later. I would go to sleep that night irritated and stressed but with "12 hours of work" under my belt. Then, conversely, some days I would spend 3 hours writing and editing high quality work and get 10x as much done in a quarter of the time.


Technological Organization

​This section isn't just for organization; it's for peace of mind. Long gone are the days where us photographers can live like the late Bill Cunningham in an apartment filled floor to ceiling with labeled boxes. Now, damn near everything is digital, and although easier to deal with, digital files are as susceptible to damage and loss as their physical counterparts.

The first step for me is backing up. I have one large external hard drive that I run off my computer and use it how you might an internal hard drive, just with the added perk of being able to easily plug it in else where. I then have a second and more portable external hard drive with a back up that I complete once every two weeks or after a major shoot. Finally I have a third external hard drive functioning in the same way but that is kept off-site, should the worst happen (fire, flood, burglary, or meteor). In addition to this, I do have cloud based storage to which important images and documents are uploaded. My internet is slower than a carrier pigeon with a USB stick strapped to its foot, so this isn't a viable option for me to use as a primary backup, but if you're in a better situation than me with connection speed, it's certainly a great tool.

Finally, a synced calendar is essential. For you Apple folk, I am reliably informed that iCal is a good choice but there are myriad applications of this sort and I personally use Google Calendar.


I mean it when I say, I'm keen to hear other people's tips and findings in this area. Until I stole Chase Jarvis's morning routine about five months ago, I achieved a lot less in the first few hours of my working day. The point being, even a seemingly small and innocuous tip can have a profound impact.

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Jon Sharman's picture

5 stars for your Inbetweeners reference.

Simon W's picture

This is probably the kick up the backside I need at the moment - the start the day routine appeals to me.
Excel - I hate it too, but it's definitely a good thing!

Deleted Account's picture

great points Robert

Multi-tasking towards a single-goal seems to be the balance that I've found is the hardest and best to achieve. If we're doing lots of small things that can come together into one big thing, then we're usually on the right track.

A lot of times photographers get frustrated and lose motivation when they are too open-minded about outcomes and haven't picked a single trajectory OR they have picked a trajectory but can't yet manage all of the small daily tasks necessary to achieve it.

Dan Haverty's picture

I'm a struggling semi-pro due to almost every issue you list above. Thanks for your sharing and mostly for sharing when you feel ill equipped to do so. I feel this would be something I may have written if I ever get my act together.