How I Actually Get Work Done At Work

It’s here.

One of those miraculous days where you only have a few meetings, no travel, and there are some open spots on your calendar. Incredible! You can almost feel the productivity you’ll achieve during those open blocks of time: writing that PRD, reviewing that crazy long marketing deck, or finally taking that one-hour training course you’ve been pushing off for two months. You settle into that first open spot and get ready to rock.

But then the inevitable happens.

Your new email notification dings. You switch to Gmail to check it and, what the hell, while you’re there you’ll answer two more real quick. You see Skype bouncing in the doc, so you check it to see who you hit you up. A quick pit stop to check Facebook and Twitter, and before you know it’s 33 minutes later, you’re four articles into a click hole on Buzzfeed learning useless but hysterical facts about falconry*, and the open hour on your calendar just lost 50% of it’s potential productivity. You might as well write off the rest of the hour if you work in an open office or co-working space, since you’ll inevitably be asked a question from a colleague that turns into an impromptu meeting. You turn back to you computer and realize you’ll have to finish whatever you were working on at 8pm that night when you get home.

What the hell happened?

In the words of the infinitely-wise Sir Arnold Schwarzenegger, “You lack discipline!”** It’s not your fault; our entire digital condition is designed to alert us in real-time about almost everything, making it so we can barely keep focused on a single task, project, or document. For a while I thought I could pull off multi-tasking like a boss but then realized that I definitely couldn’t (and science says neither can most people).

A few weeks back I shared a post about why I wake up at 4:22am. Through the use of a few goals and a basic structure for my morning time, I made it easier to be more disciplined about how I spend that time – so I don’t get up early and just waste it browsing Twitter. I use the same concepts planning my day that I do in my morning routine: set some goals, block off the time, and setup my tools to help me be productive. Using these concepts I feel like I can (usually) get work done, at work, and not feel like I wasted too much time being randomized.

I firmly believe that you need to allocate the appropriate time to every task or else you’ll never get them any of them done during the day. I also believe that you can’t let notifications define how you spend your time. So, to start, here are my tactical goals for each workday:

  1. Output high-quality deliverables (can be written and verbal)
  2. Support my team (employees and co-workers)
  3. Support my management
  4. Learn something new

How I structure my day


7:30am – 8:00am :: Triage and Prep
While eating breakfast at home I read through my inbox, scanning for emails requiring significant work and creating tasks for them in Asana. If the email needs long response I will Boomerang it for 9:30am. If it’s quick, I shoot off an answer. This is the basic “Getting Things Done” methodology that I’ve followed for years. The last step is crucial: for everything in Asana that is due today, I make sure it is has the appropriate time blocked off on my calendar – as an actual appointment.

9:30am – 10:00am :: Email
All of the emails that need a thoughtful response but no other work go into this time.

10:00am – 12:00pm :: PWT (Personal Work Time)
I keep the mornings blocked off to crank out large deliverables, like PRDs, contracts, or competitive reviews. During PWT I “go dark” (I’m a spy movie junkie) by eliminating all notifications. More on this later.

12:00pm – 12:45pm :: Lunch
I try as hard as I can to eat lunch away from my desk and with the team. With the amount of meetings I have this is often the best time during the day to catch up with the team, chat socially, and hopefully laugh a bit at some bad geek jokes.

12:45pm – 1:00pm :: Break
I hate going right back to work after I eat, so if it’s not terrible outside I will go take a lap or two around the block. I usually leave my phone in the office and try to do nothing but soak up a little of the city, clear my head, and get ready for the afternoon.

1:30pm – 2:00pm :: Work Email, Skype, Personal Email
Quick check on work email following the same methodology from the morning spot. I think take the remaining time to check my personal email and various social network accounts.

2:00pm – 5:00pm :: Meetings
This is where I focus on supporting my team and my management. I put all of my 1:1’s with my directs into this time period (once a week), plus any brainstorming or sync up meetings with our various teams and offices.

5:00pm – 6:00pm :: PWT
I usually get a spurt of creative energy later in the day, so I keep a PWT blocked off during this hour to crank through more meaty tasks from Asana. If I don’t have the creative energy that day I use this time to do a bunch of smaller tasks that have queued up in Asana (checking in with customers, investors, etc.).

6:00pm – 6:30pm :: Learning
I use this time to review internal wiki articles, trainings, or other work-related information that I want to read and review.

6:30pm – 7:00pm :: Email and Cleanup
A last pass through emails, creating Asana tasks and moving unfinished time blocks around the next few days.

This doesn’t hold true for every single day given that meetings, travel, and other natural causes can introduce unavoidable change, but I keep to it about 90% of the month. The change that most often happens is I have to slide stuff around during the day to accommodate last-minute meetings. The key here is to be disciplined but flexible. Just because you can’t accomplish something in the time you originally scheduled doesn’t mean that you just hope you’ll find the time later: grab the blocked off time and move it to a new spot where you know you can get it done.

How I setup my machine to get work done

In my “What I Use 2015” post I covered a few of the awesome tools and apps that help me be productive. Here’s a few setup-style tricks and hacks that I use to help me stay focused, especially during PWT.

I use color coding as though my life depended on it. I find that it helps to make my calendar glance-able, and also let’s me visually audit my time to see if I’m spending it in the right places. I use colors for 1:1’s, working sessions, etc., but the most important are Red for Customer Interaction and Blue for PWT.

Multiple Chrome users
I have three user accounts on Chrome on my work laptop: Work, Personal, and Demo. We can ignore Demo since it is for demo’ing our product. In Work, I have all of my work accounts for ThinkingPhones, my Gmail, JIRA, and other accounts are all logged in here. I do not have Facebook or Twitter logged in to this user. In Personal I have, well, all my personal stuff like email, Twitter, FB, etc. I do not have my work stuff logged in there. This makes it so that when I’m cranking on work tasks in the Work persona I won’t easily open a Facebook tab and get lost in the feed.

Multiple Mac desktops
I have multiple Mac desktops setup for, you guessed it, Work, Personal, Demo, and an extra one for Tools. On Work is my Chrome persona for Work, Personal gets the Personal persona, etc. Tools contains our VPN client and terminal windows that I don’t want taking up space in the Work desktop. I have also setup certain programs so their windows open on certain desktops, so iMessage, Spotify, etc. all open on Personal while Evernote and Skype open on Work. This means that I have to make a fairly conscious effort to switch desktops just to check Facebook, Twitter, or iMessage. It sounds annoying to deal with but this has been the single biggest productivity hack I’ve had since the creation of MEATS (my version of GTD).

For all group chats, I turn off notifications and set it to alert me only if my name is mentioned.

Chrome notifications
I turn off all notifications for Gmail’s inboxes.

Whenever I’m in PWT, I flip the Mac Control Panel setting to ‘Do Not Disturb’. I will usually turn it off afterwards, but sometimes I like the quiet and I leave it off for the rest of the day. 🙂

Mac Clock
I set the system clock to announce the time at the top of every hour. I find it a helpful metronome to make sure I haven’t drifted focus, and also to stop and take a break for a minute to shake my legs out and stretch.

For You

Much like with my 4:22am morning routine, this style of working is definitely not for everyone and you can (and should!) come up with the hacks, tweaks, and structure unique to you that will make your days more productive. I’d love to hear any thoughts, feedback, or tricks you have in the comments, thanks!


*As an aside, falconry is pretty legit (link) and someday I’d love to try it.
** Bonus points if you know what movie that’s from.

Earning Your Customer’s Trust: Act Like Their Butcher


My grandfather, Antonio Affronti – known affectionately as Poppa Tony to my siblings and I – immigrated from Italy to the U.S. with his family when he was 19 years old. This was back in the late 1940’s when most of Brooklyn, NY, was empty lots, small shops, and a lot of immigrants from all over Europe living in tiny apartments with their families. In the early 1960’s my grandfather and his brothers, entrepreneurs in the truest sense, opened a small Italian-style butcher shop on Smith Street in Brooklyn called Los Paisanos Meat Market.

Paisanos started out simply: when the shop first opened they kept sawdust on the floor to absorb blood and liquids that dripped during butchering, and my grandfather would smoke Te-Amo cigars behind the counter while working (no joke). Like most entrepreneurs at the time they didn’t write down (or even think of) a policy for how to treat customers, they had no formal plans for how to grow the business, nor did they have to worry about Yelp reviews or complaints on Twitter.

A simple truth, however, was readily apparent to them: as a small retail business, your customers’ loyalty and trust in you and your product is the most important asset you can ever have. In 1965 they definitely did not have CRM tools, retention metrics, or even SendGrid (how did they get by?!). Instead they focused on having good conversations ‘over the counter’ as their customers ordered their food and shared a bit about their lives. Even when the store was packed and the line was outside the door, my grandfather and his staff always took the time to ask each customer questions like “How’s your family?”, “Did you take that trip?”, or “Is your son’s leg doing better?” These are not your “How’s the weather?” questions, these are the type of questions that demonstrate genuine caring and interest and ultimately increase loyalty and trust.

In the early ‘90s my father, Mike, took over Los Paisanos from my grandfather and has been running the business full-time ever since. His extensive background in retail shops, incredible attention to detail, and his love of meeting new people made him uniquely suited to run such a customer-driven business. Don’t worry, though, about Poppa Tony. He is 85 years old and still drives to the shop on Sundays to spend time behind the counter and to say hi to his favorite customers.

It’s 2015 and Paisanos Butcher Shop is still there now, standing proudly as one of the oldest family-owned business in Brooklyn and enjoying a loyal following of customers made up of local Brooklynites, Manhattanites who used to be Brooklynites, and even a few celebrities (who I believe are all Brooklynites). If you’re in town and around the neighborhood you should stop by; ask for the Paisanos Sandwich and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

My father has worked tirelessly to expand Paisanos over the years. It now includes a large wholesale operation that services many of the restaurants in Brooklyn and south Manhattan, and a new burger joint called “The Butcher Burger” that is inside the Barclay’s Center. This expansion and innovation has required some changes away from old habits, like the disappearance of the sawdust on the floor and the fact that the shop does not have a smoking section anymore. They have a computerized point of sale system, several accountants and bookkeepers, QuickBooks, and the requisite Yelp, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages. Paisanos embraced technology in order to stay relevant, increase revenues, and grow its business.

I encourage you to walk into Paisanos sometime, lean against the wall, and just listen to the conversations that happen over the counter. I was there this week picking up some steaks and walked in on my father talking to a customer who, based on the conversation, had recently broken up with his girlfriend and was discussing the fallout with him. My father listened and shared some thoughts that were half “toughen up” and half “you’ll be okay” in their guidance, all while clearly showing they were friendly and that this customer trusted him. I reflected that this scene demonstrated my father’s Rolodex-like ability to remember almost every important personal fact and detail about the customers he talks with. Over the years I’ve learned that it’s not a salesman’s trick nor something he has to work that hard at; he genuinely cares and listens to his customers in every interaction he can. This level of conversation and caring has resulted in a strong 5-star rating on Yelp and glowing reviews of the staff at Paisanos. Along the way this slogan made its way onto the signage at Paisanos: “We treat you the way we want to be treated.”

I never went into the butcher business. Truth be told, the site of blood makes me kinda weak in the knees and I have focused my assistance on the technology and business sides of the house. Throughout my career in technology, whether at Microsoft during an Executive Briefing Session with a company, or at Klink when my CEO and I were hand-pitching our early customers, I have always remembered the examples my grandfather and father showed me time and time again: be genuine, get to know your customers, and you’ll earn their trust.


Why I Wake Up at 4:22am


I was having lunch with some co-workers last week and the topic of morning routines came up. Everyone was sharing what time they woke up, how much they liked or hated it, and the things they did immediately after their feet hit the floor. The conversation turned to me with the question of “Someone told me you get up super early, is that true?”

I’m usually hesitant to tell people what time I wake up in the morning. Sharing the time usually causes whomever I’m speaking with to say something like – emphasis usually theirs – “Seriously? WHY WOULD YOU GET UP THAT EARLY?”

That happened last week. When I told my coworkers that I voluntarily wake up at 4:22am every weekday they looked at me like I was crazy. They shared that familiar sentiment of shock and curiosity, colored with the appropriate observation of “WHY!? We don’t have to be at work until 9:15am.”

Let me explain.

Mr. Wizard

I’ve been a morning person since I was a little kid. As a young nerd I would stay up past midnight every night reading my Hardy Boys novels or writing programs in BASIC on my Apple IIGS (I really miss that computer). In the mornings, my parents would come downstairs when they woke up and often find me sitting by myself at 5:30am in the kitchen, eating Captain Crunch and watching back-to-back episodes of Mr. Wizard before getting ready for school.

There are numerous articles and guides that support the idea that mornings are a time when you’re more creative, energized and productive. The Journal of Applied Psychology even has a study that indicates a strong positive correlation between proactive people and morning people:

“Morning people were more proactive than evening types, and people with small differences in rise time between weekdays and free days were also more proactive persons. Sleep length (on weekdays and on free days) and total time spent in weekend oversleep did not show any relationship with proactivity. These results suggest that morning people are more proactive than are evening types.”

Before I share more, let me say that I do not believe that people who wake up at 8am (like my wife) are more lazy than others, or that people who need more sleep are some form of productivity laggards. The same study I shared above also highlights how differences in circadian rhythms, metabolism, and other individual factors strongly influence the amount of sleep you need and what time you need to wake up. Sleep length and times, like nutrition and many other things about our bodies, is inherently different across each of us and requires personal experimentation to maximize it.

I do believe that even if you’re not a ‘morning person’ in the traditional sense you can hack the early part of your day to make it more productive.

Being Principled

Like my email triage system and many other personal productivity hacks, I’ve spent a non-trivial amount of time ‘tuning’ my morning routine. I don’t want to get up early and waste the time reading Twitter and Instagram (which would be super easy), so I designed my mornings around these principles:

  1. Get chores out of the way
    I don’t get home until late and I hate coming home to chores (like taking care of the cats).
  2. Get my head on straight
    Plan my day, get my calendar in my head, and know what I’m doing that night.
  3. Get smarter
    Spend undistracted time learning new things. Get my tech news fix and re-share content.
  4. Get healthy
    Exercise and eat some good food.

The times below represent the goal state for how I want to spend my mornings. I think I do it with about 90% consistency. I believe that part of having a good morning routine is listening to your body and knowing when it’s telling you things like “Hey, you’re sick. You need to sleep in today.”, or the lovely “Yo dude, that fourth scotch last night was one too many. Take an Advil and go back to bed.”

The Routine

4:22am – Alarm goes off.

I set if for 4:22am because I believe that waking on the quarter or half hour makes it easy to say “I’ll just sleep for another 15 (or 30) min.” Sleeping an extra eight minutes feels less useful to me and incentivizes me to get up. I take those next eight minutes to actually wake myself up, trying to do it slow and with some degree of mindfullness. I sit up, clear my head, throw some sweats on, and put my contacts in.

4:30am – Chore duties.

I feed the cats, clean their water bowls, scoop litter, etc. We have three cats so this actually takes a few minutes. I’ll brew some coffee in parallel and also fill a giant bottle of water to drink before class. I run the laundry (I wash and dry, Amy folds), and do a little light vacuuming (with a quiet dust vac – I save the Dyson for weekends).

4:40am – Learn.

I’m trying to re-learn Italian this year, so I spend 10min every morning using Duolingo to practice different lessons. I found that it wakes my brain up and gets my Duolingo score up for the day. I then try to practice another 10min sometime during the day.

4:50am – Read.

I spend about 15min reading tech news sites. I like to read articles on their actual sites so I use a Chrome bookmark folder called “Daily Industry Review” to auto-open these sites and then click through them. I try to read 1-2 articles per site and will use Hootsuite to schedule them into my Twitter and LinkedIn feeds. Long articles get sent to Pocket for reading on the train.

5:05am – House logistics

I use this time to update our budget, take care of our rental properties, and deal with any household logistics that I need to via email. This is mostly managing our budget in the excellent YouNeedABudget software, emailing tenants about any issues, and reviewing notes from homeowners meetings.

5:15am – Plan my day

I spend the last 10min of this part of the morning reviewing my calendar for the day. I move personal and work appointments around as needed and generally get my head around where I’m going to be and who I’m going to be meeting with.

5:25am – Get to the gym

Get ready for the gym and bike to Crossfit. I usually get there about 15min early to stretch and warmup.

6:00am – Workout / Blog

I workout at Crossfit South Brooklyn on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays during the week, and both Saturday and Sunday on the weekend. Tuesdays and Fridays are rest days in our gym’s Crossfit programming, and on those days I use this hour to work on my blog.

Back when I first joined Microsoft I was single and had no after-work responsibilities. So I used to go to the gym after work but then wouldn’t get home until 11pm, all awake and energized from exercising. No bueno if you’re trying to get quality sleep (more on this later in the post). After a few months of dating Amy she asked me to not spend two hours per night at the gym instead of hanging out with her. A valid request, and my change to morning workouts happened pretty shortly thereafter. I quickly found I loved getting my workout in during the morning, a sentiment that has only gotten stronger since switching to Crossfit several years ago. It makes me feel energized, and I don’t have that nagging feeling of “damn it I have to go to the gym tonight” throughout the day.

7:15am – Cook, Eat, Triage

After I bike home from the gym I cook a quick breakfast for Amy and I. I’m usually starving since I work out fasted and will make (for myself) a four-egg scramble with bacon, sausage, and veggies, usually with yogurt and blueberries on the side. Yum. While I eat breakfast I take my first look at my work email, reviewing urgent threads and seeing what came in overnight. I keep Inbox Zero so anything in there is either new from the last 12 hours or returned by Boomerang.

8:30am – Head to work

Leave for work. I *love* the R train.

9:15am – Daily standup

Arrive at work for the daily scrum standup. Try to seize the day.

Small Goals, Big Results

As I mentioned earlier, this routine represents my ideal morning and I think I’m able to do it without about 90% consistency. The 10% is from things like traveling, being sick, having gone out the night before or having stayed up super late working. The times and structure for how I accomplish these task has come over time. A big part of the evolution has been setting small goals that work towards a bigger one. Many years ago I was waking up at 5am but I wanted to try waking up earlier. I knew I’d like an extra 30min in the morning, but that’s a big jump and also has a lot of impact on your evening. So I started small: my goal was waking up at 4:45am twice a week, then after a few weeks it became 4:30am, then after a few weeks I spread that out to all five weekdays. More recently that has worked with tasks like Duolingo, and even finding the optimal time to leave the house for the subway.

Count All The Sheep

If you’re still reading this (sorry it’s so long), you’re likely wondering what time I go to sleep since I wake up at 4:22 in the morning. When I was a kid doing the Captain Crunch + Mr. Wizard thing in the AM I was sleeping between four to five hours a night. My father is the same way and we’ve both maintained about five hours of sleep per night throughout our lives. I’ve never been tested but I’m fairly sure I have some variant of the ‘less sleep’ gene.

My goal for the past few years has been to keep improving the quality of the sleep I get by making small hacks and tweaks wherever possible. There’s a lot of good research and plenty of articles that describe how it doesn’t matter how much sleep you need – whether you’re an 8hr person or a 3hr person – it’s the quality that makes such a big difference and enables you to be more productive in the morning and the rest of the day. Unless I’m working late or am going out with friends, I’ll try to get in bed at 11pm on weeknights. Here are some of the hacks I do to get try and keep my sleep quality high:

  • No coffee after 3pm during the day. I’m uber sensitive to caffeine and only need my two cups in the morning.
  • No naps during the day.
  • I try to avoid using my computer or iPad for the 30min before I get into bed to reduce the amount of blue light pulverizing my brain. I have F.Lux running on all my devices to help with winding down when I need to work late.
  • I try not to eat my dinner right before bed.
  • I have a tablespoon of almond butter right before bed to help balance out my blood sugars.
  • I drink one full glass of water.
  • I spend about 15min reading on my Kindle Paperwhite after getting in bed.
  • I’ve found that using a sleep mask helps me a lot. A great side effect is that I’m now conditioned such that when I need to sleep in random places (redeye flights, trains, etc.), I pop the sleep mask on and literally start to get tired. #pavlov

The Reason

The best part about having a productive morning? When I leave work I feel like there’s nothing left for me to do except drink a glass of scotch, hang out with my wife and friends, or binge-watch House of Cards.

What’s your morning routine like?

* picture at the top from