Managing Yourself, Emails and All

How to deal with the daily onslaught of demands, data and dilemmas.

November 17 2010 by Robert Lawrence Kuhn


I travel with two laptop computers (finally Macs, after 25 years with PCs and much family goading), a Blackberry, an iPad and two phones. Am I nuts? Or the new normal?

I could get along with fewer devices, obviously. But I’ve resigned myself to the realization that in order to live with attenuated anxiety, my psyche requires communications redundancy beyond the rational. Computers die or get infected; networks break down; software gets corrupted. But I’m protected. I don’t worry—other than remembering to charge all those devices, and to scoop them all up, including their AC adapters, when leaving hotels. (The alternative, I suppose, is to seek psychiatric intervention, but I don’t have the time.)

CEOs today are overloaded with information—you know this, everyone knows this—because in addition to all the traditional demands on a CEO’s time (especially noisome personnel problems), you need to respond to emails, the number of which continues to swell, and to surf the web, because you dare not ignore this primary source of information. Furthermore, many now also feel the compulsion to keep up with their social media (one modern malady I have so far not caught).

These seemingly unavoidable things to do have been accumulating, mushrooming. This is dangerous, because larger issues are left to languish; some go unaddressed. Worse, perhaps, is the fact that as our attention spans have been conditioned to shrink, our response times have been compelled to quicken. The whiplash can trigger snap judgments and poor decisions.

How to deal with the massively multiple media and hourly avalanches of raw information? How to self manage? Here’s my approach. It’s certainly not the only approach—it’s probably not the best approach—but it does offer a few precepts on how to manage yourself. Personally, I do lots of things in career and life, so managing myself is critical to my functioning.

I group these precepts into three categories: time management, task management and business management. If this seems like simple stuff, it is, but don’t let the simplicity undermine its power.

Time management

Answer emails immediately. To me, this is core. Emails now dominate my life. Handled properly, emails skyrocket efficiency. So here’s how I work them: First, I erase the junk emails, then march through the easy ones, skipping over those more involved or difficult. Finally, I circle back and tackle the ones I would love to skip. I remind myself though, that “difficult” is the worst excuse for postponement. In most cases, delay will not improve my response, and I will just have to start thinking about it all over again—and until then it will haunt me. So, unless an email is absolutely impossible to answer at the moment—for example, you must wait for a key fact—answer every difficult email in the order it arrived.

Next, have a system for filing emails. Hard disk storage is very cheap, so save all your emails, transferring them from your working files to archives. When to transfer? Some people do it immediately, feeling uncomfortable with many emails in current boxes. I’m not a good email eraser or filer. I’m a saver: I like them all stacked in my current file, all 15,000 or so each year (this is after eliminating the junk and the trivial). I do the transfer once a year—an unpleasant New Year’s Day when I review (rapidly) these 15,000 emails of the previous year.

Be selective in web surfing. Scanning websites can be addictive. If you don’t check your favorites continually, you feel as if you need a fix, with psychic pressure building slowly in your brain as if it were a spider crawling slowly up your back. The key is to have a relatively small number of must-visit sites. In addition, every day try to allocate time for random surfing: getting lucky in finding stuff is great but unpredictable, but what is sure is the kind of rapid-scanning capacity you will build. The key is to follow threads of relevance.

Set your own agenda (as much as possible). The CEO seat, to paraphrase Harry Truman, is where the buck stops. This means that every problem, every issue that others cannot, will not, or are too scared to handle will come barreling up to you. The effect of this can mean that more than 90 percent of a CEO’s time is dedicated to agendas set by others. Solving other people’s problems is surely part of a CEO’s job, but it’s not the whole job and, if importance is defined as having greatest impact on the future of the firm, usually it’s not the most important. The first step to salvation here is at least to recognize who or what is setting your agenda. As CEO, how much of your day is filled with issues that others have triggered? Try keeping track of your every activity for a day. See how much time is taken by reacting to others. It is vital that much of your schedule be proactive, set by yourself, so that you are following your own agenda.

Task management

Stress those tasks that only you can do. As CEO, no doubt you can do many things better than others—after all, that’s why you are the CEO. Even so, let them do it. That way you are free to focus on those special things that only you can do. This is Economics 101, the law of relative advantage.

Seek the biggest bang. I’ve coined a fundamental efficiency-ratio test for CEOs. It’s kind of obvious; here’s the formula: “impact on your company” as the numerator and “your time” as the denominator. You will be amazed how often you are sub-optimizing your time, and all too often wasting it all together. Thus, try to assess the importance of tasks in terms of their impact. Not the immediate impact on people who may be complaining or nagging, but the ultimate impact on the future of the company.

Focus on rate-limiting factors. Each day look for those key elements of projects or parts of systems that are the ones most likely at the moment to constrain or restrain progress. Consider your self-management like a Pert System (Project Evaluation and Review Technique), where the tasks you tackle are those that lie in the Critical Path.

Business management

The two primary tasks of CEOs are setting strategy and managing people. If you find yourself beset by so many issues and problems that you are hurrying the latter and ignoring the former, you are functioning sub-optimally and your company will suffer. (“Suffer” means not only enduring bad things but also not achieving good things.) Here I stress strategy.

Scan for game-changers beyond your control. What could happen in your industry that could have dramatic impact? Could new technologies or ways of doing business make your products obsolete? What kinds of corporate existential disasters could erupt? What might happen when Chinese companies enter your market?

Seek game-changers that you can control. Give yourself a chance to make a huge difference. Allocate some time to assessing what you might do to take your company to a whole new level. Perhaps it’s making an acquisition or introducing a new product. The point here is to actively search for big moves—and to have sufficient time to be able to do it well.

Oh, and while we’re dealing with personal aspects of being a CEO, here’s something not in any of the three categories: Keep healthy. Eat well. Exercise regularly. Get enough sleep. Regarding exercise, even 20 minutes three times a week works wonders. Seek diversity—aerobic, heart-pounding, weight-bearing, stretching, sports. It’s especially good to learn a new sport, one that requires your body, and hence your brain, to learn new things. No matter what your age, such physical and mental struggles stimulate growth of new neurons (brain cells), a recent and revolutionary finding. And with new neurons, you may be able to answer emails faster.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn, with a doctorate in brain research, is an international investment banker and corporate strategist who advises multinational corporations on doing business in China. A longtime adviser of the Chinese government, he is the author of How China’s Leaders Think (John Wiley), which features exclusive conversations with China’s senior political leaders, current and future, and with leaders in diverse areas of Chinese society. Dr. Kuhn is the creator and host of the public television/PBS series Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God.