There seems to be a pattern with wedding season that happens around the same time each year for me. See, there are ebbs and flows as the Spring turns into Summer, and as the Summer gives way to Fall. I tend to book most of my year’s engagement sessions in May, September & October, due to the unpredictable summer temperatures here in Virginia. I LOVE that my couples want to take advantage of the spring mornings and changing fall colors, but in the past that’s meant that I’ve often over-scheduled myself and end up feeling totally exhausted and frustrated with the cause of it all: my own inability to make boundaries and keep to them!
I’ve reach the “breaking point” (you know, when you open the refrigerator, realize you’re out of milk, and ugly cry/weep from the stress of it?) four times in my career. Looking back, there were a few common denominators in each of those four situations:
- I was booked every weekend for at least six weeks in a row
- I had at least one engagement/anniversary session throughout each of those weeks
- I WASN’T scheduling/keeping to my days off
- A lack or overall organization and help
These days, I still have times that are more stressful than others, but I’ve found a few specific ways to prevent myself from hitting rock bottom again!
A) Know your limits for how much you can handle. Some photographers can handle double- and triple-headers week in and week out, but I’m not one of them. That was a limitation I used to try and push, but every time I did, I ended up miserable as a result (that misery was with MYSELF, not any of my clients!). I’ve learned my limit is no more than 4 wedding weekends in a row, and that if I AM going to make an exception and book a double header, I need to be really enthusiastic about both couples for that weekend. I put so much of my heart into every wedding that it’s emotionally as well as physically demanding.
B) Know your turnaround time, and do everything you can to stick to it. My most recent low point came as a result of sheer poor planning. I had six wedding weekends in a row, and I let the editing from each wedding spill over into the following week… and sometimes the week after that, as well. The result was having, at times, 2-3 weddings on my plate that hadn’t even begun to be edited, with another 2-3 engagement sessions and a wedding coming up that weekend. Outsourcing will hopefully be something I do next year, but for the here and now, it’s my policy not to allow major edits to spill over from one wedding to the next. It’s not fair to my couples to make them wait weeks and weeks for their images- I promise my clients 4-6 weeks for their wedding photographs, but it’s my preference to have them done in 1-2!
C) STICK to those limits! When you have a client who’s really excited about doing a fall engagement session, it’s easy to look at your already-packed schedule for October and think, “One more engagement session can’t hurt!” But I’ve learned that I’m actually doing my clients a disservice by overbooking. It’s not fair to my wedding clients if I arrive to their big day completely deflated, devoid of inspiration because I tried to pack too many sessions in before their wedding day.
D) Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This thing we do, running small business often completely on our own? It’s not easy. Thinking of all my favorite/most successful photographers, they all have something in common- they all have HELP, whether that’s in the form of their spouse being their business partner, a full-time assistant, etc. Many of us don’t have that luxury, so finding help becomes that much more important. For me, my biggest sources of job-related stress-alleviation come from my shooting interns + Align album design.
So, practically speaking, what do MY personal boundaries look like?
- No more than 4 wedding weekends in a row
- During a week that I have a wedding, no more than ONE engagement or anniversary session (not both)
- No shooting the day before a wedding
- Anniversary and engagement sessions are limited to Tuesday-Thursday, to give me a day off after a wedding weekend (Monday [since I spent a full weekend day working]) and a day to prep before a wedding (Friday).
- Wedding-free weekend? That’s marked as time OFF on my calendar- no portrait sessions/meetings on the weekends!
- Email responses are limited to 9-5, Monday-Friday. Unless there’s an emergency, I don’t answer email on the weekends.
- My family comes before my business. It’s because of this that I don’t shoot portraits or host client meetings on weekends- free Saturdays are a gift, and Matt deserves that time with me.
- One I’m booked, I’m booked. No ifs, ands or buts- these boundaries are in place for my own sanity.
One of the best tools I’ve found for helping me stick to my boundaries is my Day Designer + washi tape! This has become a total lifesaver. I can tell at first glance whether I have availability during any given week, and once I’m booked, I can tell that at first glance as well, which makes keeping to rule #8 even easier!
^Here’s what any given month might look like on my Day Designer^. And here’s what it all means-
- Gold washi tape means “available”- I know I’m free to book an anniversary/engagement session on those days. Since I only book anniversaries/engagements Tuesday-Thursday, I just put a small piece on all the days during a week that could work. Once ONE of those days is booked, though, I remove all pieces of “available” tape for the week, since I only book one portrait session during weeks that I also shoot weddings.
- Teal washi tape means “session”- so I know I’m BOOKED that day and can’t accept anything else, shooting-wise.
- Black & white washi tape means “day off!” I’m not allowed to schedule meetings or shoots on those days.
- No washi tape in a particular week? That means I don’t have any availability left.
This would be really easy to do in Google calendar, too, I just happen to be more of a paper-based kinda gal.
It’s taken me 4 wedding seasons to figure out what boundaries are essential to both my success as a business owner AND my mental sanity as a person, and I still occasionally mess up and bit off more than I can chew. I know these rules will continue to change/develop as I grow, but I can’t even begin to express how freeing it is to abide by these ones. It makes it easier to say “yes” when I know I have the time, and that much easier to say “no” when I know I don’t. AND, I feel a heck of a lot less guilty about taking time off on my days marked “off!”
These rules have developed from a desire to continue to love what I do. I don’t ever want to become so burned out from running my business that I end up wanting to leave it all behind, so I create boundaries for myself that separate work from LIFE, enabling me to enjoy my couples, their love stories, their wedding days. My desire is to “work to live,” NOT “live to work.” I love what I do, but my life story is so much bigger than just what I do for a profession.