Getting It Done

In Creativity and Inspiration, Freelance and Business, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons by David61 Comments

NYC, 2010. The outside wall of a Brooklyn Clothing store.

I’m in Iceland right now, so this one was auto-posted. See y’all when I get home. I hope to get time to send a postcard, but don’t hold your breath. The tent doesn’t have wifi.

I had to laugh today when I got yet another couple of comments and emails asking how I get so much done. Caffeine? Red Bull IV Drip? No sleep? Secrets gleaned while in Bhutan? I’ve never been to Bhutan, so that can’t be it.

It’s true, I do seem to get a lot done. But then I’m single. I have no children. My play and my work are the same thing. And this is what I do for a living. So before you get down on yourself for being less productive, remember that I’ve also got fewer things pulling me in other directions. I can’t imagine doing what I do if my context were different. I’d slow down considerably if there were other factors. And one day there will be and I’ll just get less of these things done in favour of other things. And that’s OK. But I believe life is short and we get meaning from our work (among other things), so I work hard at the things I love. I think I also work smart and in 20 years of making a living as a self-employed creative, I’ve learned a thing or two about making ideas happen and getting things done.

This isn’t a photographic post but it relates to getting things done, and that’s relevant for everyone who’s ever had an idea begging to be made real, begging to be created. So here’s a few thoughts about productivity.

1. Prioritize. Know what matters and what does not. We get so distracted by things that do not matter, we spend hours chasing our tails. Don’t be afraid to say No. In fact, learn to make No your first reaction, then change it to Yes if the thing you’re debating fits into your priorities. If you don’t know your priorities then this is much harder, so that’s where you need to start. Write it down. “This week/today my top 3 priorities are _____________________” The rest has to wait. Put an hour aside at the end of the day for doing non-priority stuff so it doesn’t pile up, but do first things first.

2. Know How You Work. Don’t try to put a square peg in a round hole. If you need to go to a coffee shop to work, do it. If you need to listen to music, do it. Whatever makes it easier for you to be productive – get comfortable with it. Some of us work better in 2-hour chunks in the early morning every day, others need a couple late nights a week. Not everyone is productive in an 8-hour stretch at a desk. If it ain’t working for you, don’t do it. And when you find what does work for you, make it happen. I work best at a coffee shop with Van Morrison, so each morning I get on my Vespa and go to the “office.” Most days I get more done there in 2 hours than I’d get done sitting in my home office in 6 hours.

3. Find Balance. I know, I stink at this. But when people I assume I get no sleep they couldn’t be more wrong. I almost always get 8 hours of sleep. Heck, I often take naps in the middle of the day. Exhausted people are not productive, lucid, healthy, or creative people most of the time. I know some of you think you’re functioning really well on 5 hours, but I’d be willing to bet you’d do better on 8. I know, some of you can’t, in which case you need to work even smarter. But I’m sticking by this – I think rested people get more done. So do people who eat well, take time for themselves, and spend time with the ones they love.

4. Kill the distractions. If you don’t have enough time in the day, stop watching TV. Reduce the number of blogs you read. Stop reading the papers and the magazines. Go on the low-information diet that Timothy Ferris recommends in The 4-Hour WorkWeek. Try it for a week and see if it doesn’t free up your time and attention.

5. Batch your Tasks. If you check Twitter for 5 minutes every half hour that’s not only a tonne of Twitter time, it’s also a loss of the time it takes to wind down and ramp back up on the tasks you should be doing instead. Multi-tasking is not the best use of most people’s time. We just aren’t wired to do a million things well. And if, like the sleep thing, you think you are functioning really well as a chronic multi-tasker I still suspect you’d do even better if you increased the period of time over which you focused on singular tasks. Look at the things you do often in the day and see if you can do them less frequently. Do it for 30 minutes at the end of the day instead of 5 minutes each hour for 6 hours. Same amount of time, but more concentrated attention on that activity, as well as on the other tasks from which that activity distracted you.

6. Do The Thing You Fear. If the worse thing you have to do today is kiss a frog then do it first. Get it over with. Often the thing we most fear is the thing that has some of the highest benefits for us, and fearing it distracts us from other things. Suck it up. Take a deep breath. Do it. Move on.

7. Make A CheckList. Write it down. Put a checkbox next to it. When it’s done, check it off. Look back over that list at the end of the day, as well as the end of the week, even the end of the month. Much harder to let tasks slide by when they are written down and the empty checkbox is taunting you.

8. Break It Down. If the thing you have to do is so large and intimidating that you just can’t seem to start in on it, break it down. Don’t eat the whole salami, just eat it slice by slice. Instead of putting Write Book on your checklist, break it down into pieces and begin with Brainstorm topics for book. Outline Book. Spend 2 hours writing Introduction. Small bite-sized pieces allow you to get moving, steer a moving ship, and begin to make some progress – momentum is hugely motivating and before you know it you’ll be half-way through a list of small tasks instead of still staring down one large one.

9. Find The Empty Spaces. I need 30 to 60 minutes to do solid work. 2 hours is best. But when those larger slots get eaten up with lots of little details, they stop being useful. So I do the smaller tasks when I can’t do the larger ones. I bring my laptop to the doctor’s office and clear off some emails in the 15 minutes I wait. I take my iPad on the bus or in a cab and I catch up on blogs or reading articles I haven’t had a chance to read. I find spaces in my day to get the smaller tasks done in order to keep larger slots open. It’s the “Put the big rocks in first” approach. Fill the little spaces with little tasks so there is always room for the big tasks in the big spaces. I know, seems simple, but it’s amazing how often we let those little moments get past us, and then we get a free afternoon and drown in a sea of little things we could have taken care of here and there. I use time on planes and in hotels and airport lounges to get things done instead of just sitting and staring at my watch. Sitting waiting for your son to come out of hockey practice? Don’t freak out because he’s late, do something with that unexpected 15 minutes. Read something. Reply to an email. Call a friend you’ve been meaning to call. One task accomplished and less stress when staring down the bigger things, just don’t “kill time.” Never, ever kill time.

These are just some of the tactics that work for me, but driving them all is one thought that I think is most important: Redeem your time. Time is not money. To even compare the two trivializes our most limited, non-renewable resource. Time is far, far, more valuable. Life is very short; once it’s over it’s over. That knowledge is what makes it easy to prioritize, makes it easy to say no to the unimportant, and to work hard in the time that I have. Because the better I can manage this stuff the more time I have to do the things that are most important to me – time with friends, time to travel, to write, to create, to make a difference. I only have, what? 50 years left in which to do it all (if I am really, really lucky) – and while that 50 years may seem like an eternity now, in hindsight it will feel like a vapour, a breath. That perspective makes it much easier, for me, to make the most of the time I have now. Because my bucket list is long, my loved ones are many, my best work is still waiting, and my days are only getting shorter.


  1. I found this blog earlier today and I need to say that it is awesome. When it comes to organising your time and making things done – check Brian Tracy’s “Eat that Frog” book or his videos on YouTube.
    Now, back to reading. πŸ˜‰

  2. Hey Dave,

    Just wanted to thank you for the ever-so helpful and inspiring blogs. They constantly re-fuel me on my path to becoming the ridiculously brilliant/successful photographer I’m destined to be πŸ˜‰


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  6. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has an exhibit of memories (photos and comments) over its hundred year history. There’s a story there about the man who grows and cares for the bonsai trees. A reporter was watching him work slowly and carefully, and finally commented that his work must take patience. He looked at her and said, “Patience is unnecessary when you are doing what you love.” Since I thought to say this here, there must be some relevance somewhere to the topic but perhaps it’s just a worthwhile thought.

  7. David, thanks for this wonderful piece of writing. You are right, life is short, so we’d better pick the right things to do before it’s too late.
    So I just decided to follow one of the hints: stop reading blogs! But not your though!
    No joke, you wrote pretty hintful stuff in there that I’ll start to apply in my life, both at home and at work. Thanks David.
    Btw, lucky you beeing in Iceland. I’ve been there last year for work , on the east cost. What an island! I’ve never seen something like taht before. I just hope I’ll be able to go back there one day.

  8. Great post David. I once bought “4 hour work week. That say it all. I like your writing and you images. keep it up!


  9. Author

    Oh Gale, how right you are. A Vespa makes everything better, happier, more productive. Sitting on a Vespa cures cancer, raises the dead, and when world peace is ushered in it will come on a parade of Vespas, led by unicorns, probably, though I’m guessing about that last part.

  10. This is the reason I love your blog. Its not only about photography its more about Life. Thank you so much for sharing all this.

  11. David, thanks so much for the post and answers many of the questions I’ve been having. I think your disclosure at the start of the post is most telling, that you have relatively fewer commitments. As I said, I feel like I’m being pulled in so many directions that yes I need to balance that with the rest of my life (or risk getting divorced and not seeing my kid grow up!). I’ll be honest that none of your tips are rocket science (and time management rarely is to be honest, it’s good ole common sense in most cases) and as a manager in my work life they’re things I was already aware of but you’ve written and explained them as eloquently as ever and reaffirmed that I’m not missing something big! I think one of the funny things about having to deal with all that time management stuff at work, I leave the office and want to leave the “work” behind, but the principles apply as much (if not more!) to one’s personal life. I think it might be cos we switch into lazy mode, leisure mode, whatever but following the same steps helps us maximise our time without the inevitable frustration that one feels as your desire to do things outweighs your capability to do them!

    Thanks again for the post.

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  13. Productivity is important, yes. But ultimately, it is about compromise. Our material existence is finite. We cannot do (or have) all that we want to do and have in this life. So, what are we living for? In other words, what truly answers our infinite need for beauty and love? I think answering that question (it is a personal one) helps all the rest fall into place.

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  16. Great post, David! I think that this issue is something that many creative folks struggle with, perhaps even more than other folks who are more left brained oriented. In any case, definitely words to live by, and I really appreciate you taking the time to post!

  17. Great post, David. But the first point for me is always, “Don’t put it off.” I have a terrible habit of saying that I’ll make that list, edit those photos, scout for locations, tomorrow… and tomorrow something else happens. It goes doubly for things I don’t want to do, like hitting the gym. My goal this year was to cut back on procrastinating and start DOING.

    My blog has been invaluable in that respect. It’s my teeny corner of the internet, mostly inhabited by cobwebs, but having deadlines to stick to has helped me immensely.

  18. I’m sitting here in front of my PC trying to find something interesting to say for this post. Never dropped a note to you before so this is a bit like: “Hey David, I love your stuff buddy, they’re very inspirational for me…” Or whatever…..

    Thing is that I red two of your books and I’m now into the third one, the Lightroom “vision”. I enjoyed them all, I have learnt something. Thus the greatest “secret” I can envision in each one of them is: “BE DETERMINED”.

    Vision, skills, technique, maybe they can all come when you work hard and are willing to learn your duties, but if you are not FOCUSED in what you are doing, if you are not consistent and truly, deeply and emotionally determined and involved, you’ll get nowhere.

    This works for photographers, dentists, musicians and athletes. Sometimes even for politicians, when they don’t take the wrong route….

    Your books, from my humble point of view are “different”, and so nicely written, even for a non-English person like me, that they really play in a league on their own.

    I believe that at the end saying β€œthanks” sounds like a decent reason for having started this raving writ. I was looking for something more refreshing or literate but I ended just being merely polite. Well is darn late here now, and I should be sleeping πŸ™‚



  19. I absolutely agree with cutting out TV. For me, it was a huge time sink in the evenings, and I’d find that I was watching stuff and then wishing I had the hour of my life back. I record the 1 or 2 shows that I’m interested in and don’t turn it on. Another thing that I discovered is that I’m a news junkie online and if I just stop reading news sites all the time I get much more productive.

  20. I think it’s so important that you put “Prioritize” as your first point, because that’s really what life is about, isn’t it? Choosing the things and people that really are important and concentrating on them. For people with family/children it becomes even harder to make time for your passions, especially (I think) for women. I look at someone like Thomas Hawk and, while I admire him having such an ambitious goal (a million finished, processed photographs before he dies), I feel sad when I think of all the time he’s not spending with his children as he pursues his dream. My son is grown now and so now is my time. If family genetics has its way, I’ve got a good 45 or so years left. πŸ™‚

    Luckily it’s raining in Vancouver today, thus removing the distractions of weeding the garden, chopping wood, building stuff…

  21. Sorry for starting to pry earlier. I believe us readers all appreciate your transparency and heart to share with us all the time. I personally enjoy learning from your journey in a photographic life.

    And you’re so right about killing the distractions. Studying away for home allowed me to kill the habit of watching TV. I read less but higher quality material now (I think, anyway). Even time to let the mind rest is valuable. If only we can start with those you pointed out and build them into our habits, then we can chase our dreams and passions better!

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  23. Hey David;
    I don’t seek balance, the ego seeks balance, I allow nature to create my homeostasis which is ground in love.

    I have clients and they love me because of my passion and I still meet publishing dead lines.. πŸ™‚

    Your right about the caffeine…. πŸ™‚

    Be Well My friend and thanks for responding !
    I think “Vision is Better” with more coffee …lmao

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  25. You know the old joke, what’s the definition of a bachelor? That’s a man who never made the same mistake once.

    I’ve paid a price for it in my life – frequent lack of intimacy (which, in spite of what a lot of female acquaintances say, is NOT because of what they interpret as my seeming fear of it), no progeny (that I know of, at least). But whenever a decision came down to the wire – my passion or a relationship – the passion won out. It could be argued that I never found the right woman – and I’d have to agree with that – but I’m still looking, and I’m still shooting and processing and printing and showing and playing music and writing books while I look. If I find, great, if not, I’ve lived a very fulfilling and creative life with no regrets.

  26. David,

    Thanks for another great post, and for me, the most important. This couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’ve been overwhelmed with looking for a job, working on my craft, reading your books and those of others in guiding me to make a living in photography, along with doing all the other things that come with owning a home and trying to keep my personal life balanced. I was told the other day that I’ve been doing a pretty lousy job of it. I saved “Getting It Done” as a PDF and printed it out to share at home, and think it will help me tremendously.

    I still have no greater desire than to become a vocational photographer, but I have realized that I need to get a job first, and then work on figuring out everything I need to do in the way of defining my vision, marketing, etc. I am determined to make it happen, but am now okay with the idea that it won’t be within the next year or two, and it’s probably better that way. I’ll be more focused and it won’t be out of a sense of blind passion or panic that I make the transition; it will be very deliberate and done when the time is right.

    I hope I can buy you a cup of coffee someday… hell, for all the guidance and inspiration you’ve provided, I should buy you a whole Starbucks! πŸ™‚ For now, I’ll just offer a very heartfelt “Thank You”.


  27. Author

    Piet – you and I are going to be friends, I can tell already! See you in, what, a month or so? πŸ™‚

  28. Well David, it’s your fault… You always say that your e-books are only the price of a Latte. So I guess Lou decided not to buy any of your ebooks and use the money he saved to buy 30 coffees instead (and probably drink them all in one go) πŸ™‚

  29. Author

    Wow, Lou, did I hit a nerve with this?

    One finds – or seeks balance – because for some of us this is what we do for a living and it’s not all about passion and creating. It’s about email and Twitter and blogs and phone calls and clients. And if you don’t seek balance you end up doing more of that stuff than actually creating what you love.

    Sell my warm fuzzies? Lou, my warm fuzzies are free, you don’t have to pay a penny for them. But if you don’t like ’em, then I’m told the internet is full of other blogs. But shouldn’t you be out creating and not spending time reading (and commenting on) blogs? Maybe it’s time to lay off the coffee…

  30. Ohhh Man come ON!
    Find Balance????
    Is this joke ???
    How does one balance with passion and burning desire to create in ones soul?
    Oh, I get you spout these warm fuzzies, LIKE SEEK BALANCE and try and sell it.
    Try to KEEP REAL! Please!
    Cheers πŸ™‚
    Lou out

  31. I think the most important advice here is – to truly understand the value of your time. When you understand that the time you have will never repeat, and start valuing your time dearly, then you’ll find ways to spend time much more effectively and on the really important things for you.

  32. I don’t watch TV and limit my intake of bad news, …but I’m not sure I could do without blogs πŸ˜‰

    Thanks for this, David. After watching the creativeLIVE downloads and hearing you talk about intention in a photograph, it strikes me that many of us lead busy, modern lives without much intent. Making time for intentional observation is going to the top of my list!

  33. Thanks David, I completely respect your privacy, and right to have a personal life. Like I said, I wouldn’t have even mentioned it if I didn’t think it was relevant to the discussion.

  34. Wow, great post. As usual powerful because of its honesty. If I could add one thing. I have worked for the past 15 years doing something I hate. My one piece of time management advice is that is is impossible to optimize your time use if you don’t love what you do. I speak from experience. If what you do turns your stomach you will procrastinate, avoid prioritizing, making lists and focusing on the important tasks. You will favor filling up your day in order to get it over with rather than treating it like the precious, irreplaceable commodity that it is.

  35. Author

    @Mits – Best thing I can suggest is make a list of the photographers you’d like to learn from, see if they’ll let you take them to coffee of something and ask them if they’d be open to spending more time with you in some way. You just have to ask and be willing to get time where you can. But chose people you respect – no point learning from people whose biggest selling point as a mentor is mere availability.

  36. Author

    @DT – Absolutely – and as I said to Marcus, this is why productivity is so important. I dislike the line between work and play and do my best to blend the two, but sometimes work is just work and I’d rather get it out of the way fruitfully so I can go do other things. Like smelling roses, etc. πŸ™‚

  37. Author

    @Marcus – No, I wouldn’t. I’ve chosen not to go into more detail on the personal issues for just that reason – they’re more personal than I care to get. I try to be authentic and transparent and so I’ve chosen to be honest about being single right now, but I think it’s best I leave my struggles and failures in this regard to my closest circles. I believe you must get things done productively if you are to have time for the most important things in your life – family and friends foremost among them.

  38. This reminds me of an earlier quote – I believe from you – “There’s no reward in tiptoeing through life, only to make it safely to death!”

  39. I don’t mean to pry, but it seems germane to the topic As others have noted, you mention that you’re single. In previous posts, you’ve talked about your wife. Reading between the lines, (i.e. your series in Italy), would you say that getting it done came at the expense of your marriage?

  40. Great post, and wonderful reminder! Lists help me… I seem to get them done faster and more efficiently with checklists. Also batching the lists! Thanks David!

  41. I live by the checkbox! I even use a graph paper notebook for my lists so the checkboxes are built in! Whenever I let my checkbox lists lapse, chaos and lack of productivity start to creep in at an alarming pace.

    I even find they help with filling the small empty spaces. Have 10 free minutes? look at the list… there’s usually something that can fill it up.

  42. I wish I could find a printer friendly version of this (and other) articles. Great article though.

  43. haha, maybe your next ebook should be on wellness and productivity! anyway thanks for another spectacular post. great one to start off my morning

  44. All true, but it’s also okay just to do nothing – take time out to smell the roses – without feeling guilty πŸ˜‰

  45. Amazing how much this article reminds me of the time management problems I have encountered in my own life for the past few years. I also made some changes:

    Kill the distractions.
    I don’t watch TV anymore for more than five years now. I cancelled my cable subscription. I don’t read newspapers and magazines as well. And I reduced the blogs I follow daily.

    Find The Empty Spaces.
    This is a great suggestion that I can recommend to everybody. I do the same thing, filling the gaps instead of watching the minutes ticking.

  46. My wife and I decided to throw away the tv last year. It was easliy the most productive thing we’ve ever done.

    And a few months ago after reading Vision Mongers I took your advice and started adding checkboxes to things to do that I’d written in my Moleskine. I’m so much more productive now.

    Oh, and whenever I start feeling lazy I think of ressistance from the War of Art and do my best to suffocate the hell out of it.

    Life’s much better as a result.

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  48. You nailed it right on the head David. I find I spend too much time on other photographers sites instead of creating new material of my own. That’s my goal I am going to write down today. Thanks David for the insight.

  49. Good advice that applies to any (a)vocation. It still takes discipline, which is something I seem to lack the older I get. First on the checkmark list: give myself a kick in the backside. Hah!

  50. I’m so happy to have stumbled upon you and your work David.
    You are so real, and you validate the feelings wesall experience at one time or another as photographers.
    Feelings of self-doubt and insecurity are what hold us back in our creativity, and you making those feelings real.
    Thank you for all you do!

  51. David,

    How does your wife cope when your away travelling on assignments? Must be quite difficult I assume

  52. I spend too much time fretting about how I’m wasting time fretting about wasting too much time. Seriously.

    Yes, it makes my brain hurt too!

    Saying that, I also try not to ‘kill time’ if I can help it. My fall back is to try to engage my senses when my brain is idling.

    For example, waiting for a bus that just isn’t coming becomes much more enjoyable if I don’t get annoyed, but rather view it as an opportunity to observe. It’s amazing how rich an experience something as mundane as a late-running bus can become, if you’re focused on watching and listening to the world around you. There’s plenty on offer if you pay attention.

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