Time Management for System Administrators

Thomas Limoncelli has a book named “Time Management for System Administrators”. I think it’s a good book, and I would highly recommend it. I’ve deviated from his “Cycle System”, but I’ve found some benefits in my messy alternative.

The Personal Analogue Assistant

I like fountain pens. And ink. I like them both together, and regular use both together throughout the day. I may talk about that at a later date in the SCD section of the site, but this is why between a digital assistant (PDA) and an alagoue assistant (PAA), I choose to carry around paper and pen.

While it is a bit antiquated, and has some clear limitations in terms of indxing the tasks, information, and plans I’ve wrote down - it does have one clear benefit, and has led me to develop my own rule that I’ve started giving to juniors working under me.

That is: The space your PAA provides on a single page should have a direct relationship with the quantity and value of your time at work.

There’s a bit of ego going on with this, I admit, but I think it’s a valuable observation. Let me talk about my PAA and then I’ll expand the point further.

Mnemosyne 184 A7 Notepads

I bought a tonne of Mnemosyne 184 A7 ringbound notepads. The paper is of a good quality, which I need because I’m fussy and insist on using a fountain pen, and it has a grid layout which keeps lists orderly. That A7 format has a maximum limit of 17.5 squares in vertical space, so a practical limit of 17 lines to write on.

The horizontal size (in squares) is 15 - not a lot for a language that is written horizontally and then vertically, so tasks often take up two lines. In practice, I can fit maybe eight tasks on a page. One page per workday. Not every page in the PAA will be used for this purpose, but most of them will. No skipping days.

I don’t pick eight tasks that need doing and decide to do them today. I pick two, or sometimes three. Often those tasks will be from the day before that didn’t get finished. Depending on how much time I think I have, I may pick a task from a larger long-term project I have listed on the back pages of the PAA.

Throughout the course of the workday I’ll be interrupted, and those interruptions may take priority. That is to say, I leave space because system administration typically requires an interrupt-driven workflow. Those interruptions, when they lead to new tasks, are written down.

I’m not at all suggesting you go out and buy Mnemosyne 185 notepads - there are cheaper alternatives, and depending on your handwriting, and how verbose your natural writing style is, they may be too small. But certainly the number of tasks you can fit on a single page should be similar to the number of select time units in your work day (I simply use hours because most tasks I deal with take at least an hour).

The value of my time

Here’s the observation. I have a limited work day, and I have a limited ability to multitask; I need to consider what I spend my time on carefully. Reflecting that, my PAA has limited space per page. Presuming my salary reflects the value of my time, what ends up on my daily task list in the PAA should also reflect the value of my time.

If by the end of the day the page is overflowing, I’m spending my time on tasks are probably not worth recording. Small things that took no time at all. That isn’t to say they shouldn’t be recorded - but that the overflowing page should be an indicator that work I should be delegating. This also means the business is overpaying me relative to the difficulty of the work I’m doing.

That’s not always a terrible thing - I’m a fan of the idea that job title describes your responsibilities, but it does not limit them. If there’s a fire, you do not sit quietly while telling people it isn’t your responsibility to put it out. I’d consider that poor form. However it is certainly in everyone’s interest to have people carry our work that matches their ability.

The system is built around that principle, and provides a tangible warning when that principle isn’t being met.

Other differences

Above I mentioned that I picked the A7 size to reflect that most of my tasks are measured in hours, and I can fit each hour in my workday on the page. While Limoncelli does recommend working with hours as your primary unit, he does this while also suggesting that you plan around the presumed time a task will take you. As I do a lot of proactive work (as opposed to reactive work), I often find it quite difficult to say how long a task will take. I can usually pick an accurate upper limit, but not always, and in some cases, I’ve been off by a hell of a lot. For that reason, I never got on with the idea of basing my day around the clock. So I have 17 lines to work with, rather than ~8 hours.

I don’t use a PAA for calendar management. In practice, I’m very rarely scheduling meetings. I usually just end up in them. As the business uses Google Calendar for these things, I go with the flow. With that said, I do have an agenda sent to me each day, as to avoid putting too much work on that day’s page in the PAA.

In the event of outages, I make a note on the page, and then put down the PAA for the rest of the day. Outages aren’t things individuals deal with so much as teams, so tasks that I’m doing need to be somewhere other people can see them. Further to that, the tasks that need doing during an outage may not be known, and a new task can spring up at any time, very easily overwhelming a sheet of paper. The PAA gets picked up the next day.