Time management: must-have tools and strategies for sysadmins
Editor's Note: In this segment, the Sudoer Sit-Down, we pose questions to small groups of industry pros. You get real answers and opinions from real people—users, operators, admins, developers, etc.—each offering a varied and valuable perspective to questions surrounding the IT industry and system administration specifically.
How we manage our time has to be the biggest differentiator of professionals on the planet. It is the single most important skill to master in the wide range of things we need to know how to do as human beings. There is no one path to favorable outcomes here; however, there are some commonalities that you will see running congruently through the approaches taken by the most successful among us. You could break it into a thousand different categories, but planning is the major theme that I see emerging. Whether it’s daily pen and paper journaling or keeping a thorough calendar on your mobile, the keys to managing your time come down to knowing what is ahead of you and prioritizing how to complete those tasks.
We asked some of our core contributors to outline their preferred time management tools and strategies, as well as the ways that they avoid the burnout that eventually comes for us all. The answers we received paint a fantastic picture of the ways that we are all different, yet similar when we need to be successful in the workplace and at home.
Damon Garn, owner, Cogspinner Coaction, LLC
Some of my time management methods are pretty standard: Online tools, regular breaks, task rotation, accountability, etc. I also use a few strategies on a larger scale to keep me headed in the direction I want to go.
I’ll start with my more traditional methods. I’m a firm believer in breaks. Working hard for 20-45 minutes and then taking a five-10 minute break is a good practice for me. For a while, I experimented with the Pomodoro Technique. I followed it pretty closely, too, and it seemed to work. Unfortunately, the habit never really stuck, so I’m not terribly formal about scheduling breaks. I also rotate between tasks pretty frequently. One of the best things I do is change workspaces. I’ve worked at home for many years now, and I like to work on the front porch, back deck, office, and recliner. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I went to several local coffee shops regularly, but these days I hardly ever visit them.
I use a few web-based tools to help me with productivity, as well. I track my various writing and lab development projects through Trello, which is incredibly useful. I use Clockify to track my time and billable hours. Finally, I use QuickBooks Online to manage invoicing, taxes, etc. I rely on Dropbox on several devices to maintain essential folders and files. I guess I’ve embraced the cloud at the very small business level.
However, my greatest tool for time management and productivity is a goal management system that cascades from the long term "what am I doing with my life?" plans down to daily activities. It isn’t technology-based (in fact, the documents are printed and stored in a file folder on my desk). I won’t get too detailed here, but the short version is this: I maintain a general five-year plan, and at the start of each new year, I develop an annual goals list that covers professional, personal growth, financial, family/social, physical, and hobby categories. I list the things I want to accomplish that year. Each month, I generate a similar but more detailed goals sheet that originates from the annual one. On Monday mornings, I create a weekly to-do list, and each morning I make a daily to-do list based on the weekly tasks. The result is that I’m deliberately figuring out how to reach important long-term professional and personal milestones daily.
Many people don’t understand or appreciate my goals-oriented approach. Still, I find that it helps me focus my time and energy, achieve things that are important to me personally and professionally, maintain balance, and get where I want to go.
Finally, I would be lost without my Mac. I use it for everything, including writing (both technical and fiction), running virtual machines, accessing cloud-based tools, recording music, watching shows. It is undoubtedly the most critical tool I have.
Joachim Haller, Senior Project Manager, Capgemini
When I was working in Bangkok, my time management tool of choice was the sun. I rode my motorbike to work and needed to get there before it got too hot and I showed up to work drenched in sweat, which I figured would not be appreciated by my colleagues. At the end of the day, I knew that the sun would set at 6:00pm sharp and, being terrified of riding my motorbike in the dark, I had to be home before that. This also had me home in time for dinner, which provided a healthy work-life balance. The choice of motorbiking to work was an easy one because the traffic in Bangkok was almost always heavily congested, and rush hour was, of course, the worst time possible to try to get from point A to point B. The journey to work would take an hour and a half by car but only 35 minutes by motorbike. The bike ride was also a perfect way to disconnect from work because I had to concentrate completely on navigating the heavy car and bus traffic on the roads.
At work, I have used the strategy of day-planning in combination with project management. So, at the beginning of each day, I pick some items that I want to have done before I leave. Normally I sketch out one week at a time and let the events during that week be pretty fluid. However, the activities are always part of a much bigger plan that I have loosely formulated in my mind of what I want to achieve over the next three to six months. Because I have a weekly plan and also a bigger picture of what I want to do, I don’t have to get upset or stressed if I can not complete a task on a particular day; it can be moved to another day and I will still be able to reach the overall target.
This way of working suits me well because it allows me to interact with people, catch technical things on the fly, temporarily become involved in something, and still move forward according to my plans. For many years, I have worked with support and technical projects and have evolved this way of working in order to avoid stress and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Another important aspect for me is to always "go to the office," meaning I get dressed every morning and prepare for office even if I’m working from home. This also helps me draw a line between work and private life.
Those are my general strategies, but when it comes to tools, there is one that I rely on to manage my life more than any other, and that is the calendar on my mobile. Be it the old school paper-based day planner or Google/Apple/Microsoft, there is always a collated calendar with work and life in a great big blend that outlines every hour of every working day and pokes me for events, meetings, anniversaries, birthdays, etc. It is the tool that pulls my puppet strings; I actually have to challenge myself to ignore it, to know when to close it, and do something else and put more priority on my family.
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Anthony Critelli, Sr. Systems Engineer, Datto Inc.
One of my strengths has always been my high productivity and output. Being able to get a lot of work done and quickly contribute real value to an organization has allowed me to quickly advance in my career. It has also enabled me to avoid burnout because I can be confident that, at the end of the day, I have put forward my best work and deserve a break.
With that said, it may come as a surprise that I don’t personally use any fancy tech tools to maximize my output. My favorite tool is old fashioned pen and paper, using a version of a technique that I learned in a book called Deep Work.
I begin each day by writing out a daily agenda in 30-minute blocks. I then review my work and personal calendars for any meetings, and I pencil those into my agenda first. With my meetings out of the way, I review my current list of projects in our ticketing software, and block out periods of time to work on each during the day. I also make sure to schedule time to catch up on emails, and leave some slack in my day for things that might come up and need my attention.
That’s my day-to-day workflow, but there’s another important detail—when I pick work out of my list to put into time blocks, it needs to be actionable. Blocking off two hours to “improve our load balancers” leaves too much ambiguity, and ambiguity leads to distraction. I always try to block off an hour or two each week to break my larger projects into manageable chunks of work that can be timeboxed during the workweek. This is very important because the hardest part of working on something is often just getting started. Having small, actionable tasks removes many of the excuses that lead to work avoidance.
These two strategies, daily timeboxing and weekly longer-term project planning, have proven to be very valuable. They’re not high-tech, but they’ve helped me to maximize my productivity during the day so that I can minimize my burnout after hours.
And for those who like high-tech gadgets—I admit I was a bit dishonest at the start of this answer. I do use a Rocketbook notebook for my daily planning, instead of real pen and paper. However, I might just look at switching to Timewarrior in the future.
Joerg Kastning, System Administrator, Bielefeld
Parkinson’s Law is the adage that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." So, it doesn’t matter how much and long I would work; there would still be some work left at the end of the week. My current contract says that I have to work around 40 hours a week. That’s what I get paid for, so why bother to work extra hours when they are not being compensated?
To keep track of the hours I’ve worked per day, week, or month, and to see on which topics these hours were spent, I use Timewarrior to track the time at the command line. So, when I’ve fulfilled my contract, and there are no urgent tasks on my list, I can call it a day and enjoy my life with my family.
Personally, I try to work eight hours a day. Of course, there are days with 10 or even 12 working hours. In this case, I leave work early on another, less busy day to provide a balance and avoid burnout.
To organize my tasks, prioritize, and schedule I use the Eisenhower Method because I’ve found it to be both simple and effective. With this method, tasks are evaluated using the criteria "important/unimportant" and "urgent/not urgent" and placed in the "Eisenhower Matrix" pictured below.
Then, I handle the quadrants as follows:
- The important AND urgent tasks like incident handling, troubleshooting, and keeping deadlines, I do personally and immediately.
- Tasks that are important but not urgent (yet) like writing guidelines or tutorials, updating templates, and all kind of IT devices, are scheduled by blocking a slot in my calendar for them—I’ll do them personally but at a later time.
- The not so important but still urgent tasks I try to delegate. These could be meetings, presentations, or questions about how to use a certain tool, for example.
- Finally, if I find a task to be not important and not urgent I just won’t do it.
Of course, sometimes the tasks from quadrant four become urgent and important; for instance, if my boss reclassifies it as such and gives me a deadline. In this case, the task moves into quadrant one and is handled accordingly.
For context about what I usually do, take a look at my article, What my day looks like as a sysadmin.
Ricardo Gerardi, Senior Consultant, Red Hat
About four months ago, I started using the Pomodoro Technique to help me timebox and focus on tasks, and I consider it a great success. This technique dictates that you focus on a single task for a period of time called a “Pomodoro,” which usually lasts 25 minutes. The name Pomodoro comes from the Pomodoro kitchen timer that the creator of this technique used to track the time. After each task period, you rest for five minutes before starting the next task. After four Pomodoros, you can take a longer break of 15 minutes.
In the modern world, instead of a Pomodoro timer, I use the Gnome Pomodoro tool to help me track time when using this technique.
[ A free guide from Red Hat: 5 steps to automate your business. ]
To tie all of the insight above together, I would say this: Be intentional about planning out your daily tasks. Timeboxing, the Pomodoro Technique, detailed planning, and frequent breaks are all great things to consider when you need to maximize your output in a set amount of time. Always remember to leave time for yourself, your family, and your friends. And when you are not working, step fully away from work, if possible, to avoid burnout. Taking care of yourself will make it easier for you to take care of your work in an enthusiastic and attentive way.