Ten tips on pharma time management

Oliver Stohlmann’s new Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional and global life science communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. In this first instalment he tackles managing time.

A month into exiting my career of over two decades in global life-science multinationals, I’m alive – still, but waiting for withdrawal symptoms to kick in. As one friend, and long-time senior corporate leader, warned: “Don’t underestimate the consequences of leaving ‘big pharma’ … there’ll be euphoria first; but then you’ll fall into a deep black hole.”

So far, I’ve avoided that. As much as I relished the opportunities to advance meaningful science and connect industry innovation to external partners and stakeholders, I genuinely enjoy the control gained back over my life. Fingernails dirty from gardening, face tanned. “Dad, you haven’t checked emails once this lunch!” my daughter exclaimed last week. In fact, the first time in ages I’m actually managing to have meals with my family again.

Regaining control of time has been my most striking post-big pharma experience. I’ve even started arriving early for appointments, which hasn’t happened in years. In the corporate world I would constantly chase deadlines and, as meetings and calls ran over, I would rarely join the next one on time. Which created stress, unpreparedness, ill focus and the self-exploitation of no breaks, let alone any prep on the meeting’s agenda. Do we really expect these to run efficiently and produce quality outcomes?

The two vital aspects of corporate life

Large organisation reality shows that there’s no way to get everything done. If you don’t wish to exhaust yourself, split with your partner and still miss the majority of business goals, you had better master two important requirements of corporate life: clear priority setting and disciplined time management.

Good time management enables one to complete more in a shorter period of time, lowers stress and strengthens career success. It makes your day plannable and ensures results, typically leading to better self-esteem, work satisfaction, happiness and personal health.

But, unless you’re the boss, there’ll be no shortage of deliverables, invitations and deadlines hammering you via email, text, Skype, instant messengers and so forth. If that sounds familiar, or you aspire to join the corporate world, here’s what helped me develop a better grip on managing time, optimise meetings and make my days more productive and enjoyable.

Start by planning your time

If you don’t have a plan, you’ll be driven by others’ priorities. Stop other people dropping commitments straight into your calendar and filling up all your available space by limiting their access.

Block out chunks of time to get your actual priorities done, decide on a daily calendar routine and mark those slots in your schedule. For instance, you might reserve an hour each morning to catch up with emails; 30 minutes to feed social channels; three hours for meetings and calls; two hours’ quiet work time to advance critical projects … you get the idea. Make sure to leave some contingency for unforeseen priorities. If you have an assistant, make them part of the plot. Once your daily ‘meeting’ contingent is maxed out, additional requests need to shift to another date.

You will also need to manage any lack of calendar discipline on the part of those senior to you. This can have a huge impact on what you get done, so engage your manager or business leader in a conversation on value creation. How can they enable you to help drive their priorities most effectively?

Give yourself thinking time

Make time to reflect, create, wrap up key projects. Typically, these activities are the first to fall victim to a busy schedule, but then your results and quality-of-life suffer. I regularly block Friday afternoons to complete the week’s most pressing priorities and to ensure proper ‘think time’. Bliss!

Be present! Be ‘at work’ when you’re at work and be ‘home’ when you’re home. If not truly present, you’ll do a disservice to everyone in your life – plus your time management will suffer, since you’ll have to invest more time later to catch up on what you miss.

Consider ‘meeting-free Fridays’. Admittedly, calling off non-critical meetings and calls to make sure employees can focus on driving their priorities is easier if you’re a department head or team manager, but taking this initiative – though it may take a bit of courage – is a great way to pull others along.

Make sure to protect (at least some) weekend time to re-charge, physically and mentally. To manage expectations, one senior leader I worked with applied this tac: his out-of-office assistant explained he’d respond to urgent matters up to a set hour on Saturday mornings, after which he headed for his weekly karate lesson and would not pick up emails or other work before Monday. Everyone knew and respected those clearly laid out personal boundaries.

Tackling meeting and inbox overload

For meetings you invite, chair or attend, establish proper meeting etiquette that ensures a focused agenda and only runs meetings as long as needed with just those participants required to achieve an outcome.

Schedule meetings to start five minutes past the hour and end them 15 minutes before the hour to allow everyone to have breaks to refresh, deal with urgent calls/emails and prepare for their next commitment. Host small in-person meetings standing to keep participants focused – switching your office couch or coffee table for a high table without chairs can be a useful enabler for this.

But, arguably, your mailbox may be the single biggest enemy of disciplined time management in a corporate setting. There are boatloads of tips on managing it, but what brought me the greatest relief was the introduction of a ‘touch once’ rule. I open each email once only to immediately deal with it, whether that’s acting upon it right away, filing it for later reference or deleting it.

But never – never! – do I open, skim, to then close it again and deal with “when I have more time” later, since that never happens. And even if it did, the habit of revisiting emails would still waste more time with a need to re-read the message and gather fresh thinking. Instead, my approach allows me to rapidly screen a staggering inbox, act on key memos while getting the rest out of the way so they don’t obscure my view of what’s critical.

Respond to your needs

Whichever of these hacks you might pick, or match with existing strategies, keep your changes manageable find what works for you. Then, once you’re comfortable with one improvement, try another. Effective time management makes the greatest difference if it fits your unique personality, preferences, situation, role and environment.

Since you’ve read all the way down, here’s the ‘bonus track’: I recommend you revisit your purpose and personal goals often to avoid being dragged into others’ agendas or just following their calendar. Should you not have well-articulated goals, watch this space as we’ll deal with that in an upcoming column.

Time management tips

1. Have a plan
2. Decide on a daily calendar routine
3. Manage seniors’ lack of calendar discipline
4. Make time to reflect and wrap up
5. Be present at work and at home
6. Introduce ‘meeting-free Fridays’
7. Protect, at least some, weekend time
8. Establish proper meeting etiquette
9. Apply the ‘touch once’ rule to your inbox
10. Prioritise your own needs

About the author

Oliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication.