Stay motivated for the long run

“I like to think of goals as dreams you have with deadlines attached.”

It’s a pleasant image from Jonathan Robinson, a psychotherapist, author, and professional speaker who specializes in teaching people how to improve their focus, memory, and communication skills. Robinson, who appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” numerous times and has been published in USA Today, Newsweek, and the The Los Angeles Times, believes that to be successful in business, you need to find what’s draining away your business momentum. In other words, where is the leak in your system?

Robinson makes the analogy of a balloon with a tiny hole in it. If there’s a minuscule, imperceptible hole in the balloon, all the air will leak out. The balloon could be 99.9% intact, but it’s still useless so long as the hole lets all the air escape. The correlation, of course, is that you could be doing almost everything right in your business, but if you’re operating with a flawed plan, it won’t matter, and you’ll end up deflated.

Jonathan Robinson
Jonathan Robinson


For a lot of people, the leak can be found in their motivation to do the little things that build an effective business. It’s the lack of long-term goal setting and consistently pursuing those goals that brings down most businesses. “People don’t know how to stay motivated, long term, to do the things that make sense for their business,” says Robinson. “They tend to be inconsistent with actions that aren’t fun. But if you really want to get to the next level in your career, then you have to be willing to do those little, difficult things every week.”

It’s easy for photographers to suffer from this type of leak because people drawn to this occupation didn’t become photographers to be marketers or businesspeople. They became photographers because they’re artists. But even highly motivated businesspeople have a hard time staying consistently motivated to do hard things over a long period of time. They may understand these things intellectually, but there’s a big difference between understanding and doing.

Robinson recommends building a support system to get the guidance and accountability you need. He suggests using one or a combination of four tactics:

Coaching: Find someone who knows about marketing, small business management, or whatever business skills you lack. Meet once or twice a month, talk about what you should do, and make a plan.

Buddy: Seek out a friend with whom you can check in, share ideas, challenge each other, and hold each other accountable. Your business buddy can be a peer in your field or someone from a different industry who understands the challenges you face.

System: Systematize the processes that will make you successful. Write them down. Make them repeatable and improve them over time. A system provides structure to guide your daily activities.

Method: Find a method that motivates you to pursue key activities. Set goals and attach a reward or punishment at particular milestones. For example, your method could be to call a set number of new leads, read a book about marketing, and call your three best clients to see how you can help them.

When it comes to establishing a productive tactic, Robinson likes to increase the motivation through negative reinforcement for failing to reach a goal. “People tend to be much more motivated by the desire to avoid pain than the desire to gain pleasure,” he says. “For example, a person would rather avoid ripping up a dollar than work to gain $20.” So that’s the motivation Robinson recommends. If you fail to complete all the tasks in your method, you have to rip up a dollar. “There’s something about ripping up money that really, really upsets people,” adds Robinson. “If the threat of ripping up a dollar motivates you to change your life, I say that’s a good use of a dollar. It’s really more about changing your behavior.”


The next problem is figuring out where to start. Let’s say you’re motivated to fight for your business, and you definitely don’t want to rip up money, but you don’t know what to do or in what order to do things. Robinson argues that figuring out your productive business actions isn’t as hard as people think, and it’s certainly not an excuse for doing nothing.

“Don’t let the question of what to do and in what order stop you from doing things,” says Robinson. “Just do them. Worry less about the order of things than just getting into action and learning from your experience.”

Finding the right goals to pursue is like playing the hot and cold game, says Robinson. You know, the game where there’s a hidden object and someone is searching for it while others shout out “Warmer” or “Colder” as the person moves toward or away from the object. “Let’s imagine we’re playing the hot and cold game with our career,” suggests Robinson. “A lot of people think, I’ll just wait until some voice on high tells me what to do. That doesn’t work because you’re not getting any feedback. But let’s say you take action, and you move in one direction; the universe will tell you if you’re getting hotter or colder. So go in any direction, and listen to the feedback you receive.

”This feedback could come from your coach, buddy, or peer group, or it could come from the market itself. If you launch a new initiative or shift directions and your clients react negatively, that’s valuable feedback. Use it. Pivot. And move in a more productive direction.

That may sound simple, but that’s the point. Robinson asserts that most businesspeople make things too complicated and overthink what they should be doing rather than just doing. In fact, he boils down business success to an incredibly basic two-step formula:

1. Learn what’s effective—by asking people, experimenting, or doing research.

2. Do it consistently.

The key is to be open to feedback and to making changes based on that feedback. Think of it this way: The more open you are, the more money you can make, and the more successful you can be. Seeking out and listening to feedback may not be pleasant, but it leads to results. It’s like lifting weights: It may not be the most pleasurable experience when it’s happening, but it makes you stronger and you feel better in the long run for it.


Along with this rational, linear process of setting goals, taking actions, and adapting based on feedback, small businesspeople also have an intuitive process that needs to be addressed. This is particularly important for creative professionals. There are the practical, business goals and there are the creative, inspirational goals. It’s important to find balance between the two or you will never feel fulfilled.

Finding this balance might mean identifying actions that make you money and then harmonizing those with the actions that inspire you. For example, photograph a particular shot list because you know it will sell and then experiment with more innovative images during some leftover time in your session.

“Creating this balance can be a lifelong process, and it’s something you have to find for yourself,” says Robinson. “It’s like a plane with two wings. If one is stronger than the other, the plane will veer off course and crash. If both wings are balanced and equal, it will soar.”  

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