8 Ways Cognitive Behavior Therapy Can Change Your Life or: How I Learned to Take One Photograph a Day for One Year

I love photography. It allows me to explore the world in a very different way from psychology.

However, for the past few years I’ve felt stuck. My photos all began to look the same. The composition was fine, but I didn't feel an emotional connection to my work. I realized that I needed to make big changes in my life in order to grow as a photographer.

One of my friends suggested I start a Project 365. The goal of the project is to create 1 photo every day for a year. Not only does this project challenge you to experiment with photography, it also helps you to become more aware of yourself and your surroundings.

Highlights from my completed Project 365.

From February 1st, 2010 through January 31st, 2011, I embarked on my own Project 365. What follows is an overview of how I used 8 strategies from cognitive behavior therapy to successfully take 365 photographs. The strategies I used were:

  1. Take an honest appraisal of your life.
  2. Create motivation.
  3. Educate yourself.
  4. Set clear and manageable goals.
  5. Track your behavior.
  6. Think realistically.
  7. Use friends and family.
  8. Capitalize on setbacks.

These strategies can be used by anyone who wants to make big changes in their life (e.g. learning to cook, training for a marathon, quitting smoking, overcoming phobias, changing careers, conquering procrastination, etc.).

1) Take an Honest Appraisal of Your Life

Creating real and lasting behavior change takes a lot of time and effort. The first thing you have to ask yourself is: am I ready for this type of commitment? If your life is hectic right now, wait until things calm down before trying to make big changes. Otherwise, you're setting yourself up for failure. 

I wanted to start a Project 365 in the fall of 2009. However, at the time I was heavily involved in the development of my doctoral dissertation. I knew investing in photography would only add stress to my life. So I waited until after my dissertation proposal was approved and my schedule became more flexible. 

Project 365 Day 3: Having successfully completed my dissertation proposal, I was ready to commit to Project 365.

2) Create Motivation

Most of us think motivation is something that comes and goes. However, psychological science has shown that motivation is something we can create and harness. In other words, the power to become motivated is inside of you.

In clinical psychology, we use techniques called motivational interviewing and behavioral activation to help individuals move toward their life goals. Here's a simple way you can implement these techniques - write down all of the things that you value most deeply (e.g. spending time with your family, advancing your career, living a healthy life, enjoying your hobbies, etc.). Then, write down what you are doing right now to promote each value. Are you living a life that is true to your values? If not, what is missing? How can you make changes in your life that will help you feel more fulfilled? Sometimes it helps to post reminders of the things you value in your home, on your cell phone, or in your office to keep you motivated to work towards your goals.

Another way to use these techniques is through imagination. This is an exercise used frequently in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (a relatively new cognitive and behavior therapy). Close your eyes and imagine your 75th birthday party. Your closest loved ones surround you. Everyone is sharing their most cherished memories of you. What do you want them to say about you? I’ve also found it helpful to wake up in the morning and spend 5 minutes imagining how you'd like to feel at the end of the day. What would you like to accomplish in the next 12 hours? What is one thing you can do today to move you closer to your goals? 

I've identified as a photographer for nearly a decade yet I didn't spend much time improving my skills. Becoming aware of this conflict between my identity and my behavior created the motivation I needed to start Project 365. 

One final note on motivation - it is self-reinforcing. Starting a new behavior is hard. You’ll find yourself having to create motivation using the techniques described above. However, once you begin to make progress and see changes in your life, motivation will begin to come naturally.

It was very hard for me to get motivated in the early weeks of Project 365. After the fifth week, photography not only became a part of my routine but it was now the activity I most looked forward to in the day.

Project 365 Day 45: Experimenting with new techniques like long exposure kept me motivated throughout Project 365.

3) Educate Yourself

If you're looking to learn a new skill, chances are you don't know too much about it right now. Before you start practicing a skill, learn as much you can. This means talking to experts, reading books and blogs, listening to podcasts, and seeking advice from friends. By educating yourself, you'll develop a clear plan and avoid common mistakes.

In the month leading up to Project 365, I spoke to several individuals who had successfully completed their own projects. Many gave me the same advice  - don't limit yourself to only using a professional camera and always carry a small camera with you wherever you go (I did just that and ended up taking 159 photos with my professional camera, 148 with my small point and shoot, and 58 with my smartphone). Additionally, I listened to several photography podcasts (TWiP, LensWork, Chase Jarvis Photography), went to photography exhibits for inspiration, and visited National Geographic's photo of the day, the Guardian's Eyewitness photography series, and Boston's Big Picture frequently throughout my project.   

Project 365 Day 246: Keeping a camera with me at all times helped me capture moments like this.

4) Set Clear and Manageable Goals

One of the easiest ways to sabotage yourself is by creating unrealistic goals. For example, if you want to become healthier, "losing weight" is not a goal. It's too vague. You need a goal that can actually be measured. Instead, try, "losing 15 pounds to achieve my ideal body weight". Additionally, setting a goal of "going to the gym for 30 minutes every day" is far too unrealistic. Instead, try, "going to the gym for 30 minutes once a week". Start out with one small, manageable, and achievable goal.

Before I had the goal of creating 1 photo every day, I spent the month leading up to the project creating 1 photo each Saturday and Sunday. Once I achieved and sustained this goal for 1 month, I started Project 365. I also made a collage of my photos each month to help break down the goal of 365 photos into 12 smaller and more manageable goals.  

Creating monthly collages helped me to break down the goal of taking 365 photos.

5) Track Your Behavior 

The hallmark of all cognitive and behavior therapies is tracking your behavior. The moment you start monitoring your behavior, you begin to change it. Through this process you'll notice what helps you achieve your goals and what gets in the way. It’s best to start monitoring your behavior before you try to change it. This will give you a baseline against which you can evaluate your progress. As you begin to track your progress, seeing movement towards your ultimate goal will further increase your motivation. This process is even more important for completing very large projects (e.g. writing a book, completing a dissertation) where you don't see much day-to-day progress and the ultimate reward is months or years away.

Tracking my progress in Project 365 was actually very easy - I had a record of how many photos I had taken in my photography software. Smartphone Apps like Nike+ and Dayta make it very easy to track your progress on the go. I also love MyTomatoes for implementing the Pomodoro Technique for tracking behavior. 

Project 365 Day 182: This photo represents my halfway point in the project.

6) Think Realistically

With most attempts at behavior change, we fall into the trap of all or nothing thinking. This is where you see something in absolutes - completely good or completely bad. For example, if you don't spend all day working on your big project you're a failure. But the reality is there is a wide ocean of progress. Some days you will accomplish a lot, some days less, but overtime a little bit of work each day will lead to big changes in your life. The goal isn't to think optimistically, but realistically.

During this past summer, I was in the middle of moving from Washington, D.C. to New York City. It was a stressful time and I began creating a series of disappointing Project 365 photos. I kept thinking, "These photos are horrible, I'm letting myself down." It took me awhile to realize how distorted this thought actually was. The photos weren't my best, but they helped me reach my goal of one photo per day. Additionally, with my move I didn’t have much free time for photography - and that was okay. Lastly, I realized that a few lackluster photos didn't take away from the more compelling photos I created earlier in the project.

Project 365 Day 92: I'm not a big fan of this photo, but it helped me reach my goal of one photo per day during a very stressful time in my life.

7) Use Friends and Family

Completing any big project without social support is impossible. Alternatively, the easiest way to ensure the success of your goal is to share your intentions with your closest friends and family. They will support you, hold you accountable, and keep you motivated when you feel like quitting.

I announced my goal of taking 365 photos to my close friends and family through Facebook. As often as I could, I uploaded and shared my photos. A core group of friends closely followed my progress. They commented on my photos, asked me how the photos were created, and gave me ideas for new photographic assignments. This was all incredibly supportive! Receiving real time feedback was also instrumental in helping me improve my photography. But what really surprised me was the frequent informal support I received from my coworkers and acquaintances. Many of these individuals (silently) followed my progress through Facebook and offered encouragement whenever they saw me in person. Each time I considered quitting, someone was always there to help me recommit to the project.   

Support from my Facebook friends helped me stay committed to my goal.

8) Capitalize on Setbacks

You’re going to have bad days. Expect them. Better yet, capitalize on them. Setbacks offer us an opportunity to learn about ourselves. They are an important part of behavior change and growth. Wired Magazine did a great job discussing the importance of failure in a series that I really encourage you to read (particularly part 1, part 2, and part 5). Failure, setbacks, and bad days give us an opportunity to reflect on our lives, reevaluate our goals, and problem solve for the future.

Setbacks in my life led to failures in Project 365. A challenging day at work, coming down with a cold, getting a flat tire, and experiencing obstacles in my dissertation made me want to quit Project 365. After missing a few photos, I realized that the problem was I had a hard time thinking of something to photograph when I was stressed. Instead of looking out into the world on bad days, I decided to turn the camera onto myself and use self-portraiture to capture my setbacks. Not only did this get around the "photographer's block" I experienced, it also helped me confront the difficult emotions I was experiencing.

Project 365 Day 29: Self-portraits helped me overcome my photographer's block on stressful days.

This is just the surface of what cognitive behavior therapy has to offer individuals who want to change their lives. If you are interested in learning more about these types of approaches, I highly recommend reading Steven Hayes’ Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. Hayes does a wonderful job of providing practical strategies for implementing much of what I've described here. Michael Addis and Christopher Martell's Overcoming Depression One Step at a Time is also a great resource for helping you to commit to your life goals.  

What has helped you to create change in your life? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.