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Avoid joyless sprints. Savor the slow burn.
Notice anything different between these two photos?
On the surface, the differences appear minor. The original has less contrast, and the people are competing with the background for attention. The processed photo zooms into the action, brightens the scene, and accentuates the shimmering texture of the water. What you’re not seeing however, is the smile that was on my face as I created the processed image from the original.
Consistently producing high quality work in small but regular installments, free from deadlines, allows for a positive and fulfilling approach to delivering results. It also prevents the heartache of settling for mediocrity when you’re under the gun.
I recently felt this contrast in approach when a friend asked me to send over photos of my wife for a surprise birthday gift. Typically, the looming deadline would leave me future tripping about the heavy lift all week. When it was time to work, I’d spend hours squinting through old social media uploads, plumbing the depths of my phone’s camera roll, and sheepishly asking my friends for their photos.
After enough toil, I’d eventually settle for “good enough”, and hand over a bunch of photos spiritually similar to the original photo above. It’s demoralizing when a huge, joyless effort produces a lackluster result.
This time was different. Sending the photos only took 10 minutes, and I enjoyed the stroll down a beautifully rendered version of memory lane as I chose the best of my best.
I avoided the strain and bitterness of a tiring job, poorly done, because earlier this year, I decided to finally get my workflow in order. A great online course taught me how to consistently cull, catalog, polish, and surface all the best photos immediately after a day of shooting. The processed photo on the right had been sitting in my collection of keepers for months, just waiting for its day to shine.
Tiago Forte describes a similar approach to ideas: “Now imagine if you were able to unshackle yourself from the limits of the present moment, and draw on weeks, months, or even years of accumulated imagination. I call this approach the “slow burn”— allowing bits of thought matter to slowly simmer like a delicious pot of stew brewing on the stove. It is a calmer, more sustainable approach to creativity that relies on the gradual accumulation of ideas, instead of all-out binges of manic hustle.”
I installed a slow burn system for my photography, but I think the idea can serve us in other areas:
Proven recipes, tested over quiet weeknights, coming to the rescue ahead of a forthcoming dinner party.
Gift ideas, jotted down after casual conversations, resulting in the perfect birthday present.
Breezing through an unexpected jog because you already run everyday.
Regularly experimenting with pancake mixes, and treating overnight guests to a damn good breakfast.
In each of these situations, substandard results, stress, and panicky overwhelm are all effortlessly replaced by the high caliber work that results from harvesting the fruit of a slow burn system. Not only that, but you can actually enjoy the work along the way.
Pick an area of your life that’s prone to joyless sprints, find a way to consistently produce high quality work in small installments, and relish the thrill of rising to the next occasion.