How to Be a Supremely Productive Person: A Chat With John Halamka
John Halamka has two CIO titles, a family, passionate rock-climbing and wine-making interests and a major-league blog habit. We discuss his celebrity turn in a BlackBerry ad, his tips for e-mail triage, how he sleeps three hours a night and why he now understands Britney Spears.
And thanks to his BlackBerry ad running online and in
magazines such as Time and The Economist, he’s now a
celebrity. Halamka’s spot is part of Research In
Motion’s “Ask someone why they love their BlackBerry”
campaign, which features a wide range of people (a fashion
director of Elle magazine, a chocolatier, a
consultant to the Native American community) professing
their undying affection. CIO.com Senior Editor Thomas
Wailgum talked with Halamka about why RIM chose him, and his
newfound fame and (lack of) fortune.
CIO.com: Are you on your BlackBerry right
John Halamka: I am indeed. I’m speaking to
you on the very device that was pictured on those ads.
What was the photo and video shoot
In a funny sort of way, I now know why Britney Spears is so
screwed up. I’d never been to this kind of a photo shoot
before. So I flew down to La Guardia and was driven to Soho
Studios, which has this cool post-industrial look, which is
very good for this kind of thing. I went into this studio and
immediately had a makeup person, a wardrobe person and a person
who was offering me vegetarian smoothies.
And I thought, if you lived in a world where people were
doing your hair, your face, dressing you and bringing you
smoothies, you might really believe that you are somebody more
than an average human.
How did RIM approach you?
They just contacted me via e-mail and asked: Would you like
to be one of the BlackBerry advocates? And I think that was
reflective of the fact that I had written quite a lot about how
I used mobile communications in my job. So it truly began with
an unsolicited e-mail.
You know, the more I read about you, the more I feel like
I’m not doing enough with my life. In the ad, you mention your
five full-time jobs. You have a wife, a daughter, and you’re a
rock climber and a wine maker. You’re also a blogger. How do
you have time to do all those things?
I sleep three and a half hours a night.
For real. I have since the age of 18. So even though I’m 45
years old, in chronological wake time I’m actually 60. It’s
actually a time management thing. There are 168 hours in a
week, and it’s just a question of how you divide them up. I
also haven’t had any caffeine for seven years, and I’ve been
vegan for six years. So I think the three and a half hours of
sleep per night thing is just genetic adaptation. I’m just
I have a blog entry that specifically answers this
question—”My Top 10 Rules for E-mail Triage.” I do
everything in real-time. Like when you e-mailed me, and I
responded in real-time. [Editor’s note: Halamka responded in
less than six minutes.]
So everything is real-time, but I triage my messages based
on criteria of: Who’s sending them? What is the subject? What
is the urgency? That does mean that with 600 to 700 e-mails per
day, I truly have to stratify them to: needs an answer right
now, can wait until later, or if it needs a pithy answer I’ll
write that tonight or over the weekend. It’s my personal triage
rules that have enabled this to work.
I see. So if I hadn’t received a response in a short
amount of time, I would know that I’m not on your
Well, of course what I assess is if it’s a customer or it’s
a patient care issue. It turned out today that my 12 to 2 p.m.
meeting was canceled. It was perfect happenstance.
You’ve joined the ranks of the small group of CIOs
who have been in advertisements—for example, Randy Mott,
when he was at Wal-Mart and now HP; Dave Barnes, who’s at UPS.
You’re in good company doing this.
Well, my mom was certainly impressed. When you asked the
question, “Who was the most aware of these advertisements?” the
answer was my mom.
I’ve had a couple of colleagues from outside organizations
comment on the ads. But, interestingly, if you look at my peers
or people within my organization, I’ve had no comments at all.
It could just be they don’t read these magazines. I don’t
Did you have any reluctance about doing this?
Because it is a vendor, and you’re in a highly regulated
industry, do you have to disclose the deal with anyone? Get
Let me tell you about how I deal with all conflicts of
interest. It’s quite simple: I never take personal compensation
for anything. That way, when I fill out the
conflict-of-interest statement at the end of the year, it just
So this means that if there is a desire for someone to pay
for my services, lectures or [to give me] honoraria, I donate
them to the institution. This way I never have a personal
conflict of interest. And that’s what I did in this
case—to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Just so you
know, this was not a heavily compensated thing. There are
standard fees which are given to any person who appears in film
because there are rules of the Screen Actors Guild. When I
walked on the set, I was given the appropriate paperwork and
given $100, which is the standard fee for filming some member
of the Screen Actors Guild in something like this.
What do you think these ads running in mainstream
publications, like Time and BusinessWeek, say about the CIO
Everyone recognizes that the CIO is now a professional role
that is a peer with the CFO, the COO, and it’s extraordinarily
strategic. It’s no longer the guy in the back room with the
billing mainframe doing bits and bytes. It’s a peer member of
the senior management involved in all the strategy making of
Have you ever uttered the word CrackBerry,
and are you now contractually forbidden from using the
I have certainly used it, and I have not signed any
contracts whatsoever that restrict anything that I say.