Blog » Book: Time Management for System Administrators by Thomas A. Limoncelli

Book: Time Management for System Administrators by Thomas A. Limoncelli

This short book may have been written for system administrators, but as a software engineer I found it no less helpful. In fact, there is not much content specific to technology, either. What you will find inside is a bunch of "street-fighting" techniques for managing your time that you can use whenever you find yourself juggling many tasks and requests from other people; regardless of what your actual job is.

The author describes a simple system of preparing a to-do list for a given day, then moving any "spilled over" tasks to the next day, as opposed to having a huge ever-growing master list that you will never clear. There is interesting advice regarding prioritization: apart from estimated effort and urgency, you have to also consider what delivery time your customer is expecting. If they know you can do it in 5 minutes, better do it soon. If you can do it in 5 minutes but they only expect it the next day, you can start with something more important.

Another good piece of advice is to avoid conscious thinking about things that you can do often, but "solve them once and for all" by making them routine. For instance, the author always holds the car keys in one hand while closing his car: he has incorporated an "automated check" that helps him avoid locking the keys in. Another example would be always doing some things (like buying new supplies, or doing your laundry) at a given day of week, instead of constantly worrying about when exactly you need to do it.

For a more sysadmin-specific example: whenever you're adding a firewall rule, first verify that whatever you want to block is NOT blocked, then add a rule, then check whether it's blocked now, so that you're sure your rule blocked the right thing. The practice should sound very familiar to programmers writing automated tests: first, write a test and make sure that it fails. The same applies to reproducing a bug before you go on to fix it.

The book also covers dealing with being interrupted by other people's requests: if you cannot do them immediately, make sure to record them or delegate to others; and make sure the requester knows what you're doing and is reassured that the request will not be forgotten. Apart from that, there is advice on how (and when) to automate tasks, how to write useful documentation so that you can delegate things instead of doing everything yourself, and even how to handle longer projects and even life goals (although without many specifics: the book is more focused on day-to-day planning).

Overall, the book offers a lot of small pieces of advice, as well as a good mindset: keep a single system of notes that you can trust instead of holding everything in memory, and make simple routines instead of wasting your attention on trying to handle everything optimally. Definitely worth a read!