Productivity for Photographers: Kaizen

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on January 26, 2016

in This is Life

Post image for Productivity for Photographers: Kaizen
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

“Successful and unsuccessful people do not vary greatly in their abilities. They vary in their desires to reach their potential.” – John Maxwell

My dad died suddenly.

It wasn’t really unexpected. He had been on palliative care at the nursing home for months. The lung cancer got the best of him; he was just too weak to continue treatments.

To say I took his death poorly is an understatement.

My dad was my best friend. It would take me years to realize the depth of my grief, even though I thought I was handling everything well. Instead of feeling his loss, I went numb, logical, cold.

I got the call on my drive into work. My cell phone signal was spotty, but I could just make out the nurse on the other end, crying, and telling me my father had died in the night.


I wish I had spent more time with him in his final days. I couldn’t wrap my head or heart around the fact that he was here now, but soon wouldn’t be. I couldn’t grasp his not being there to talk to, joke with, get horrible if hilarious advice from. I’d smart off and he’d call me an asshole and we’d give each other a knowing, loving look.

I wish I’d gone to the nursing home and watched the boxing match with him that weekend he died.

I wish I’d made a lot of better decisions in my life, but none stand out so clearly when I think about the word ‘regret. ’

And oddly, when I sat down to write this post for you, regret is the word that came to mind when I thought about kaizen. Kaizen is the Japanese philosphy of small daily actions that lead to amazing improvement over time.

I want to tell you about kaizen, and how it’s helped me in my journey as a working artist, because kaizen is a powerful weapon against regret.

I wish I could get back all the time I spent crippled by my perfectionism.

I wish I would have done all the things perfectionism kept me from doing. I wish I had told him how I felt. I wish I’d have launched my business sooner and hustled harder. I wish I’d have made more art and fewer excuses.

It’s my hope that these words will help you earn fewer regrets than I have in my photography business (and life).

Why Kaizen

“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” – Robert Collier

If I start walking, I’m going to get there.

There’s something to be said for being ready, for having a plan, and for checking your compass to make sure you know where you’re going and why.

But everything you’ve done to get yourself to where you are right now is worthless if you don’t take the next step.

Kaizen is all about taking the next step.

Kaizen is about making that step small enough that you can take it.

Kaizen is a perfectionism killer. It slays enormous beasts (goals, dreams, projects), and chops them up into tiny, bite-sized pieces (baby steps).

Kaizen turns your to-do list into a can-do list.

I can’t “launch photography business. ” But I can “Call comptroller office at 555-555-5555 and ask what I need to know and do to get my sales tax permit. ”

That’s a five-minute call.

And if I try, if I practice kaizen, then I will break down my “launch photography business” project into dozens, maybe hundreds of these baby steps.

Five minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes.

If a step takes more than twenty minutes, then I break it into even smaller steps.

When my timer goes off at 20 minutes, I’m so deep into flow that now I don’t want to stop. I’m moving forward. I have momentum. I’m getting things done. I’m taking steps, one after another, and I’m seeing tangible progress.

I go from “you can’t make me” to “you can’t make me stop. ”

That is the power of kaizen.

How I Practice Kaizen

“Success isn’t a result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.” – Arnold H. Glasow

  • Break It Down: I have dreams. Those dreams are made up of goals, goals of projects, projects of steps, steps of baby steps: tiny, bite-sized Next Actions. When I take this practice all the way, the baby steps I write down feel absurdly small. I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t just take the step instead of spending time writing it down. That’s when I know I’m practicing kaizen the right way; those are the baby steps that I’ll take, one after another, to the top of the mountain of success.
  • Pomodoro It: I use timers in Chrome or on my phone, but you may prefer the real deal: the twisty tomato, egg, or ladybug. I set mine to 15-20 minutes and dig into my list of Next Actions. If I don’t start each work session with the simple, manageable expectation of just 15-20 minutes of work, I become overwhelmed; by the enormity of the project, how invested I am in its success, how much this work is a reflection of myself, or how much I don’t know yet. This is The Resistance in action, wearing the clothes of perfectionism. And if you’ve felt the same, it’s a good sign: if the work wasn’t important to you, you wouldn’t care, and this would be so easy that you wouldn’t need people like me to encourage you along your journey. Set the timer and Do The Work – everything else is vanity or distraction.
  • Momentum Precedes Clarity: Perfectionism convinces me that I need clarity before I move; that I need to know where I’m going before I can get started. I fear looking amateur, embarrassing myself, or landing on my face in front of everyone. But success works counter to popular and instinctual belief: clarity comes from momentum, not the other way around. Success comes after failure, not instead of it. As von Moltke said, no plan survives contact with the enemy. The small steps of kaizen help me to do my work with a heart of service and compassion for my clients. Absolutely everything else works itself out as soon as I take action, experiment, earn feedback, and correct course. I always find the clarity I seek, but only on the battlefield of action.
  • Bird By Bird: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Anne Lamott tells the story of her father’s advice to her younger brother when a school paper on avians was due the next day and the boy hadn’t done the work. “How am I going to get this done, Dad?” … “Bird by bird.” It’s little touchstones like this that calm me when my fear and imagination and impatience try to get ahead of the work in front of me. It can be so discouraging to look at the beautiful art and successful business of other photographers, without having seen the years of small, daily actions that made that art and business possible. Photo by photo. Handshake by handshake. Shoot by shoot. Bird by bird.

Do This, Not That

“Action is the foundational key to all success.” – Pablo Picasso

When I started practicing kaizen:

  • I stopped doing nothing when doing anything felt like trying to do too much, and I started doing something because anything was better than nothing.
  • I stopped being paralyzed with overwhelm, and started gaining speed by moving forward.
  • I stopped looking back at my day, week, month, and year, wondering what happened to the time, and started packing hundreds of little wins on the board that all add up to success.
  • I stopped ignoring all the mentors who tried to teach me better, and I started humbly practicing kaizen and seeing the results those small daily actions can yield.
  • I stopped waiting for change like I was waiting for a bus, and I started claiming agency over my life, one purpose-driven step at a time.
  • I stopped filling my to-do list with hope (and resultant disappointment), and started checking off my to-do list through consistent work.
  • I stopped fighting with my art and my business, and started enjoying the peace of every step.
  • I stopped regretting all the things I hadn’t done, and started getting done the things I’d otherwise regret.

I spent years frustrated with my inability to get important things done.

I regret all of the time I lost due to perfectionism, overwhelm, and hoping instead of doing.

Choose to act, no matter how small the action.

Save yourself a lifetime of regrets by choosing kaizen; by choosing to take the small daily actions that lead to amazing change over time.

“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” ― Marcus Aurelius

This is Part 6 of my series: 9 practices to increase your productivity as a professional photographer

Read more here:

1. Essentialism
2. Evening Routine
3. Morning Routine
4. Mindfulness
5. Five Minutes
6. Kaizen
7. Time Blocking
8. What Gets Scheduled Gets Done
9. Imperfect Action

Like this series? Subscribe at the top-right of any page of this site to get all of my best stories and ideas in your Inbox.

Next Actions

  • NO REGRETS: How many times have you chickened out? How much haven’t you done because it wasn’t going to be perfect, or you didn’t have clarity, or because you didn’t know exactly what to do? What risks haven’t you taken because you’re worried you might fail? What progress have you not made because you worried about what people would say, or that it wouldn’t be good enough, or because people would judge you or laugh at you? Who benefits from you playing small? How many blessings of your art have you not brought to the world because you’re choosing to stay miserable inside your comfort zone? You need to feel this. And it needs to hurt. Because you’re never going to change if you don’t recognize how much you’re hurting your life by not demanding action from yourself. Choose your life. Choose your self.
  • CHOOSE PROGRESS: Making progress toward my dreams so often feels like I’m riding a barrel down a river, totally out of control. There’s no steering wheel, and I’m just taking action, failing forward, and working on faith that whatever happens won’t be as bad as my fears tell me it could be. That’s when you know you’re riding the edge of your comfort zone, and making the real progress that changes your story for the better as a professional photographer. Those feelings never go away (so long as you’re doing work that’s important to you), but from experience, you learn that taking purposeful action is the best (and only) way to climb the mountain of success.
  • BRAINSTORM: Get out your pen and paper. Take any single, defined project related to your art or business. Write it at the top of the page. Now break down that project into reasonable milestones. Break those milestones into steps. Break those steps into baby steps of no more than 20 minutes time. If you can’t, break the steps down further. If you don’t know what to do, insert baby steps to find out: by way of research or, more expediently, by asking. Don’t know who to ask? Add a baby step to research who or where to ask. You’re building a step-by-step roadmap to success. Every baby step, no matter how small, puts a win on your board, and makes tangible progress toward your dreams. Now repeat this for every project on your to-do list, prioritize, schedule the time blocks so it gets done, then Do The Work. File a copy of these project details in your Brainstorms folder.
  • SUBSCRIBE TODAY: It’s my calling to help you earn your first $5,000 to $50,000 as a part time professional photographer. Don’t miss out on my best stories and ideas: subscribe to my e-mail newsletter today at the top-right of any page of this site.
  • DO THIS NOW: What’s the biggest challenge holding you back today? E-mail me your answer (yes, right now!), and let’s make a breakthrough.

Similar Posts:

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ashley February 8, 2016 at 12:16 pm

Wow I really needed to read this article! Feeling overwhelmed by the vastness of upcoming events and projects has cause me problems for years, I’ve always given up on things if they looked too hard -or more better put: not easy enough. Your article has definitely given me something to use get whip my focus into shape- and not just for my interest in photography!
Thank you for your wise and honest words, they’ve definitely got my attention!!


Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor February 8, 2016 at 12:22 pm

So glad this helped, Ashley!

The fact that you’re reading this and commenting shows you’re ready to stop spinning your wheels and make real, tangible progress.

Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures! You won’t believe how far you’ve come in the next few months.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: