[Seattle-SAGE] Review of Time Management for System Administrators

James Affeld jamesaffeld at yahoo.com
Tue Dec 20 23:39:16 PST 2005

On Lopsa book club blog, copied to Amazon and

I am largely self-taught and unmentored (only
discovered SAGE this year and then they busted it!
Thanks, LOPSA for stepping in!). When I started going
to Seattle SAGE meetings, I was amazed at how good,
how assured, how *correct* a sysadmin could be. And
they all pointed me to Tom and Christine's book, _The
Practice of System and Network Administration_. It is
awesome. This is, too.

I think Benjy Feen's review puts it well: tPoSaNA
describes what you have to do to run a proper shop.
This book gives you some tools and approaches to
manage all of that work without going insane. Part of
my disatisfaction with the job I was doing had to do
with the barrage of stuff coupled with a sense that no
particular thing was ever getting finished. Naturally,
my stressed and agitated mind was not conducive to
productivity. The book has been a big help the last

Tom does address getting more done, by reducing
distraction, improving focus, automating tasks, and
especially by defending "project time" by
concentrating interrupts in the other part of the day.
But I think the heart of the book is in managing the
workflow. Even if you don't get more done, you'll get
more of the most important stuff done. The book
discusses approaches for prioratizing and tracking
tasks, some of which seem counter-intuitive but are
inarguable. For example, you could do three easy
things or one hard one. If the cumulative impact of
the easy ones is low, the hard one may be the right
call, even if it results in fewer items crossed off
your list. Look at impact - what a concept! O.k.,
maybe that's common sense, but it may not be a common

Much of the book is common sense. I think I have had
more than a few of the ideas presented. For example,
he emphasizes conserving brainpower by reducing the
number of things you have to think about. Have
routines. Have the same answer for the same situation.
I've set up a few routines for particular purposes,
but I've not tried to apply this as a general case.
Tom takes the common sense notion, articulates it, and
that (may) result in me expanding my use of routines.
So I have to bow before his superior common sense!

While he does address channelling interrupts and
distractions, a lot of what he does helps you get your
brain around what remains. I found this very powerful
and satisfying. I found payoffs on day one - better
focus, less stress, more productivity. It's the
difference between swimming and floundering. The heart
of the book is "the Cycle" - Tom says to start every
working day with a 10 minute planning session: what's
on the list, how long will it take, how long do you
have. You prioratize, push what doesn't fit to the
next day, and tuck in. Interrupts get squeezed in and
bump lower stuff to the next day. Lather, rinse,
repeat. I see two psychological benefits to the
approach: better control- or even the illusion of
better control- automatically means less stress, and
every day you complete your to-do list. You may not
accomplish every task, but you do manage every task.
Even if it is only to push it off for another day.
That's a powerful bit of trickery when you have
experienced what he calls "the Ever-Growing To Do List
of Doom."

I won't adopt Tom's approach to email; I do use a huge
chunk of disk space, mostly full of 'dead' messages.
That's cheap extra brain storage for me, and I think
that's in the spirit of his book. Let the email store
do my remembering, my paa do my organizing, and leave
my brain free for the things that can't be done with
other tools.

I appreciate the section on automating/scripting -
some specifics there that will pay off for me.

The part of the book that gives me the most trouble so
far is in setting (measurable) goals. I can see that a
lot of good will come from taking a longer view of my
life and career. It's just really hard for me to think
strategically. I'll get back to it.

Finally, I was struck by the humane tone of the book.
Tom urges us to apply these approaches to actually
having a life. Sysadmins blend work and play/home life
to a degree most professions don't. So it makes sense
for us (maybe for everyone) to be efficient. His
approach gives us a place to carve out space and time
for personal lives and professional growth. The
workplace has gotten harsher in the last 20 years;
it's nice that someone is pulling for us.

Thanks, Tom, for another awesome book.

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