The Benefits of Personal Projects: A Guest Post By Anna Hardy

January 27, 2012

I really enjoyed my professional work in 2011 but committing to a personal project was undoubtedly the best thing I did for my photography and myself last year. It constantly surprised and helped me in so many ways, and the very first (and being truthful, the only!) successful resolution I made as 2012 arrived was to start a brand new one.

Towards the end of 2010, after a crazy year of throwing myself headlong into setting up the business and taking on as much photography work as I could, I’d become increasingly worried that my photography was becoming stale and uninspired, in a weary creative rut, and I’d almost completely stopped shooting for pleasure since doing photography professionally full time, which really bothered me. If I’m being completely honest it had started to feel like photography, my long-time love, was becoming too much hard work and too few rewards. At the start of 2011 I noticed that a number of other photographers were starting 365 projects (a photo a day for a whole year) and so following their good example, I unashamedly jumped on the bandwagon and began my own personal 365 project, hoping I could rediscover the old passion and have a bit of fun along the way. It did both and a whole lot more, and was one of the best decisions I have made for a long time.

I truly believe personal projects are a crucial part of any creative business and that anyone, whether a photographer, videographer, designer, stationer, florist, dressmaker, blogger, jeweller, musician, stylist or any other creative, can benefit immeasurably from them, both professionally and personally.

So what is a personal project?

Quite simply, a goal or project devised and undertaken by yourself, purely for your own pleasure. Ideally it should not be part of any paid work or business, not done for financial profit, and not at all influenced by what other people like or want. Whatever your official day-to-day ‘job’ is, your personal project is an opportunity to forget what you’re paid to do, have fun with your art and completely please yourself.

Sounds great… Only then you start to think, as I did, hmmm….. how can I justify doing this? I have work coming out of my ears, piles of admin beckoning, a to-do list the length of my arm, an increasingly messy house to keep, a hyperactive child to care for and entertain… A ‘fun’ project just for the hell of it is surely a bit of a luxury… There need to be some clear benefits. Well the good news is, there are LOADS! Here are some I discovered along the way…

Why personal projects benefit you professionally

You improve your skills
A personal project gives you the freedom to experiment with new and more challenging techniques and ideas without worrying about failure or disappointing clients. True progress can only come with moving outside your comfort zone and challenging yourself, and paid jobs can be a risky area to push this. As a consequence, it’s easy to relax into ‘safe’ mode in our regular day-to-day work and miss opportunities to improve and move forward. In this year’s 365 project I practiced on a daily basis using a new lens that I had been too scared to use in weddings, always reverting to my old ‘comfortable’, reliable ones. Thanks to this practice, it’s now one of my staple professional lenses, has really helped to hone and improve my pictures and now feels as comfortable to me as my own eyes.

You become more creative
Often creative juices dry up. No-one likes to admit it but it happens to everyone. You start to feel like you’re churning out the same things and feel unoriginal and uninspired. A personal project injects freshness into your art, providing new sources and channels of inspiration and opening up new and exciting approaches to explore. My 365 project forced me to think differently about how I approach my subjects and this in turn affected my professional work, making me see familiar scenarios through different eyes.

You find your personal style
Irrespective of what kind of creative work you do, most agree that it’s important to develop your own distinctive style. But this is easier said than done and is such a difficult and confusing process! I remember reading everywhere ‘you must find your own style’ and thinking, “Where the hell am I supposed to find it?!” For me, this finally happened this year during this personal project when I started to notice similarities between the subjects I was naturally drawn to, the pictures I most enjoyed producing, the way the images ended up looking and the way I wanted to edit them. When you’re immersed in your professional work it’s so hard not to be influenced by industry trends, what your peers are doing, what the current buzz is about, how you feel your work ‘should’ look – and it’s easy to forget what you personally find interesting when you’re producing work for other people’s consumption. A personal project allows you to step away from these influences. Personal style stems from what you personally love and what comes from the heart. A personal project allows you to truly reconnect with what excites and stirs you, and it is in this place that you find your own style.

Your business becomes more interesting
People are naturally curious about other people. We all get to see the standard set of ‘products’ in other people’s work, but don’t often get to see others’ personal work and learn more about them as people and their passions and interests. I was really taken aback and delighted by how many people engaged with and followed my 365 project – it was never intended to be a business-building exercise at all, but I have had so much more interest in my professional work since starting this project, with many people mentioning it when they first get in touch. So from a business point of view, sharing your personal work really does make more people look in your direction and become engaged with the work you produce.

You broaden and diversify your portfolio and opportunities
Exploring other ways of working can open up new potential streams of work for the future. My 365 project enabled me to stop pigeon-holing myself professionally and focus on developing myself as a photographer and artist, rather than specifically as a wedding or portrait photographer. Consequently, I’m now excited about potential work projects brewing that I would not have thought possible or relevant to me a year ago.

Why personal projects benefit you personally

You will really enjoy them
Pretty obvious and simple, but they’re loads of fun! An opportunity to have completely free choice with no constraints, where you can try and enjoy doing things that you would never normally be commissioned to do in your daily work – these projects are your professional playground!

Artistic fulfillment and confidence
It’s not to be underestimated how rewarding it is to feel that you have created ‘art’ rather than a ‘product’, watching something grow and flourish that only you instigated and created.

Your passion is re-fuelled
Doing a creative activity you love for a living is wonderful, but after a while it can become equated in your mind with the daily grind, and much of the joy can be driven from it by the onerous tasks that are a necessary part of running a business. Personal projects push you to reconnect with the passion that made you want to do this in the first place, before tax returns, admin and emails took over.

You can discover new friend and peer networks
In personal projects you have the freedom to collaborate with other artists or peers. Often freelancing work can be lonely work and personal projects give you the opportunity to have fun with your art with other people.

A therapeutic outlet
Producing work guided by your own feelings and thoughts can become a cathartic, meaningful, channel of expression. 2011 was a very tumultuous and emotional year for me and the project I initially thought would be a series of random, fun snapshots evolved over the weeks into a kind of personal diary, a creative outlet through which I was able to make sense of what was happening in my life. It has unintentionally ended up being the most meaningful and rewarding work I’ve ever done.

How to come up with an idea

OK, now comes the hardest bit – generating an idea! Sometimes too much freedom of choice can be a tricky thing and there is nothing more guaranteed to make my mind go blank than a blank piece of paper I am supposed to fill. A simple starting point or springboard is always useful to get you going – often projects end up veering away from this and becoming something different but this doesn’t matter in the slightest – it’s just finding something to get you off the starting blocks. Keep a journal or notebook on you all the time to jot down any ideas that pop into your mind so you can save them for later. A few possible starting points…

A 365 (one a day) or 52 (one a week) or 12 (one a month!) project
What you actually produce can be anything at all, but having a regular timeframe to work to can help to shape the project and you can find inspiration in whatever is happening on that particular day/week/month.

An anything-goes wish list
Write down all of the things in an ideal world you’d love to try doing with your particular skill, however strange they seem, whether that’s making brooches or necklaces when you usually make head-pieces, writing a short story or poem when you usually blog about real life, photographing insects or flowers when you usually photograph weddings, or designing posters or tea towels when you usually design stationery… whatever they are, put them all in a hat, pick one out randomly, and do it.

The last thing that really moved you
Whether it was a person, a piece of art, a book, a building – try to pinpoint what it was that stirred you and use this as a starting point for a project. If you can’t remember, then have a look on Pinterest – it’s chock full of incredible things and I challenge anyone to look on there for five minutes and not find something that makes them go weak.

Your own personal interests
What are your hobbies, what do you do in your spare time… is there any way you can incorporate these?

A simple theme
A colour, feeling, country, item, music, film…

And once you’ve come up with something, the final litmus test… Do you feel excited about it? If not, choose something else.

How to go about it

Discipline yourself
Schedule the project in along with your other work tasks. Ideally set aside a specific regular time, perhaps each day or week, to work on your project. Keep post-its on your desk or put reminders in your calendar if you think you’ll forget.

Don’t worry about producing something amazing
Being preoccupied with results will stop you enjoying the process and this is the most important part. Sometimes I felt the image I’d produced that day was a load of rubbish. This doesn’t matter – each mistake or shaky outcome teaches you something and helps to push you towards producing something better next time.

Share your work in progress
If you can, share your progress online – perhaps via flickr, your blog, a facebook page, wherever you feel most comfortable showing it. There’s more incentive to stick with a project if you have committed to it publicly. However if you feel this would inhibit you and you would feel more comfortable keeping it to yourself then perhaps only share it when you’ve finished and are happy with it. The project should push you but definitely not be unpleasant, so share it in whatever way sits best with you.

Make the project challenging but manageable
Perhaps start off with smaller projects, or a longer project with lots of little bite-size sections. The project doesn’t have to be a big finished piece, it could just be little snippets – a set of doodles rather than complex illustrations, a simple piece of jewellery rather than a complicated set, a postcard rather than a poster, a mini-article rather than a long story, a sound-bite rather than a film, a dress design rather than a finished piece, a mood-board rather than a styled location.

Stick with it
There will be days when it drives you round the bend and you feel like sacking it off. Try to stick with it – as with most things, the things that take the most effort yield the biggest rewards and it is so fulfilling to see a personal project finished.

At the end of the project, take time to sit down and evaluate it – list what went well, what went not so well – what you learned. This will help you to find your next project and choose something that you will get more out of and push you further.

So there we are – go on get started, good luck and have fun! You and your business won’t regret it.

You can see Anna’s complete 365 project here and order prints, posters or even the coffee table book of the entire thing here.

All Photography Credit: Anna Hardy Photography