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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 June 18, 2019

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Making Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More About Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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