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2×4: An Interview with Randy Murray

2×4: An Interview with Randy Murray
    2x4: The Interview Series

    (Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first 2×4 interview here on Stepcase Lifehack. 2×4 is one series that examines two topics — creativity and productivity — by asking those who make things on the web the same four questions on both subjects. This regular series of interviews began on Michael Schechter’s site as a way to better understand how those who create for the web approach their work. Participants to date have included Eddie Smith from Practically Efficient, Gini Dietrich from Spin Sucks, writer Yuvi Zalkow, Social Media blogger Danny Brown, Lifehack.org editor Mike Vardy and more. Going forward, Michael will be offering up regular 2×4 posts from an array of developers, designers, writers and artists from around the web. To learn more about the series or to read the previous interviews, check out the archives.)

    You can find just about anything on the internet. No matter what you’re interested in, chances are there’s someone out there telling you how you can do it better. What’s rare is someone who tells it to you straight, who says things you probably don’t want to hear, who makes you question things you’ve always assumed to be true. No matter what you’re looking to do, you need one of these people in your life. If you’re looking to write, you need Randy Murray.

    Randy is a writing machine. In fact, this very interview came back the same day that I sent it (after an already impressive day of writing). He splits his time between several interests including his corporate writing, his books, a well-liked personal blog, his recently launched book publishing venture and his love of playwriting. In other words, the man has a passion for words and the way we use them.

    I’ve only recently started to get to know him and could easily go on as to why you need to start following his work, but I’ll spare you and let Randy’s words do the talking. Without further ado, here’s a look at one of my favorite writers about writing, Randy Murray:

    Creativity

    Have you always considered yourself a creative person?

    Yes. But it wasn’t always about writing. Some of my earliest memories are of singing. I’ve always had a strong, room-filling voice. I remember singing “She’ll Be Coming Around The Mountain” at a school assembly, probably in the kindergarten or first grade and being surprised at how astonished everyone was. Singing and music came naturally and performing followed. I was also a voracious reader and dreamed of a life filled with books, maybe even as a writer.

    In high school I really blossomed as a performer, especially singing and acting. I even traveled with a Christian music group in the summers, not because of the religious aspects, but because I loved performing.

    In college I started off studying biology and chemistry with the intention of becoming a doctor, but found myself spending all of my time in the theatre. So I switched programs and followed my heart. That lead to graduate studies, initially in directing, but morphing into playwrighting. I wrote some plays, one really decent one, and earned my MFA.

    But earning a living as a playwright is somewhere between difficult and outright impossible. So I used my acting (auditioning) skills and landed myself a job as a technical writer and trainer at Bell Labs and spent the next 25 years in various roles in high tech, from writing thousands of pages of manuals, to running marketing, and eventually, as a Vice President of Operations. But the further away I got from writing, from creating, the less I enjoyed it.

    For the last two years I’ve done nothing but write. I’ve got a play in production, I’ve published one book with a 2nd on the way, and I’ve created a successful business writing practice. It’s the creative that drives me and I can only really be happy when I’m in the middle of writing, creating, or building.

    What mediums and inspirations do you gravitate toward to realize your creative goals?

    I write every day, sometimes just for pay, sometimes for my web site, First Today, Then Tomorrow, and sometimes on creative projects. Plays, the theatre, is where I believe my true, core creative spirit lies, but I’m tempted to write both short fiction and novels.

    If you had to point to one thing, what specific posts or creations are you most proud of and why?

    My play, “Grimaldi: King Of the Clowns”. It’s almost like I didn’t create it. It was thrilling to see it performed in Texas earlier this year and I’m looking forward to going to Scotland to see a new version I’ve written performed (it’s a short, one act version designed for street performance).

    And I’m digging writing and publishing on First Today, Then Tomorrow. One of the favorite pieces I’ve done there are “Look Up From Your Screen” and “Things You Cannot Convey To A Young Writer (Or Any Other Calling)”.

    Any suggestions for those who feel they may not be creative enough to unlock their inner artist?

    Get to work. If you love something, want to become an artist, go and hook up with those who are already doing it. Study, get training, do it. Suck a lot, but get better.

    I have a friend that tell me “Every writer has a lot of bad writing they have to get through to get to the good stuff.” I strongly believe that applies to all of the creative arts. You have to work at it.

    My oldest daughter is a jazz musician and my youngest is a visual artist. I’ve seen both spend literally thousands of hours practicing, experimenting, and learning. For years I hauled my daughter’s string base to lessons, listened to her play, badly, but slowly get better. And I’ve hung a lot of ugly pictures on the walls. Each of my girls started with a core drive and talent, but the artist was unleashed in them, as it was in me, through the work.

    Productivity

    Can you describe your current personal and professional responsibilities?

    I’m an independent business writer. I work with clients, typically through marketing agencies, and write all forms of business materials, mainly marketing, web sites, books, white papers, and presentations. Over the last 2 years I’ve worked with businesses of all sizes, including the biggest telecom, retail, and software companies.

    So basically, I write. I also consult, do speaking and training, and occasionally manage projects.

    I’ve also started a small publishing company, First Today Press LLC. This last year we published two books, my own Writing Assignments and Patrick Rhone’s Keeping It Straight. This next year we’ll publish More Writing Assignments, Patrick Rhone’s Enough, and books from at least four other authors. I’m very excited about this and I’m hopeful it can bloom into a stand-alone business.

    How do you go about balancing the personal, professional and digital?

    It use to be more difficult, but it’s much easier now that I’m working on my own and a bit more, um, mature (older). I do client work no more than 4-5 hours a day, unless I’m under deadline pressure. The remainder of the working day is for my own projects, keeping connected digitally, and running about. I keep my weekends and evenings free for time with my wife, and when my girls are around, I take off all the time I like. It’s sweet.

    I understand my situation is ideal. I make a good living, my wife works a regular job that had excellent benefits, and we’ve saved and invested wisely. Not everyone can do that. But if you can do it, even if it takes you twenty-five years like it took me, find a way to make it happen. I’m having the time of my life.

    What tools and techniques do you find yourself counting on to get through your workload?

    Solitude and quiet are my main tools. I can write with anything. I find I write best early in the day, at my desk, alone in my office, writing on my iMac. I am, and always have been, a complete Apple fanatic, although I can easily handle PCs, Linux, and Unix systems. I’m never more than a few feet from an iOS device, including my ever-present iPhone 4 and my 1st gen iPad. And I always have at least my Fischer Space Pen and a 3×5 card in my pocket, if not a full notebook or journal.

    I am a practitioner of Getting Things Done, but I’m not a fanatic about it. I also use the strategic planning and management practice called Structural Tension to quickly build goals and plans and execute them.

    What is the best starting point for the unproductive amongst us who are looking to get more organized?

    Clear yourself a little space. That’s the best way to start any project.

    Other than that, ask yourself what you really want. If you want to be entertained, that’s what you’ll be. But if you want to do something, prepared to be bored, to work hard, to become frustrated, and to make a mess.

    I hear people say, “I want to write, but I just end up playing games all night.” Maybe that’s what you really want. If so, cut yourself some slack and play. But if you want to write, to do anything creative, put the games and distractions away. If you can be tempted away that easily, you don’t want it enough to actually do it.

    More by this author

    2×4: An Interview with David Sparks 2×4: An Interview with Myke Hurley 2×4: An Interview With CJ Chilvers 2X4 Interviews 2×4: An Interview With Gabe Weatherhead 2×4: An Interview With Brett Kelly

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    Last Updated on February 25, 2020

    How to Create a To-Do List that Super Boosts Your Productivity

    How to Create a To-Do List that Super Boosts Your Productivity

    It’s 6:00 am. You have just woken up and are ready to take a shower. After the showering, it’s time to eat breakfast, catch the news by reading the morning paper, and then start your work.

    You are feeling wonderful, relaxed, and happy. You have very high expectations for the day and you want to be as productive as possible.

    Fast forward to 2 pm the same day. You are working in a rush and you barely had a chance to take a lunch break.

    You start to feel a bit stressed and tired because of the busy schedule. Besides, it seems that you have to go back to certain tasks and fix them, because you didn’t have time to focus on them properly.

    The day which started so fine has turned into a stressful one. You just jump from one task to another – as quickly as possible – without doing anything properly.

    You wish you’d find a reset button, so that you could start your day from all over – with a different strategy.

    What you probably experienced was this: you planned your day the night before and you felt you were on top of your tasks.

    However, things started to go wrong when you kept adding tasks after each other to your list and finally your task list was many miles long. Your to do list also contained tasks which were pretty much impossible to get done in one day.

    The other point which contributed to your hectic and stressful day was not understanding how much time completing a particular task would take and when to execute the task. If you had this information, it would have been easier to figure out the right timing for executing the task.

    Finally, there really wasn’t any flexibility in your plans. You forgot to add a buffer between tasks and understand that certain tasks are much larger than what they seem outside.

    But you know what – these reasons alone weren’t the main reason for your stress and busyness …

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    What People Are Wrong About a To-Do List

    Do you really know what you are supposed to do?

    How much time did you actually spent on planning your day – was it just 5 minutes while the television set was distracting you?

    If so, then this was probably the biggest reason why your day became so stressful.

    When you plan your days, you should truly understand the tasks you are about to do – and what it takes to accomplish them. This is necessary especially with important tasks, because you are able to make progress with the tasks that matter the most.

    The lack of time spent on planning will also be shown as too many big tasks stuffed to your daily list. If you haven’t broken down the task into smaller pieces, it’s probable that you are not going to get them done during the day. This in turn makes you to beat yourself for not completing your task list.

    Finally, don’t treat creating a task list just like some secondary thing that you try to do as quickly as possible. In fact, when you pay more attention to your next day’s task list, the more likely is the list going to be realistic and less stressful for you.

    Components of a Good To-Do List

    When I talk about a good task list, I consider these characteristics to be part of it:

    Balanced

    The task list contains both important and less important tasks. Let’s face it: although we all would like to work on just important tasks ( e.g. goal related ones), we have to take care of the less important tasks as well (like running errands, taking care of your household or other everyday stuff).

    Enough Flexibility

    What happens when you have planned a task, but you are unable to take care of it? Do you have a plan B in place? If not, try to figure out the alternative action you can take in these scenarios.

    Time for Transitions

    Understand that transition times also eat your time. Make sure that when you plan your task list, this time is also included in your plans. Adding some extra buffer between tasks will make your list more flexible and realistic.

    Not Too Many Tasks for One Day

    Giving you an exact figure on how many tasks you should have on your daily list is difficult. It depends on your situation. But I’m willing to say that anything between 5-10 tasks should be enough for a day.

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    Understand that certain tasks are very quick to take care of, so it’s easier to include more tasks on certain days. Just make sure that there are also important tasks on the list so that you are able to move on with your bigger projects.

    Shield of Protection

    Build a shield of protection around your task list, so that as few tasks as possible can land to your list and that the number of items on your list won’t increase during the day.

    In the first case, try to eliminate the sources for your tasks. This is done by reducing your commitments and limiting the projects you have. The fact is that the more commitments (or projects) you have, the more likely they are going to end up as tasks for your daily list.

    In the second case, make your list a closed one. I learned this concept by reading Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management by Mark Forster. In order to create a closed task list, all you have to do is to draw a line under the last task on the list. When you have done this, you are not allowed to add any new tasks to your list during the day. This ensures that the number of tasks is actually decreasing as the day goes on.

    How to Create a To-Do List That Boosts Your Productivity

    To make a list that you can actually accomplish the next day, do the following:

    1. Eliminate the Tasks

    Go through your commitments and decide if you really need each one.

    For instance, I was an active member of our local computer club in my hometown, but then I realized that I don’t have enough time for that activity anymore. Although I’m still a member of the club, I don’t participate in its activities anymore. This has eliminated the tasks related to that commitment.

    2. Take Your Time to Plan the List

    Don’t rush creating your task list – spend some time on the planning phase. If required, “isolate yourself” for the planning part by going to a separate room in your home (or even going outside your home). This way, you can actually think the tasks thorough before you enter them onto your list.

    Try to spend at least 15 minutes with your list when you plan it.

    3. Move Important Tasks to the Beginning

    When planning your day, make sure that the important tasks are at the beginning of your list. This ensures that you get those tasks done as quickly as possible.

    For instance, as a blogger, I make sure I have the content creation tasks at the beginning of my list. As soon as I wake up, I attack those tasks immediately and they get done before I go to work.

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    4. Track the Recurring Tasks

    You might have recurring tasks on your list, but do you know how much time they take to accomplish?

    If you don’t, make sure you do some time tracking to figure it out. This helps you to plan your day better, as you know how much time a task takes and if there is a certain time slot in your daily schedule, when the task could be executed.

    5. Batch Similar Tasks

    Look at your list and find out if there are similar tasks that you can batch-process. This way, you can get certain tasks off your list faster and easier.

    6. Define the Tasks in More Detail

    Don’t just include a task like “build a website” on your list; make sure you have broken the task to smaller pieces. The smaller the tasks are, the easier it is to take accomplish them.

    7. Do Some Prep Work in Advance

    Make sure that you prepare for certain tasks in advance.

    For instance, I write the outlines for my guests post on Sundays, so that it’s easier (and faster) for me to start writing the actual posts when I wake up. With a little bit of prep work, I speed things up and make sure tasks get done when the right day comes.

    8. Automate the Maintenance

    Naturally, you could use a pen and paper approach to your task list, but try to take advantage of technology too. In fact, try to find a tool that takes care of the maintenance of your task list for you. My preferred tool is Nozbe, but there are other task management applications that you can try too.

    9. Know Your Task Types and Your Schedule

    Finally, when you plan your day, ask yourself these questions:

    What else do I have on the schedule?

    This question refers to your personal schedule. For instance, if you are traveling, make sure that your list reflects to this fact. Don’t try to “overstuff” your list with too many tasks, since it’s more likely you get only a fraction of them done.

    Is the task a gatekeeper?

    This question asks if the task is blocking other tasks to be executed.

    Every once in a while, we might have a task, which has to be taken care of first. After you have done that, only then you can take care of the sequential tasks.

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    When you focus on creating your task list in a focused manner, you’ll be able to spot the gatekeepers easily.

    Do I have icebergs on my list?

    This question asks if your task is actually much bigger than what it seems. Sometimes when you start working on a task, you’ll soon realize that it’s much bigger than what you initially thought (compare them to icebergs, where only the tip of the iceberg is above the sea level, but the majority of the ice is below the water).

    Once again, when you focus enough on your task list during the creation phase, it’s easier to spot these “icebergs” and split the tasks into smaller, much more manageable chunks.

    Is the task distraction-proof?

    This final question asks if the task is distraction-proof. Not all the tasks are created equal: some tolerate more distraction, while others require your full attention.

    For instance, I can check my Twitter stream or do simple blog maintenance even when I’m around my family. These tasks are distraction-proof and I can take care of them – even if I don’t have my full attention on them.

    The Bottom Line

    If you still have a hard time of achieving your daily tasks, make sure that you analyze the reasons why this happened. If anything, do not beat yourself up for not finishing your task list.

    No one is perfect and we can learn from our mistakes.

    It takes a bit practice to create a “smiling” task list. However, once you learn to put all the pieces together, things are going to look much better!

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    Featured photo credit: Jacqueline Kelly via unsplash.com

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