Balancing the Grind with Abdullah Ramay, CEO at Pablo and Rusty’s Coffee Roasters

In our conversation, Abdullah Ramay, CEO of Pablo and Rusty’s Coffee Roasters, walks us through his journey of leading a specialty coffee brand known for its commitment to sustainability and innovation.

Starting his day with meditation and ending it with family time, Abdullah gives us a look into how he balances the demands of running a business that’s as focused on making a positive environmental impact as it is on delivering quality coffee.

Let’s start with your background! Can you share with us your career journey and what you’re currently up to?

I love solving problems at the crossroads of business strategy, people leadership, technology, and execution, using data-driven and evidence-based methods. I’m an experienced executive, purpose-driven individual, thought leader, regular writer, mentor, and advisor.

Leadership has always felt like a natural calling. My strength lies in bridging strategic decisions (the why) with execution tools (the how)—spanning project management, technology, processes, leadership, and data.

My academic journey includes certifications as a Public Accountant (CPA) and Project Management Professional (PMP), an MBA from Macquarie University, a Master’s in Professional Accounting from UNSW, and qualifications from the Australian Institute of Company Directors (GAICD) and the Governance Institute of Australia (FGIA).

My career has spanned various roles in teaching, research, the automotive industry, entrepreneurship, e-commerce, finance, technology, investing, and FMCG. I’m a fervent self-learner, believing that learning ceases only with life. My ultimate concern is seeing potential go unfulfilled, settling for mediocrity.

I’m multilingual, speaking English, Urdu, Punjabi, and Arabic, and have a profound love for poetry, with Emily Dickinson among my favourites. Leisure time is spent travelling with family, hiking, camping, cooking, and acquiring new skills.

We’d love to know what a typical day is like for you. Could you describe a recent workday?

I like to wake up early when possible. Around 5 am. My day starts with meditation and reflection – practice I maintain throughout the day.

I get dressed. I often don’t have breakfast. And I don’t drink coffee this early. I have some water and some vitamins at this point.

I review my priorities for the day ahead. Both professional and personal. I am an integrator and see professional and personal priorities existing on the same plane (more on this later on).

After this, I like to squeeze in a few repetitions of strength training if I can. I say good morning to my family (my lovely wife and two sons). We often discuss if anything important is happening in our lives on that day.

Then I head out the door. Hopefully, before 7 am. I like to take public transport on most days due to sustainability and because I like walking to the train station.

I need to leave early enough so that I can get a seat on the train. If I have a seat, I have the privileged position of working throughout the journey. Sometimes, if I am delayed for any reason and I have the flexibility, I will leave a bit later so that I can sit on the train and use that time productively .

As I walk to the station, I often listen to personal development material or a new or old book on Audible.

Once on the train, I start work. I am a fan of the Eisenhower Matrix (prioritising tasks based on a matrix of important and urgent tasks. Doing the important and urgent task first and then moving to important non-urgent and so on). I also believe in the power of eating the frog. Doing the hardest or the task least wanted first.

I find this early period in the day one of the most productive. There are minimal interruptions and it’s perfect for deep work. The rest of the day requires a lot more meetings, interruptions and context-switching.

My destination depends on the day. Often it’s our office and roastery in North Ryde. Or if I have a meeting it can be in the city or another place. I prefer off-site meetings to be early. Depending on what’s on for the day, this starts around 8.30 am to 9.00. (Although, I have meetings sometimes as early as 7 am).

Between 8 am to 9 am is often also when I have my first coffee. It’s mostly a black coffee (i.e. without milk). It can be an espresso, a chilled filter, a batch brew or any one of many amazing brewing methods that exist.

My mornings depend on the day of the week as well as how many external meetings I have. For example, Mondays and Wednesdays have quite a few internal meetings. Whereas Tuesdays and Thursday mornings are kept internal meetings free mostly on purpose.

Depending on my schedule, I will get started with meetings or use timeblocks for specific projects or deep work. A day can include meetings covering different areas such as finance, product development, purchasing, HR, marketing, design, supply chain, sales and strategy as well as various team meetings.

I am a big believer in preparing for meetings. Even if it’s only 5 minutes. It’s important to go into a meeting (whether external or internal) with a clear purpose. We spend a lot of time in meetings. We all owe it to ourselves and each other to make these as productive as possible.

Typically around midday, I go for a walk and get a small snack. Often a protein bar or a protein yoghurt along with an apple or another fruit. I also use this time for some meditation and reflection. To get out of the whirlwind even for a few minutes. Then I review how my day is going and what priorities I have left that I must take action, discuss or finish before the end of the day.

I also review my emails and messages. I am lucky to have the privilege of turning off most of my notifications with some rules for special circumstances. This means that often I am in control of when I check my emails and messages.

Most evenings I will have a few meetings. This will be a mix of regular meetings and project or issue-specific meetings. I have been trying of late to ensure that I am the last one to speak on a given topic. This is to ensure that everyone is heard and I don’t influence or bias others. We also use other techniques such as digital idea/suggestion boards or brainwriting to get the best ideas especially disagreements and conflicting ideas out in the open.

If using public transport, I will start to head back around 4.00 pm or 6 pm. Depending on my day and task list. This is to ensure that I get a seat on the train. If I don’t have a seat, then it’s harder for me to continue to work. I typically have a deep work session around this time. The last thing I try to do each day is to review my day and my priorities. Then I look at the next day as well as the remainder of the week. This allows me to start with a good idea of priorities.

As a senior leader, I have the privilege to decide most of my priorities as well as time allocation. However, I still try to keep sufficient blocks of time free to respond to incoming needs, tasks, issues and opportunities. For me, agility is having the capacity and ability to proactively respond to changes in circumstances. This is helped by having some amount of one’s day filled with tasks that can be shifted around to make space.

After I come home, I like to spend some quality time with my family. Depending on the season and when I get home, we have dinner and we tell each other about our day. We may go for a walk or play a game of catch or backyard cricket. We put the kids to bed around 8.30 pm. Then we get some quality time to ourselves. Around 9.30 pm or so, I may do a short stint of writing structured thoughts down. Either for personal clarity or for sharing with the team or the public. Then it’s wind-down time. I try to get to bed around 10.30 pm

Can you define work-life balance for yourself and share with us your approach in maintaining it?

Before I answer the question, I would like to discuss balance vs choice and integrators vs segmentors. I find “balance” a fascinating word. I think work-life “choices” is a better frame to look at this issue.

Balance has a sense of passiveness. A sense that the universe is always pushing us out, and we have to balance. Whereas, choices are more active. We own our choices. “Choice” comes from the idea of cutting. Meaning once you choose something you are cutting off an infinite amount of other possibilities. Choices also mean that each choice has trade-offs.

Secondly, we are not all the same. We can be an integrator or a segmenter. This is a continuum. Segmentors like their work and life to be segregated and don’t like them interfering with each other. Integrators, which I am, like to seamlessly mix work and life. Mind you, this is not about privacy or sharing everything about work and life and vice versa. It’s about viewing them as separate or integrated. There is no right or wrong. However, it’s important to know where you are on the continuum and also where your family is. Life and work are not in competition with each other for me. They can complement and help enrich and enhance each other.

Thirdly, it’s important to make deliberate choices based on one’s context. For me, that means the entire family as our kids are growing up.

Being a senior leader means that I work long hours which sometimes take away from family time. I may need to attend to a matter after hours, on the weekend or even while on holiday. I often spend time learning, thinking and experimenting.

On the other hand, if something is important for our family, I have the privilege to adjust my schedule and make time for it. I have the privilege to do something I enjoy doing.

These choices don’t have to be permanent. Our wants and needs as a family will change. For example, when children are young, adolescents and then grown up, the context may change. This may need a reassessment and adjustment in choices. We know that we make choices about work and family together and each choice has trade-offs.

Lastly, it’s important to differentiate between the short-term and the long-term. Inevitably, work and personal spheres will overlap. It can be a crisis at work or an important thing that comes up in life. It can be a sickness, an illness or a need to travel. In the short term, we can build resilience to manage periods of stretch and prioritise one over the other based on the need. However, over the long term, if things are not well integrated it can lead to personal or family burnout or underperformance at work.

This is the way I have learned to look at work-life balance. It’s by no means perfect and it’s still a learning process for me that I hope to improve each year.

Change is constant, and it’s essential for growth. Have you made any lifestyle changes in the past year to improve your work-life balance?

The biggest change I have made over the last 12 to 18 months is my fitness. I have taken it much more seriously after not giving it the due it required for a while. Now, I try to do a couple of cardio and strength sessions each week. I focus and track what I eat. I try to get good sleep. I also try to walk a lot.

I have the privilege to do a lot of my internal meetings walking. This allows me to have some movement as well as fully focus on the meeting. We have also started doing more physical activities as a family. Such as swimming, hiking, and playing sports. I have seen a lot of benefits of this new focus. I intend to continue this in the future.

We’re always on the lookout for new resources! Can you recommend any books, podcasts, or newsletters that have helped you in your journey towards balance?

Sure thing, here are a few I have enjoyed:

  • CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest – one of the best books on the CEO role I have read
  • Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work – a great book on decision-making
  • Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance – thinking about etiquette and norms in a hybrid / digital world
  • I also love all things tech and AI and I love TLDR, a daily newsletter with key news in the tech and AI world.

Before we wrap up, do you have any final words of wisdom or insights on work, life, or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

The thing that has helped me the most so far in balancing the grind, is the realisation that I am making active choices. While I cannot control everything, I can control how and what choices I make. This mindset allows me to take ownership of my circumstances and forces me to evaluate those choices when things are out of balance. I aspire to continue to have a beginner’s mind and continue to learn and improve.

About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.