Efficiency hacks for IT: 6 tips for getting things done

Use these tips from seasoned IT pros to re-architect your day for maximum impact with minimal stress.

Efficiency - a busy man at his desk, surrounded by chaotic paperwork
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Everyone is busy these days, sure, but research shows that most people are wasting chunks of time throughout their day, whether it's fiddling with the latest tech toy or responding to every email that lands in their inbox.

For those in the technology field, time management is an even tougher task, says Laurie Gerber, co-president of Handel Group Life Coaching. "IT people have this added thing that people constantly need them. It's always an emergency," Gerber says.

More importantly, Gerber says these folks are spending precious time on tasks that don't match up with their priorities and responsibilities.

If that sounds like you, it might be time to get tough -- with yourself. To enhance efficiency, you must set personal ground rules and stick by them, Gerber says. Here are six simple workday hacks from other IT pros that can crank up your productivity.

1. Focus on the biggest tasks

Joe Klecha, CTO at the Detroit-based tech firm Digerati and a fan of author Stephen Covey, says he follows Covey's advice to dedicate time first to "big rocks," followed by "pebbles," "sand" and "water" -- with rocks representing the highest priorities and water the lowest.

"If you reverse and start with water, you can't fit in the rocks, the big priorities," Klecha says. "So for me it's knowing that the most important things that need to get done are always in focus and always have my attention."

To move that strategy from theory to practice, Klecha says he has frequent meetings with other executives to ensure he's targeting the organization's most critical projects. And he evaluates unexpected requests for his attention as they pop up.

"A lot are those things that come in on a day-to-day basis and don't ever become a priority but have the potential to distract," Klecha says. "But they're not so immediate in their demands that they can't wait an hour or two or you can't shuffle them off to someone else."

2. Manage your response time

In the six years that Sri Baskaran has been IT director at Sun Orchard Juicery, the company has doubled its revenue. To keep pace, Baskaran has expanded the IT group, while working closely with his business-side colleagues to consistently meet their needs. Although he wants to be responsive to those he supports, he knows he can't be at everyone's beck and call.

"What I found is, if you answer email as soon as it pops into your inbox, you set the expectation that you're the person who can be easily reached," Baskaran says. Plus, he says, that kind of availability would drain away the time he needs to focus on more critical tasks.

Sri Baskaran, Sun Orchard Juicery

Sri Baskaran, Sun Orchard Juicery

So instead of constantly checking and replying to messages, Baskaran schedules time every day to handle emails and voice mails, a policy he says helps him avoid interruptions.

"If I have to get back to someone, I'll put it on my calendar, schedule time with them to have a conversation," he says, adding that people know -- and he reinforces it in his outgoing messages -- to call his cell number if they need to reach him for urgent issues.

3. Pick the most efficient way to communicate

Although there are multiple ways to communicate with a global team, Greg Davidson, director of the information management services practice at the business advisory firm AlixPartners, says for him the most effective platform is videoconferencing. He points to research showing that most communication is conveyed through body language -- a nonfactor over the phone or through emails.

And video, unlike emails, allows for instantaneous collaboration. "There's nothing like being able to talk in real time with other human beings. It's much clearer, crisper. We get it right the first time if we can look at each other and communicate," Davidson says.

Bryce Austin, CIO at Digineer, a technology and management consulting company, also knows the importance of being a good communicator -- so much so that he's willing to invest in it. "I bought the best Bluetooth [device] I could find so I can have productive conversations and people can hear me," he says.

4. Get everyone in sync

One of the biggest challenges facing CIOs today, says Lawrence Bilker, senior vice president and CIO at Continuity Logic, is the speed of technological change. "The time from concept to implementation is significantly faster. You have to be aware of solutions, you have to be able to respond to strategies quickly, and sometimes the amount of time allocated to research has gone down," he says.

So, like other IT executives, Bilker says he focuses his team on the highest-priority items and makes sure everyone is on the same page. The leadership team gathers every day for a 20-minute scrum and keeps a shared calendar to track meetings so colleagues know who's available and who's not. And his team uses collaborative platforms such as Dropbox and Box to more quickly come together and hash out plans.

5. Analyze your time

Savvy CIOs get insight into their own schedules to guarantee that they're as effective as they can be with their time. Baskaran uses time-tracking software called Toggl which allocates time to various projects and lets him analyze how he's spending his time. He says he can then fine-tune his workday hours and "make sure my time is going into the right buckets."

Cletis Earle

Cletis Earle, St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital

Cletis Earle, vice president and CIO at St. Luke's Cornwall Hospital, takes a similar approach, looking at statistics and monitoring statements, such as network-incidence reports, for ongoing issues that he can get ahead of and free up time he would have spent responding to the same scenarios. "Being prepared for anticipated problems will keep you from being distracted," Earle says.

Handel Group's Gerber advises tracking your time over a few weeks to get a full picture of where you're expending your energy. "Most people aren't doing with their time what they say or think is most important to them," she explains. If your everyday schedule is out of out of whack with your ideal one, then it's time for an adjustment.

"We ask our clients if [their schedule is] in accordance with their vision," she says. "To do that, you have to ask: What's the best use of your time and energy? And you have to figure out why you're doing what you're doing. If you're getting on the help desk because you don't trust your people, that's a problem. If you're on the help desk for an hour a month to stay in touch with needs, that's great."

6. Don't forget to delegate

Earle oversees a 24/7 IT operation -- a typical scenario for many IT managers. That around-the-clock responsibility has taught him to be as productive as possible during normal work hours so he has ample time in his schedule for his family, including his four children. He says a big part of time management is delegating responsibilities, and that means training his team to handle pretty much any task in the department, including those of the CIO.

"At the end of the day, there's not enough time to do it all yourself," he says.

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