by Thomas Wailgum

How to Be a Supremely Productive Person: A Chat With John Halamka

Jan 09, 20086 mins

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.

John Halamka is one busy man. He’s not only the CIO of Harvard Medical School and the CareGroup system of four hospitals. He’s also a doctor, a husband with a 14-year-old daughter, a rock climber, a wine maker and a passionate blogger.


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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. Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum talked with Halamka about why RIM chose him, and his newfound fame and (lack of) fortune.

John Halamka rock climbing with his RIM BlackBerry
John Halamka, CIO and rock climber. Are you on your BlackBerry right now?

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 like?

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?

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 lucky.

I recently wrote about the information overload that CIOs face. One of the suggestions to minimize the overload is to “discontinue BlackBerry use.” What do you think of that?

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 “A-List.”

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 know.

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 permission?

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 says “None.”

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 role?

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 the organization.

Have you ever uttered the word CrackBerry, and are you now contractually forbidden from using the word?

I have certainly used it, and I have not signed any contracts whatsoever that restrict anything that I say.