How to focus on what really matters

We live in an amazing time. There is so much information at our fingertips, all the time. Photographers have access to a seemingly endless library of resources to build their businesses, perfect their processes, and hone their craft.

But it can get overwhelming—quickly. There is so much out there, so many new tools and solutions and options, that even the savviest student of the digital economy can suffer from information overload. And even if you can process all this data, how do you apply it?

Just a few years ago, Mary Fisk-Taylor, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, ABI, API, EA-ASP, co-owner of Hayes and Fisk Photography in Richmond, Virginia, struggled with this question as much as anyone. The onslaught of information was weighing her down to the point where she didn’t know what to do next. “I remember waking up one morning feeling like I was wearing lead shoes,” she says. “I was just overwhelmed by all this information. I felt like I was drowning. I had been experiencing some good years in business, but I was working too much. I needed to adjust.”

Mary Fisk-Taylor
©Jamie Hayes
Mary Fisk-Taylor will speak at Imaging USA 2020.

So Fisk-Taylor undertook the ambitious process of shifting her mindset and pivoting her approach to business. The process would take discipline and time, but the end result was a more efficient business and a less-stressed entrepreneur who could enjoy the fruits of her labor with a less cluttered mind. Everything came down to a few key changes, all designed to filter out the noise of the modern marketplace and focus on what really matters.

Adopt a growth mindset

A growth mindset is knowing that you can improve and learn from your mistakes. It’s the belief that you can get better and smarter and that investing extra time and effort will lead to higher achievement. People with a growth mindset don’t look at mistakes or missed goals as failures; they look at them and think, “What can I learn?”

“This is so important for business owners,” says Fisk-Taylor. “Often, we get stuck in a bubble, surrounded by all this information, and all we see is social media showing everyone else experiencing success, living their best lives. It’s easy to get down on yourself in that context and to think that you’re stuck in a rut. But you have to believe in your potential and believe that failures are opportunities to learn. You have to value yourself and reward your progress. Instead of being disappointed that you didn’t hit a particular goal, look at the positive impact, and how you can improve for next time.”

For example, let’s say you ran a marketing campaign trying to book 10 new sessions, but you booked only five. Instead of looking at that campaign as a failure, think of it this way: I wanted 10 sessions from this marketing campaign, but I got five. But that’s five sessions I didn’t have before. Now how can I improve this campaign to get six?

Moving to a growth mindset takes time. It’s a total change in thought process, after all. However, as growth-oriented thinking starts to take hold, you’re less likely to feel over-whelmed by all the noise because you’re better able to identify opportunities and let other items go.

Be goal oriented

Fisk-Taylor’s second major shift was to become more goal oriented. The idea is simple: You create a goal, you document it, and you pursue it. Items that don’t advance your pursuit of that goal are just distractions. You set them aside and focus on what’s important.

For Fisk-Taylor, like many photographers, the goal-setting process needs to be visual. She creates a plan for achieving each goal and writes it down. Then she schedules chunks of time needed for the activities in the plan. She gets granular and holds herself accountable to her schedule. “I record every important activity,” she says. “If I don’t schedule it, I won’t do it, so I schedule everything. So often, we blow off the little tasks that are important to our business. But when you schedule them, they become part of your day. It keeps your goals on track, maintains a cohesive message to what you’re doing, and helps you sync up with the other people involved with your business.” The detailed scheduling is tremendously helpful in streamlining a daily routine and keeping us on task, making it less likely that all the noise out there will distract us from doing what’s important.

For the longer-term goals, Fisk-Taylor does a quarterly review. She looks at goal progress, and if she’s off track, she can fix it. “It’s important to do this at regular intervals throughout the year,” she says. “If you wait until the end of the year to check your progress, it’s too late. Look more frequently so you can make changes.”

Create a focus strategy

Creating a focus strategy was a major paradigm shift for Fisk-Taylor’s studio. Often, small business owners get stuck in an endless cycle of trying to make money, at the detriment of other business-building activities. For photographers, this can mean saying yes to too many things to try to bring in revenue and filling up your schedule with work you don’t really want. “Instead, focus on your ideal client, what they want, and how you can help them,” suggests Fisk-Taylor. “Tune out the rest, because it’s not moving you toward your larger goals.”

Once Fisk-Taylor created a focus strategy for her business, she was able to zero in on more of the activities that really mattered and shed the others. The result of this process is identifying what best-selling business author Mike Michalowicz calls the “queen bee role.” If you could do just one thing at your business to be profitable, what would it be? A lot of photographers instinctively say “photography,” but you may be surprised to learn that’s not it. Maybe it’s strategizing the direction of the business. Maybe it’s designing new products or services for your clients. Maybe it’s networking with like-minded business owners to form valuable partnerships. Whatever that best use of your time is, put your focus there. Then outsource everything that you can contract out for less than what you should be paid per hour.

“This is a hard process for photographers because, as small business owners, they tend to do everything,” says Fisk-Taylor. “But when you do everything, I would venture to say that you’re not doing anything to your potential.” Try tracking your time for a few days, she recommends. See what’s eating up your hours. Do you need to do image editing? Do you need to do bookkeeping? If not, outsource them. If you could cut out even 20% of the tasks that you’re currently doing that aren’t helping your business grow, it would make a huge difference. Once you’ve successfully outsourced those tasks, look at the next place you could streamline. “People say, ‘I can’t afford to hire people for all that,’” says Fisk-Taylor. “But look at it differently. If you took all those hours that you’re doing small tasks and invested them back into your business, then you could make more than enough additional income to cover those expenses.”

Enjoy an uncluttered mind

Five years into her noise-sifting journey, Fisk-Taylor says the results have been life changing. She is less stressed, business is running smoother, and she’s working less to generate more. Yes, it was hard work, but the journey is free to anyone willing to put in the effort. “It’s like dieting,” she says. “You don’t just wake up and lose 20 pounds. You have to work at it. It’s a process. The end result, however, is empowering. You’re back in control—of your business and your life. And when you take back control, you’re stronger and more successful.”  

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.