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Using Self-Motivation & Self-Discipline to Achieve Sustainable Improvement

Published: 24/09/2019

Author: Tony Colangelo

Jackson in Fort Wayne, IN writes:

“I keep reading pieces on how to improve my real estate photography both here on PFRE and also on the various FB groups I’ve joined but is there a focused approach that I can take to make me a better photographer, sooner?  I’m really motivated to get better!”

Thanks Jackson, what a great question! I recently wrote an article in which I described some tips/techniques for coming back from a dip in quality in our images caused by complacency. Essentially, those tips were aimed at getting us back to where we were, prior to our episode of complacency. Today's question speaks to the other side of the coin--e.g., getting to where we'd like to be. So, I'd like to begin my answer your question, Jackson, by highlighting your use of a very important word: “motivation”. It's important to us because motivation is what prompts us to stay on course in our goal to improve.

To leverage our motivation, it's important to understand that motivation is an internal mechanism--e.g., others cannot motivate us. Indeed, for almost 35-years, research has been done in an area of study within the field of social psychology called Self-Determination Theory (original research done by Drs. Deci & Ryan) which has found, over and over again, that motivation is an internally generated dynamic for all people, regardless of culture. Yes, there are external forces that can feel "motivational" for example, external factors can scare us to get better (i.e., fear of losing a top client who’s expressed dissatisfaction with our recent work) or even inspire us to get better (i.e., spending time reviewing the website of photographer who is several levels above us) but if we don't have the desire to improve, within ourselves, these types of external forces will only yield short-term gains in the quality of our work.

To achieve *sustainable* improvement, it's important that we take our internal desire to get better and combine it with self-discipline, which should then be applied to a plan that incorporates three key tasks:

  • Establishing clearly-defined goals:  This one is key and is put into place by asking yourself: “What goal(s) do I want to achieve?” I find it’s helpful to start with a long-term goal and then work backwards from there using a series of staggered sub-goals as mileposts. For example, if my goal was to win PFRE's Photographer of the Year in 2021, my staggered goals might look something like this:
    • Long-term goals (greater than one year to achieve): Win at least one Photographer of the Month (POTM) contest in both 2020 and 2021.
    • Intermediate goals (six months to one year to achieve): Build up a collection of images of nicely designed/appointed rooms or spaces that might be suitable entries for each of the POTM contest categories.
    • Short-term goals (one to six months to achieve): Hire a coach to provide critiques of my work and direct a plan to get myself to a “next-level” status in my work.
    • Immediate-term goals (at each shoot this month): While ensuring that I'm satisfying my client's needs, focus on applying/improving 2-3 techniques this month (i.e., one-point compositions).
  • Evaluating your progress: Hitting these timelines in and of itself will generate confidence in our game-plan! That said, it's not enough to only see improvement with our own eyes. It's important that we involve others who are knowledgeable in our field. There are many ways we can do this including: posting my images in PFRE’s Flickr Group and asking for honest feedback; and entering PFRE’s Photographer of the Month contests to see what the jurors think of my entry, each month.
  • Making course corrections on the plan: Based on the feedback that I glean from trusted sources, I can inject this input into upcoming photoshoots and examine the results to see if I've improved. If yes, then I will lock that knowledge away and try to keep improving in those areas. If not, then I should go back to my trusted sources and see what they think might be getting in the way of hitting my marks.

Regardless of your improvement goals, the old adage that defines progress as coming from regularly taking "two steps up, one-step back" is extremely important to keep in mind. Such a mindset helps us to "reframe" failure as not only normal but, also, a valuable form of input to help us in our goal to improve. This type of self-discipline to stay focused on a plan is a hallmark of great achievement in all areas of endeavor whether it be in scholastic work, in the corporate world, sports photography, or real estate photography!

Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach, based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.

3 comments on “Using Self-Motivation & Self-Discipline to Achieve Sustainable Improvement”

  1. Way back in the olden days... when I was just a padawan, I realized that photography would be a lifelong adventure of problem solving. Sometimes you have a problem that presents itself that you must solve, and sometimes you take a solution and reverse engineer it until you understand it.

    What I found most valuable, was to cut out pages from magazines of epic shots that were arranged in a presentation binder, that I used as goals to achieve. So if the left binder page had the photo, then the right side had my guess at a lighting plan to achieve that. The same thing can be done in PS. Work towards an epic sample of where you want to go. Afterwhile, you will no longer need the binder, and you will have become a Jedi.

  2. This subject was always of great interest to me as I'm pushing myself to be better all the time and realized that there may be a way to do so better and faster.
    When I was studying foreign laguage I was spending hours going over my words but they wouldn't stick. So I went to my teacher and he gave me the best learning trick I've ever had. "Don't study so much and create a study schedule (that doesn't rely on motivation. ) So I did, Id only study for 5-8 minutes and then go do something else, then come back to it. I did multiple times throughout the day and it worked like charm. I went from last in the class to one of the top. It went that way with my shooting. Every night I study some work that is better than mine or take an online class that is beyond my abilities, then I go practice, not a lot of time per day, BUT EVERY DAY. And my work improved rapidly. I also sent out my work for critique or asked for help. Getting guidance especially ealry can help you avoid pitfalls or unnecessary learning curves. Taking Colangelos class as well as Gomez Class really made my quality of my work jump rapidly.

  3. I think the more receptive you are to critique, the more you can apply to being introspective and growing. I think maybe that's a personality of insatiability, and some people have it - some don't. I met someone yesterday who said she isn't competitive and that competition makes her have anxiety - I was like whaaaaat? Competition keeps you on your toes and fosters personal growth...

    I'm always competing with my own photos, trying to absorb knowledge from peers or those who have different perspectives on how to do something... Photography for me is a never-ending journey of learning and applying knowledge. I love finding peers and newcomers who have their own self-competition journey and have the same desire to learn and be introspective. I once heard that you should choose your passion based on what keeps your wheels turning while you are brushing your teeth or showering, things you do on auto-pilot .... where do your thoughts take you? You can tell people apart by this question. Some folks are in the industry for the take-photos-make-money concept, and some are here for the think-create-climb concept.

    Sustainable improvement means there is never a rung on your ladder that says "don't step above this rung". This is a never-ending extension ladder where there's always room to find a new ceiling. 🙂

    ** Constructive criticism should be constructive. I'm also a firm believer in "Don't be a douchebag"... You can improve without stepping on someone else's ladder. **

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