System administrators have a stereotypical reputation for grumpiness and irritability. Some times this misanthropy is a cultivated pose, designed to deter casual or trivial requests that would take time away from more important activities like playing nethack and reading netnews. More often, however, sysadmins are disgruntled simply because they can’t seem to make any headway on the dozens of items clogging up their todo lists. If you’re an example of the latter case, you may find some help in Time Management for System Administrators, the new book from Thomas Limoncelli (who you may recognize as one of the co-authors of the classic The Practice of System and Network Administration).
This slim book (only 226pp) packs a large amount of helpful information about making better use of your time at work, so that you can make some headway on at least some of those tasks that have piled up around you, while still managing to have a life outside of work. One of Limoncelli’s main points is that sysadmins have to develop some way of effectively dealing with the constant stream of interruptions in their life if they’re going to accomplish anything. The other point is that they also need a good tracking system to make sure they don’t lose track of new, incoming requests in the process of dealing with existing ones. The book continually reinforces these two points, and presents several alternative, complementary ways to accomplish them.
The first three chapters deal with high-level, generic issues: principles of time management, managing interruptions, and developing checklists and routines to help deal with the chaos of day-to-day system administration. The middle third of the book details how to use “the cycle system”, Limoncelli’s task management plan for sysadmins. Basically, it’s a hybrid between Franklin-Covey A-B-C prioritization and day planning and David Allen GTD-style todo lists, with a few sysadmin-specific tweaks thrown in. The final chapters of the book address a grab-bag of issues: task prioritization, stress management, dealing with the flood of email that all admins seem to get, identifying and eliminating the time sinks in your environment, and documenting and automating your work-flow.
In general, I think this is a great book for sysadmins that are looking to begin addressing time management problems. People that have already done some investigation of time management techniques (like the aforementioned Franklin-Covey and GTD systems) may find less value here — but I still think the book will be interesting, especially the chapters detailing the workings of “the cycle system”. Personally, after reading this book, I don’t see any reason to move away from my modified GTD system, but I have gone back to using some daily checklists, which are helping me keep on top of my repeating tasks a lot better. I suspect that any working sysadmin will take away at least two or three productivity-enhancing tips from this book.