Interview: Merlin Mann on time and project management for photographers

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This is a photograph of Merlin Mann taken by Jeremy Harris.BY DOMINIQUE JAMES

This week, we’ve been focusing our attention on how photographers can better manage their time and projects. In this exclusive interview with Merlin Mann of, I asked him to zoom in on some of the things that photographers can do to gain productivity by way of properly allocating time, managing projects well, and handling tasks more efficiently. In our conversation, Merlin also talked about the potential value of learning David Allen’s GTD (getting-things-done) methodology, how photographers might be able to effectively adopt it, and, defining the necessary personal traits as well as the psychology that may be needed in developing a well organized mind to actually make GTD work.

Last time, we also did an exclusive interview with Ethan Shoonover. Ethan used to be photographer before joining OmniGroup, and he talked about how photographers might choose to use an application such as OmniFocus to better frame the work and personal productivity needs of creative pros such as photographers. And now, in surveying the expansive landscape of time and project management while keeping the needs of photographers in mind, Merlin Mann points out to us the elegant beauty of implementing GTD.

Dominique James: What are the time management needs of photographers, and how does it differ with those of other creative professionals?

Merlin Mann: I have some friends who are photographers, and from what I can gather, they share a lot of the same problems that knowledge workers have, people like designers or programmers or artists. And that’s the problem of having a lot of projects that are in different kinds of states at the same time. So, you may have one person where you’re discussing bids, there’s another person where you’re trying to schedule the time to do a shoot, there’s another person where you’re doing reshoots, and another where you’re sending finished work. So, there’s all these different things that you’ve got to manage, and you need a system for capturing all that stuff in one place so you don’t have to think about it anymore than you need to. The challenge faced by many people today is having so many projects going that you can’t keep it all in your head.

Dominique James: By putting everything in one place, how should a photographer prioritize or sort though all the stuff and start getting things done?

Merlin Mann: I’m not sure that I would do it any differently if I were a photographer from one else. I guess, the one way in which photographers have challenges is, obviously if you’re an outdoor photographer, you’ve got to have a lot of flexibility about whether the weather is not going to be right or something like that, but the core problem is still a shared one, which is what I always say, putting all that stuff in one place. And then, I think one idea that’s great for anybody is an idea from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, which should be the idea of trying to always think about each of your projects in terms of what he calls the “next action.” The “next action” just means: “What is the next physical action that I have to do to get this project closer to being finished?” If you are managing a lot of different projects, that’s the way to make sure you always understand what you need to be doing across a range of different projects.

Dominique James: So that is the essence of David Allen’s getting-things-done methodology, right?

Merlin Mann: That’s right. In its simplest, it is a system that can work for many different types of projects or jobs, regardless of what you do.

Dominique James: Is it therefore right to say that there isn’t much difference with the way a photographer should manage his time and projects, and in performing tasks, compared to others?

Merlin Mann: Well, I think there are areas in which being a photographer has special challenges. Most of the photographers that I know are actually very, very organized because they have to be. They’ve got everything moving in Lightroom or Aperture or in whatever it is that they may like to use, and they develop some kind of personal taxonomy (a systematic means of classification and arrangement) on how they organize their work.

Dominique James: In terms of the actual workflow, photographers do tend to follow an organized worklow that’s within the framework of the software they use, but in terms of working on the bigger picture, which is running the business, what can they do to get a grip on the end-to-end workflow?

Merlin Mann: One thing that I think is important, when I was a kid, I always heard the cliche that “there’s a place for everything, and everything in its place.” I think on a professional level it is important to have a system where you understand all the stuff that comes into your world, you should have some idea of where it goes. And I think whether you’re a photographer or whatever your job, it’s useful to have an idea in your head about whether that’s an email, or a phone call, or film strips, and then having an idea in your head where everything goes. So later on, when you need to find it, you don’t have to think about it for too long. It doesn’t cause you stress. You know where everything goes, there are no two places anything could be. So, I think that’s one way to reduce a lot of the stress.

Dominique James: Many photographers seem to have trouble managing the amount of time it takes to do things. Everything just seems to take forever. What can be done?

Merlin Mann: One thing I think is helpful is to set alarms. To be able to work with lots of projects at once, you need to have a lot of trust, that whatever system you have in place, will remind you when you need to do something, and so you can just forget about it and do other work without that anxiety and stress of worrying that something’s not getting done. So if there’s something where you want to add reminders for yourself, for example, to call somebody at a certain date, rather than trying to hold that in your head, I think that’s great. The other thing is, I’m not a big fan of using priorities, because priorities tend to be a way of making yourself feel bad about something you don’t want to do. Because if make something very, very high priority, well, why don’t you just do it? Do you know what I mean? — It’s a rhetorical question, but what stops you o me or anyone from doing that high priority thing, the real question is, in my head, “What’s blocking me from getting that finished?” So, instead of making something high priority, it’s better to spend that time and that brain power figuring out what would make it into something that can get done. Or, ask yourself, “Is this something that I really want to do?” Sometimes the best thing you can do is throw something away.

Dominique James: What is the best way, therefore, for a photographer to start implementing a GTD program?

Merlin Mann: GTD is a nice system, and it works. One’s you’ve read the Getting Things Done book, you have, at the start, to set aside some time because the idea in the book is to set aside some time to make sure you’ve gathered everything that’s on your mind. You never really will relax as long as stuff is on your mind. They call it capture — taking all that idea and putting it in one place like an inbox, and then one at a time, going through everything that’s on your mind, and figuring out what you’ve got to do about it, and it can take a day or two to go through that, or more, but it’s very empowering, to get all that stuff off your mind into some kind of an actionable format.

Dominique James: Are there instances when a photographer will gather and write all things that needs to be done, but once it’s all written out, the motivation fizzles when it comes to actually doing it?

Merlin Mann: It happens all the time, and part of the problem is that we skip the phase where we think about why we even want to do something. There is something in our mind that says, “Oh, you know, you should go do this thing,” and if you just write it down without actually thinking about it, then, you’re probably not gonna do it. Again, it’s just gonna cause stress. So, it’s really important, whenever you’re accepting a project, and you’re saying, “This is something that I’m gonna get done,” it really is important to understand what success looks like–to have an idea in your head why you are doing that, because if you skip that step, and just sit around collecting tasks all day, you’re not going be doing rewarding work. You’re only going be shovelling tasks from one place to another.

Dominique James: For a Mac-based photographer, what GTD software would you recommend?

Merlin Mann: I have a friend of mine who used to be a professional photographer, who wrote something for the Mac called Kinkless GTD, a guy named Ethan [Schoonover], and that guy, actually he got hired by a company called OmniGroup, and he and I both helped to work on a product called OmniFocus. I’m not trying to sell that, but it’s just that I mentioned it because he started out as a photographer, and part of it was he needed a way to put all these stuff into a system that works. But you know, the thing about GTD, the system itself is very personal. It’s a personal decision, nobody can really tell you how to do that. It really starts with getting your mind comfortable with the fact that something has to be done, and putting a stake on the ground that you’re going to do something with it. Some people could organize their whole life out of a notebook, and other people come up with these very complicated systems or web applications but my only advise would be try and adopt the simplest tool that you can tolerate, something very, very simple. Because you don’t want it to become something where you’re just playing with the tool all the time. You have work to do. You have photos to shoot. And so, whatever it is, find some way to capture stuff, and organize it in a system that’s sensible, but then make it all about actually accomplishing that work and getting it done, and that’s really the important part.

Dominique James: So, how was your experience developing OmniFocus?

Merlin Mann: It was really good. There are some people who say OmniFocus is too simple, and then some people who think it’s too complicated. They really developed it though around people like me, and the way that my mind works, and so if your mind works like mine, it’s really good (laughs). Like I say, there’s so many options out there right now, like iGTD and all. There’s a lot of web-based applications for people who are on more than one platform. David Allen himself, until a few years ago, just used paper. He had a binder that he did everything out of. Some people use Moleskine notebooks. Whatever it is that works for you, you just have to find the simplest tool that you can stand, and it will make your life a lot easier.

Dominique James: So, any other advise for the photographers?

Merlin Mann: Nothing more except that I’ll just say have fun and keep using the Mac.

[Note: Merlin Mann is the founding editor of, a family of websites about personal productivity, “life hacks,” and simple ways to make your life a little better. Photo of Merlin Mann by Jeremy Harris.]


Written by dominiquejames

April 18, 2008 at 8:30 AM

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