Time Management for System Administrators

by Thomas A. Limoncelli

Cover image

Publisher: O'Reilly
Copyright: November 2005
ISBN: 0-596-00783-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 194

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There are a ton of time management books and systems for sale. It's one of the most overpopulated categories of self-help books. If you're like me, you probably rolled your eyes when this one showed up on Slashdot and started making the rounds. However, you may want to suspend disbelief. It has a few differences and the advantage of being exceptionally well-written, and as skeptical as you might (justifiably) be about the concept, if you're a system administrator or work in a closely related field, you may want to give it a try.

First, Limoncelli has a great writing style, including an excellent sense of humor. The book is readable to the point of being a page-turner, and clear and enjoyable even when the advice isn't personally useful. It's also succinct, packed, and to-the-point, not wasting words and pages on belaboring or repeating advice (except for the useful and short chapter summaries). Limoncelli does a bit of bantering with the reader, something that usually comes across as affected and artificial, and pulls it off as well as I've seen it done in a non-fiction book. Add O'Reilly's excellent editing and high-quality binding and printing and one gets a package that's worth a price tag that initially seems a bit high for a slim book.

Of course, the true test is how well it teaches time management. I was very excited by this book when I first read it, but that's not unusual for me. Ever since I was a teenager, I've played with various schedules, organization methods, project tracking systems, and sleep patterns. I've always been involved in more things than I quite have time for and I have a tendency to have spurts of massive productivity followed by periods of low energy that I'd like to have some system to manage and smooth out. So hearing about some new ideas and getting excited about them is normal. The question is how they would hold up over time. And after three weeks of trying bits and pieces of the approach outlined here (particularly what Limoncelli calls the Cycle method), I can say that the advice here is not only interesting but looks like it holds up. It's very rare for me to stick with a new technique for this long and still feel excited about it.

The book is divided roughly into four sections. First, it talks about the basics of good work habits and finding time to do more than fight fires, discussing how to deal with interruptions and how to automate routine tasks. The section on interruptions was mostly aimed at someone who has more day-to-day interaction with clients than I do, but despite that I still got a few useful ideas out of it. The section on routines is excellent, not so much for the advice (which any good system administration mentor would give you) as for the simple mantras and succinct ways of thinking about routines. Throughout the book, Limoncelli pushes the idea that one should preserve one's mind for important tasks and relieve it of the tedium of remembering and worrying over work. That framework of viewpoint taught me a few new things about setting up routines even though I've preached the "automate everything possible" religion for years.

The heart of the book, and the value for most readers, is the next four chapters, which lay out the Cycle system. This is yet another system for tracking to-do lists and managing time, but here's where the focus on system administration becomes extremely useful. Concepts such as constant interruptions, working on trouble tickets, project time that has to be balanced with fire-fighting, and a constant input of new tasks are taken for granted and addressed directly in the system, when time management books for managers and executives might assume a more structured and plannable work life. The system itself is very simple and straightforward, based around the idea of a set of daily to-do lists for short-term tasks and an issue tracker for longer-term issues. The calendaring component may not be as broadly useful, since I and many others are stuck with a particular calendar system for work, but was still interesting. The life goals component is logical, practical, and fits in well with the rest of the system even given how murky life goals can be.

There are a few places where, with the experience of practice, I think Limoncelli misses some emphasis and advice that would be helpful. First, the use of an issue tracker for client requests, longer-term projects, and wishlist items is mentioned here but not emphasized as much as it should be. If you're anything at all like I am, the accumulation of wishlist tasks is what leads directly to the Ever-Growing To-Do List of Doom (one of Limoncelli's most memorable bits of analysis). The Cycle system does not cope well with all of those tasks pushed into daily wish lists and then constantly pushed back to later days because they're low priority. To use this system successfully, I think one really needs a parking lot of long-term wishlist goals and a regularly scheduled look through it to pull out things to work on in the short term. (I'm now using Roundup, which is dead-simple and trivial to set up and so far is doing exactly what I need.)

Second, one tendency the Cycle system has is to accumulate a large list of to-do list items that keep being carried over to the next day. The Cycle system deals with this partly by trimmings one's list down to just the work one can accomplish that day at the start of the day, but that bulldozer effect of an ever-larger set of tasks being pushed off each morning is demoralizing. I ended up working extra hours at first to clear off the huge backlog that most people will start a new time management system with, and that isn't the best solution. I would have liked to see a better solution in the book; perhaps pushing items aggressively into an issue tracker would have worked better, or pushing them far off into the future rather than just moving them to the next day.

One great thing about the techniques presented here is that they're techniques, not technology. Either a PDA or an old-fashioned planner will work fine and, where needed, there are tips for using either. I was particularly happy with that since, had a PDA been required, I would have never put the system into practice since I would have gotten bogged down on the need to acquire a PDA and the right software. Planners may be old-fashioned, near-Luddite technology, but they aren't distracting.

After the Cycle section, Limoncelli goes on to a grab bag of topics that are all loosely related to prioritization. These are equally excellent, full of keen observations on effective prioritization that makes clients feel like work is being done faster even though it isn't, advice on recognizing and cutting short time-wasters, and some useful advice on stress management. The chapter on e-mail management is particularly good; it's so well-written and amusing that it's one of my favorite chapters in the book despite the fact that I had an e-mail management system that worked well for me going in and won't be following any of the advice.

The last two chapters, unfortunately, are a real disappointment. After an excellent book on time management that stays at the conceptual level and offers specifics only in examples, Limoncelli dives into offering concrete technical advice on how to do group documentation and how to automate system administration tasks. He doesn't have enough time to do full justice to either topic, the documentation chapter sounds like another tiresome pie-in-the-sky paean to wikis (been there, done that, and they simply don't work for me), and the automation chapter, while presenting a neat makefile hack, is just completely out of place and will be irrelevant to anyone at a site that already has a preferred configuration management system or needs to scale beyond the small-shop context that this advice applies to. If this were a novel, it would have lost me with a weak ending. Thankfully, as a non-fiction book, one can simply ignore the last two chapters and be content with a fantastic time management book that's slightly shorter than it appears to be. (He does make up for this with the epilogue, which is exceptional, brutally honest, and talks about some things that need to be said and are so often missing from this kind of book. I'll leave you the surprise and just say that it was very well done.)

Time Management for System Administrators is aimed at the system administrator who hasn't already been to lots of time management courses, who doesn't already have a system that works for them, or who has had trouble applying systems because they were meant for people with a different sort of work life than the interrupt-heavy chaotic system administration world. It is very targetted; I would not recommend this book to someone in another field, or even a technical manager. Limoncelli goes a step farther and doesn't recommend it to programmers; I wouldn't go quite that far, depending on the type of programmer, but the target audience truly is just system administrators.

Within that audience, though, I think this book is exceptional. I may not have felt this strongly about it if I'd already studied a ton of time management approaches, but I'm willing to bet that most of my collegues haven't had time to do that either. As a distillation and focusing of the field specifically for my problems, it was both an engrossing read and a book that I immediately applied with noticeable and sustained effects. It's also a good jumping-off point if one wants to explore and read more. All self-help books claim they'll change your life, but this one gave me a concrete and measurable productivity boost that I've sustained for weeks and that clicked with me in a way that makes me think I'm going to keep applying it for months and years. For a non-fiction book of this type, praise doesn't get any higher than that.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-04-02

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