Interview with Matt Guay, marketer at Zapier

Matthew Guay

Our interview series asks developers, designers, and other knowledge workers to share their favorite productivity tools and techniques, and how they overcome struggles like procrastination and distraction. Read all our interview posts here.

First up, can you tell us who you are and what you do?

I’m Matthew Guay, senior writer and editor on the Zapier marketing team. Zapier connects 700+ apps into automated workflows that help people get more done in less time—and through my writing, I help our users find the best apps for their work and teach them how to use software more effectively.

Note: You can use Zapier with RescueTime, too! Check out our integration here.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Zapier’s a fully remote team, so I work most days from my home office. I’ll check email and notifications over breakfast, start work around 9, and finish out the day around 5:30—unless I have meetings with US time zones, in which case I’ll move my schedule around and work in the evenings since I live in Bangkok.

My main tasks are writing new content for the Zapier blog, reviewing apps, and creating Learning Center books—and then editing content for each of those from our own team and freelancers that write for our site. Working on opposite timezones from most of the Marketing team, I spend the first part of my day catching up on email, Slack messages, Trello comments, and so on. Then, depending on the schedule, I’ll dive into writing or editing. For either one, I try to work a couple hours on one task without distraction—perhaps writing something from 10 to noon, then checking back on Slack/email right after lunch before focusing on something else or going back to that original task.

You can’t always stay productive on focused, large projects like that forever, so I like to break them up with other tasks. I also have smaller edits, publishing tasks like drip emails and social networking posts, and other internal tasks that I can slot in-between larger tasks. Those are great to get started on something when I’m not feeling focused or “inspired” enough to dive into writing a longform piece.

What are your favorite tools or methods for organizing your work?

Trello for putting stuff into a workflow. With teams, it’s a great way to list where each task stands in its current workflow—something that’s important for content with its various drafting and editing stages.

OmniFocus, Todoist, and other to-do lists are great for making sure you don’t forget crucial tasks that’d otherwise slip your mind. I use OmniFocus right now for that.

For day-to-day tasks, though, paper and pen are my newfound favorite way to organize things. There is something about looking through a list of tasks and writing down the things you must do today that keeps the most important things in mind—and keeps you from getting distracted.

One related thing is using a large, standing desk. That gives a bit of spatial organization to my work, where I use my main monitor for core tasks, try to switch to the laptop screen to read or use social media (where it’s just a bit more inconvenient so I’m less likely to do it), and move over to the right to write tasks or ideas down on paper. It feels nice, at least.

How do balance collaborative work with focused solo work periods?

As a remote team member, collaborative work is harder to find the time for than focused, solo work. That’s the one we have to push for.

A few things that have helped us:

Make time for it. Sometimes, you just have to rearrange your schedule, make sure you’re online at the same time as others, and collaborate. Whether it’s in video calls or live-writing in the same Google Doc, some of our most productive times have been in late or early sessions where we pushed ourselves to find time to work together.

Find ways to collaborate asynchronously. It’s actually easier than it’d seem, especially if you can divide up work in a way that each person can take over where the other left off. Say you are editing an article for a coworker in another time zone. Add the edits and ideas during your work day, and they can reply with theirs during their work day (and your night). It takes longer in one way, but in another way the project will be pushed forward while you sleep and you can jump into the finished version in your morning.

Then, even when you’re remote, doing focused work can be tough just because there are always extra distractions. Sometimes you have to force yourself to do the most important things—and deadlines help with that. It’s a terrible thing that we need them, but hey: Deadlines really do make you do things that need done most.

matthew-guay-desk

What’s the best change you’ve ever made to the way you work?

Hiding the dock on my Mac and/or working in full-screen apps is likely the best change I’ve ever made. It’s so easy for that red notification dot to distract you and pull you away from what you should be doing. When I first got an external monitor, I noticed that when the dock was on my laptop screen and not on my larger, main monitor, I was less likely to notice it—and the same effect happened when working only on the laptop in full-screen mode. That prompted me to hide it by default, and it at least seems to keep me more focused.

A standing desk also helped me avoid that drowsy slump after lunch where it’s far easier to do random things instead of being focused. Come back to work and stand while doing it, and just standing there doing nothing productive feels strange (and you’re less likely to feel drowsy, too).

How do you overcome procrastination?

A few things that have helped me:

Starting something and leaving it for the next day. If I start writing the first bit of an article, or edit something in the intro of an article right before leaving work for the day, it’s right there when I open my computer in the morning and easy to jump into.

Do a small task. It’s easy to procrastinate when you feel like you don’t know where to start, so don’t start. Instead, do some other smaller task that you also need to do; that’ll get you being productive and “in the mood” to dive into something bigger.

Jump into the easiest part of a project. Can’t figure out the intro of an article? Don’t worry—write the part you know what to write, and the rest will come. Struggling to reshape a larger article or project that needs deep changes? Start by making the smallest, obvious changes, and it’ll be easier to switch gears and finish out the whole thing.

Keep working when you’re “in the zone.” This may not be the best solution all the time, but if you feel like you can finish something, just finish it even if it makes you work late. If your job is flexible with time, you can then shift things around tomorrow—either way, you’ll be more productive since it’d be harder to re-start tomorrow.

What do you do outside work to wind down and recover?

Running. It puts a gap between my work day and evening time, gives me a chance to expend the physical energy that’s not used up with an office job, and is a great way to reset and clear your mind. Half the time I’ll come up with ideas for new content or figure out what put in an intro I’m stuck on; the other half of the time I’ll literally think about nothing as my own version of meditation.

What does “meaningful work” look like for you? How do you determine what’s meaningful work and what’s not?

Meaningful work means pushing your most important projects forward. The recurring tasks and email can be part of that, but typically they’re things you need to do but that don’t materially change your overall work and performance. Things that have outsized impact.

For me, meaningful work then typically is writing content for our next books. They’re part of our core content strategy, typically drive strong traffic over the long term, and thus have effects beyond just checking off another to-do today.

New projects very often fall under this umbrella, too. Maybe they’ll work; maybe they won’t. But they’re the things we learn from that that just might make a big impact. That’s the stuff worth clearing your schedule for.

How do you make sure you’re always making time for meaningful work vs. everything else that needs to be done?

One of the best things that has helped me have time for meaningful work is to schedule the routine tasks I need to do. For instance, the entire Zapier team does a customer support rotation, which I do on Mondays. I also send a drip email on Mondays, and typically have more weekend notifications to respond to. That makes Mondays great to do all the smaller tasks I need to do, freeing up Tuesday to do focused work.

Is there anything that’s surprised you about working remotely, or anything that you think most people assume incorrectly about remote work?

The most common misperception is that working from home is easier, that you’ll work less and have more free time and could watch TV whenever. That could be the case, perhaps, but it usually isn’t. Instead, you honestly have to try not to work too much since you’re never more than a few steps away from work. This is a growing issue for everyone, though, since smartphones keep us tied to the office everywhere.

And, it’s on you to focus. You could have the TV on—but you’d be much wiser to focus on work just as if you were in the office with everyone watching you. It’s just on you to actually make yourself do it when no one’s watching.

You said you check in with your team when you start your day and again after lunch. What do you do to manage notifications so they’re not overwhelming you, but you’re staying informed of what’s happening?

You know how everyone talks about the email inbox like it’s the worst thing that needs reinvented or killed? I actually like my email inbox, and use it as a place to triage notifications.

Both Slack and Trello are pretty smart about sending email notifications when you’re away—and not sending them when you’re actively using the apps. As such, the easiest way for me to triage notifications and stay informed without being overwhelmed is just to quit apps when I need to focus. Important notifications end up coming in via email, and it’s easy to click through to the correct conversation and add any info you need.

Then I hack Slack to cover the rest of the notifications with a Zap and a filter. Say, GitHub: I need some notifications from GitHub, but I don’t need to know everything the dev team does. So, I have a Zap watch our team’s GitHub for activity, filter it for mentions of my name or projects I’m involved with, and then have Zapier send those to my Slackbot channel. If I’m away, those will filter down to my email inbox the same way.

Most stuff isn’t so urgent you must know right then, so you can let your team know you’ll be “offline”, cram in the work you need to do without distraction, then come back and get caught up rather easily.

If you could work any job in the world for a day, which job would you choose, and why?

I’d be fascinated to work in logistics or at a shipping port for a day. The flow of goods and international trade fascinates me, as perhaps a more tangible version of the internet with its bits flying through the air and fibre, and the scale is mind-boggling on a level that makes tech’s hordes of data seem mild by comparison.


You can find Matthew’s work on the Zapier blog or in Zapier’s Learning Center books. You can also find Matthew on Twitter at @maguay.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.