by Pat Brans

How to manage your time more effectively

Nov 28, 201110 mins
CareersGovernmentIT Leadership

Pamal Sharma has just taken up the role of Group CIO for Vertu, a division of Nokia, after more than three and half years as CIO of the United Kindgom and Ireland at General Motors.

At GM Sharma had pan-european responsibilities, finding new ways of using technology to support GM’s business units across the continent.

Sharma says people have different levels of organisational skills, and most have tried using to-do lists.

But that’s not enough. “People have their to-do lists, but then at the end of the day they look back and realise they’ve spent all their time working on the wrong things,” he says.

“The problem is they don’t prioritise. They simply enumerate things to do, but don’t filter or order the tasks.”

“What I recommend is to maintain no more than seven top priorities. Once you finish the top item, go back and reorder the others. Priorities might have changed, so you need to rethink them before moving on.”

“I don’t advocate prioritising little things, like whether or not you’ll have a cup of tea. Work on getting the big things right, and the smaller tasks will fall into place.”

Sharma also stresses the important of focus. “The other thing I think keeps people from getting things done is they succumb to distraction. We all have different personalities, some people are able to maintain focus, others will forget what they were doing as soon as something more interesting comes up.”

Those who are best at time management are experts at turning down opportunities and focusing on what’s important. That means you will have to refuse most of the things that come your way, says Sharma.

“When somebody comes to you with an opportunity while you’re working on a critical task, the first thing to do is assess the impact of what they are bringing. If it’s not important to you, but is to the other person, try putting it off. Let the other person know you understand it’s of consequence, but that you can’t look at it now. Suggest a time to come back to it. It’s essential to learn how to refuse things in as polite a manner as possible.

“You want to show them respect. But at the same time, you have to avoid getting distracted from things you need to move forward.”

Something else Sharma thinks is important is to minimise the bias that your emotions might bring.

We automatically have a feeling about everything, but if you let that get out of control, you might react in ways you regret.

It’s better to get to the facts, he says. Try to compensate for bias by thinking methodically and finding out what’s really going on.

This same kind of thinking can help maintain focus.

“I’m not devoid of emotion — far from it,” Sharma says. “But you can’t get carried away by only doing what’s emotionally stimulating. By checking against the facts, you can minimise these types of distraction.”

Seven sense Emotion can also have an impact on people management, and Sharma says that those managers who can trust their teams and let go will see more success in the long term.

“The person who puts together the right team and can assign a task and then let go is someone who will do well. If you have to constantly follow up on what people are doing and if people can’t be counted on to deliver, it will only drag you down,” he says.

“I have long been a believer that seven is the magic number. It’s the number of things our brains can keep track of. We have five senses we monitor all the time, and then we have room for two other things. So we are built to think about seven things at a time. That’s why I keep no more than seven top priorities on my to-do list. It’s also why I limit my number of direct reports to seven.”

This thinking is right in line with the famous article by cognitive psychologist George A. Miller called The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, in which the researcher describes the different ways we process stimuli and the limits on how much we can grasp.

Miller says that we can handle around seven chunks, or units of meaning.

For example, an accomplished musician might think of the Beatles’ song Yesterday as a single unit and not have to worry about all the notes which make up that chunk.

Some managers consider it risky to hire bright people, Sharma said. They are afraid the talented and ambitious underlings might be after the manager job.

In his view, if you treat them well, they may indeed take your job. But the good work they do, and their support, will help you move up to a better position as well.

If each manager avoids hiring people that are smarter than him or her, by the time that practice works its way down the food chain, you wind up with a pretty ineffective workforce.

If, on the other hand, each level of management hires the smartest people it can find, the company will get a lot done, he believes.

Bridging the gap A new CIO may not have the opportunity or the time to hire staff according to their own preferences. This is also true of interim executives, who often arrive at times of crisis or stagnation and have to make an impact quickly and effectively.

The role of interim CIO is especially suited to people who are motivated by change, and Bill Limond falls into that category.

A veteran of interim roles, for over a year he has been CIO of the City of London, and has held the position of interim CIO in at least seven other organisations including Transport for London and British Gas.

“When you come into a transitional role, you usually find a situation where people have either lost their way, or they’ve become demotivated”, says Limond.

“The trick is to try to get them fired up again. That’s when things can actually start to happen. It’s always good to go into a new position, with new issues, new personalities and different technology and bring in the experience you have.

“One of the reasons I find the interim function quite interesting is that you’ve got a certain amount of credibility from having done a lot of these kinds of jobs before. You’ve seen a lot of these situations, so you can bring that experience and expertise to each company.

“When you come into a new situation you have to be able to hit the ground running. You need to come to grips with what the main issues are and who are the main movers an shakers.

“Where are the decisions really made in the organisation? I can tell you the answer to that question is not purely on the organisational chart.

“Find the realities? Who are the influencers? Who are the real decision makers? It can be quite challenging when you’re dealing with groups that are well established and set in their ways.

“But it’s all good fun. What I find interesting and motivating is coming in with a change agenda. Driving true change is what gets me going. I find it more gratifying in that on the interim side what we’re trying to deliver are results, whereas when you have a permanent position, as IT director, it becomes somewhat of an advisory role.”

Objective opinions There are a number of things we can learn about time management from an interim CIO. According to Limond, you can do a lot in a very limited amount of time if you are very interested in what you’re doing and if there’s a challenge.

He says it’s the same in personal life: if you have a challenge and a clear objective, you’ll have much more success than if you’re meandering along with business as usual.

If people do have trouble getting fired up, Limond believes they can motivate themselves. “I’ve been into some bad situations, and I find you can talk yourself into a positive, can-do attitude. I’ve never had much difficulty in that area myself, but if you are in a bad frame of mind there are techniques for getting out of it.”

Different people are motivated by different things. Limond says his focus is on change and helping businesses succeed through change.

That’s what gets him going. And it’s this enthusiasm that he tries to communicate to other people when he delegates.

He says that to delegate you have to encourage people. Be positive and sell them the vision. Why is what you’re asking the other person to do for the greater good?

It may take a bit of time, because people might be set in their attitudes or they may be cynical.

“In the initial stages of an interim assignment you can’t delegate that much. Management and delegation has to be built up over a certain time period. But you normally find out who you can trust to deliver within a month or two. Then you start to deal with your own priorities and delegate some things out.

“I try to find the can-do people in an organisation. They’re the ones who will get up and do things. Others have difficulties. They’re very much set in their own ways and they find it hard to change. These people like to stay in their comfort zones and have trouble moving.”

Sometimes an IT department can get locked in to what it regards as its own priorities, and lose sight of what the business is looking for.

Limond insists that business priorities are number one. Typically in a CIO role what one has to do is change mindsets so that people think less about technology and more about strategy.

It’s more about information management, which is what technology is for.

The stress is on the ‘I’ That’s why the interim CIO of City of London considers ‘IT’ to be a misleading term.

“It causes people to focus on technology”, he says. “But the issues for a CIO are much more strategic. It’s not about managing the technology, it’s about managing information. It’s about streamlining business processes. That’s why I think the American term ‘CIO’ is a good one. It puts emphasis on information.

“To motivate, I try to get people to focus on what the business solutions are. What are we looking to accomplish? An IT department can lose its way and get bogged down in technical details. That tends to be its comfort zone.

“What we really need to do is move up the value chain, which means using information systems for information management. In the end, we want to enable people to share knowledge around the business. A lot of that involves changes to business processes. These are big challenges.”

To manage his time, Limond says he likes to get little things done and out of the way. Otherwise, they hang around and gnaw at you.

A sound mind and a sound body will provide you the energy you need. “I use little tricks to get exercise,” Limond says. “I work in a pretty tall building, so I try to run up the stairs two or three times a day. I also walk daily. And I eat light. I eat a vegetarian diet or fish.”

Limond says that while ambition can be a real driver, it can get you into trouble.

“You have to give yourself achievable goals. Finishing a small goal motivates you. You can say you’ve done it and move on to the next one.”

It’s all about cutting your big goals into deliverable chunks of work and putting those chunks into manageable time slots.