“What do you do all day?” she asked.

It was a loaded question. She was a 23-year-old upwardly mobile, fabulous-clothes-wearing corporate mover who made a boatload more money than I did. Obviously she assumed a young photographer like myself did very little during the day and was consequently always broke. To dispel that notion, I immediately ordered a round of fancy drinks. She was impressed and, for the moment, I had quelled the condescension. I quietly excused myself and called my credit card company from the bathroom to make sure I had enough room left on my card to cover the pending tab.

Appalled by her assumption about my career, the next morning I set out on a path of creative denial. (At this point, my “career” consisted of a lot of model tests. Some of them I even got paid for.) With renewed purpose, I made the killer to-do list:

1. Steal ideas from Instagram to expand portfolio so I can get more paid jobs.

2. Call model agency about more paid model testing.

3. Call model agency about shooting free model tests for new image ideas.

4. Location scout for new image ideas (see item 1).

This is what actually happened:

10:15 a.m. Cafe Trieste, Sausalito, California; Order one medium triple cappuccino and sit down with iPhone and scan Instagram for image ideas. Without hesitation I decide I’m better than 60% of the photographers on social media. Smile at my self-appointed status.

11:30 a.m. Wonder aloud how these hack photographers are getting so many “likes” on social media. Pray credit card doesn’t bounce when paying for cappuccino.

11:32 a.m. Tip liberally to celebrate successful credit-card transaction.

12:30 p.m. Talk myself out of calling the model agency by assuming they’re at lunch. Straight to item 4 on the list: location scouting.

12:35 p.m. Receive call from model friend who wants to have lunch.

3:00 p.m. Finish lunch; tip liberally to celebrate successful credit-card transaction.

3:30 p.m. Accompany model friend to model agency to theoretically schmooze agents for work.

3:35 p.m. Gossip with receptionist while waiting for model friend to finish talking with her agent in the other room.

5:00 p.m. Accidentally find great location in downtown San Francisco.

6:00 p.m. Have drink with model friend to discuss newly found location.

8:15 p.m. Promise model friend headshots for life as a thank-you for picking up the tab when credit card gets declined.

9:15 p.m. Cafe Trieste, Sausalito, California; Celebrate conquering item 4 of to-do list with a glass of wine. Pay cash.

Us vs. them.

The difference between us and them (the office dwellers) is that we have don’t have bosses handing us a bunch of tasks to be completed. While this might sound heavenly, self-motivating is infinitely more work than a real job. The most significant hurdle when pursuing any sort of career-forwarding agenda is the wasted day. Cleverly masked beneath a flurry of seemingly meaningful activities, the wasted day never feels truly wasted; it just feels like you’re working a lot and accomplishing very little.

There are two steps to having a more productive workday. The first is recognizing the pitfalls that can lead you to squander your time. The second is adopting better time management.

Pitfall: Shooting everything except what you need.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m an enormous advocate of constant shooting. But if you’re a fashion photographer and you’re spending your days shooting seminude photos of your significant other, who’s already in your portfolio a dozen times, you should take a moment to re-evaluate your shooting schedule. Remember the idea is to show potential clients how talented and diverse you are, not to present them with a photo essay about the person you’re dating.

Pitfall: Soon I’ll be an expert.

Next to the camera, the computer is the single most important tool for photographers. It is also the absolute number-one time waster. If you find mornings turning into afternoons as you tool around with the more arcane features in Photoshop, spend hours tweaking your online “brand,” or devote gobs of time to downloading and testing twenty-five different types of Business Contact Manager, you’re not getting anything useful done.

Pitfall: Well, now that it’s Thursday.

Cold calling sucks, even if you do it by email or social media. So we typically put off a really ambitious list of Monday-morning calls until Tuesday. Which magically becomes the list for Wednesday. By Thursday we can easily justify waiting until the following Monday, because you and I both know that no one wants to talk to photographers looking for work on Fridays.

Pitfall: The meetings.

Take a brutally honest look at your last ten “work” meetings. How many of them actually resulted in any sort of career progress? Now, here’s the clincher: Out of the ten, how many did you know ahead of time weren’t going to do anything for your career? Finally, think about the past two weeks. How many times did you say you were attending a meeting that really wasn’t a meeting, but a social event? As a freelancer it’s easy to do, because we have no set work schedule and in our minds we’re always working.

Unfortunately, this thought process doesn’t always mirror the reality.

As you make connections, stop and think about who you’re networking with. Will this meeting ultimately bring you results? Does the magazine or agency often assign the type of work you shoot? Are you sending out promos to the world in general, or are you actually targeting who sees your stuff? Do the research. It’s easy to do a bunch of useless things under the auspices of getting things done. Don’t get caught in that trap.

Pitfall: Your portfolio is still not done.

No one’s portfolio is ever finished. If you’re waiting to show your portfolio until you think it’s done you’re handicapping your efforts to move forward. Accept the fact that you will only be happy with your portfolio for a few brief moments in your career. It’s an axiom of the business. If you have enough images in your book to win the approval of your close friends and parents, then you’re ready for prime time.

Pitfall: My meeting got cancelled, so that’s that.

There is a common misconception that when you show your book, it’s the one and only chance you’ll have to break into the biz. Absolutely not true. The only thing that gets you noticed is repetition and connection. And connecting is incredibly challenging. Even when meetings are set, they will be rescheduled numerous times. This business is constantly conjuring new challenges, and meetings with new photographers are the first casualty when someone’s day goes upside down. Remain diligent, there is no other way.

Time management for the bohemian.

Brooks Ferguson is a consultant who specializes in maximizing the time and creative efforts of some of the top writers in the entertainment industry. She was kind enough to share some time-management insights.

The first step to time management for creatives is understanding your intellectual efficiency. Everyone is different, so I experimented on myself for the sake of this piece. The key here is honesty. There are no right or wrong answers to the questions below; there is only the reality of who you are, and how you operate.

When is your up time?

When is your down time?

When is your creative time?

My up time is first thing in the morning, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. I’m well rested, the coffee is kicking in, and my mind is sharp. This is a fantastic time to take care of things like bills, cold calls, anything that requires quick thinking and efficiency. I find that because my mind is moving quickly, I tend to get the stuff I hate done really quickly. This leads to a sense of accomplishment, which gives me the confidence to get even more of the mundane torturous stuff done. Also when I’m feeling sharp, my wit tends to be more ready, so this is a great time to talk to people.

My down time tends to be from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. This is the time I do mindless stuff. Run errands, drop off dry cleaning, anything that requires little cerebral effort. This is also a great time to work out. Physical activity is proven to greatly aid the creative process, and it has the added benefit of making you feel good. So I do it when my mind is slow.

My creative time is after 4 p.m. I don’t know why, but this is when the visual ideas start happening; a great time to shoot for my portfolio or post-produce the work I’ve already shot; anything that is creative. This is also defined as “sacred time,” when I avoid distraction from the phone, email, social media, anything distracting. This if course requires monastic discipline because distractions are fun and easily justified as work.

Everyone’s up and down times are different. They also tend to change as you get older and your life changes. The most important thing here is to recognize when they are and apply your tasks accordingly. The major anxiety for freelancers like us is that we aren’t in sync with the 9-to-5 world. We never will be. As soon as you accept this fact, you give yourself permission to get things done when it’s optimum for you. I have friends who sleep until 10 or 11 a.m. during their down time and then work until 1 or 2 in the morning. They operate in a highly effective and successful manner.

The dreaded to-do list

Ferguson defines the to-do list as your “achievable goals.” When you make a to-do list, you should be able to cross everything off that day. So don’t put too many things on the list. It’s far more effective to start with four items on your list and actually complete them, as opposed to an ambitious ten items and finishing two. Carrying over a list of things to do from day to day can have a negative and slightly anxiety-provoking effect on the psyche. So make lists that can be accomplished easily. Also, don’t put stupid things on the list like “pick up laundry.” You know clothes need to get washed. This is not a career-enhancing goal, but a necessity you’ve been aware of since childhood.

So what do I put on the to-do list?

Your to do list should consist of actions that create forward momentum for your ideas and your career. Anything from managing business banalities, to seeking contacts who can give you work, to conscripting friends to crew on a shoot for a new portfolio piece. Each one of these broad categories will have propelling effect on your overall goal.

Although this is an article about wasting time, I feel obligated to try to help you determine your next step. There is no “right way” toward getting new work. Every photographer I know has had a completely different path to success. The one commonality among all of them is persistence. If you identify what you want, and pursue it relentlessly, you’ll inevitably pick up great assignments along the way.

The tough part is, no one is telling you what to do. Why this may seem like a freedom, it’s not, it’s an added responsibility. Coming up with your own personal strategy is terribly difficult because there are no guides. Well, except for the thousands that are online. Productivity is a cult that is remarkably effective at distracting you from what needs to get done.

My best advice is this: If you think it will work, try it. If your idea hits, you’ll start to see strategies grow success. If it doesn’t, pick yourself up and try again. Nothing is easier than procrastination, but nothing is more powerful than persistence.