Customer Reviews: Time Management for System Administrators
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on December 3, 2005
To save everyone the trouble, I'll make the obvious joke: "I bought a book on time management, but I haven't had time to read it..."

Tom Limoncelli knows this about you. He knows a lot about you. He's encountered, and found solutions for, just about every one of the paradoxes, dilemmas, Catch-22s, and neverending Sisyphean ordeals that comprise the day-to-day challenge of being a professional system administrator. He wrote (with Christine Hogan) The Practice of System and Network Administration, which presents a thorough and practical body of knowledge for IT professionals: it describes all the things you need to do to build and run a manageable infrastructure. Now he's written an equally practical book on how to actually get those things done, and he wrote it in a way that makes it palatable for system administrators -- a famously cynical bunch when it comes to books about personal productivity. And there's a lot to be cynical about...

Here's how "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", by Stephen Covey, begins:

In more than 25 years of working with people in business,

university, and marriage and family settings, I have come in

contact with many individuals who have achieved an incredible

degree of outward success, but have found themselves struggling

with an inner hunger, a deep need for personal congruency and

effectiveness and for healthy, growing relationships with other


Deep need for personal congruency? The only deep need I feel at the moment involves my gag reflex, and not in a good way.

In comparison, here's how Tom begins:

Wait! Before we get started, let's do something to make sure we

actually finish. I realize that as a system administrator, you

are flooded with constant interruptions. The phone rings, a

customer stops by with questions, your email reader beeps with

the arrival of a new message, and someone on Instant Messenger

is trying to raise your attention. Heck, I bet someone's

interrupted you while reading this paragraph. I'm not going to

cover how to deal with interruptions until the next chapter, and

I hope you don't take offense, but at this rate, I'm worried you

won't get that far. To mitigate this problem I'm going to share

a tip from Chapter 2, which, if you implement, will shield you

from interruptions between now and when we can deal with the

subject of interruptions properly.

This book is for system administrators.

Much of the geek community has embraced David Allen's Getting Things Done as a purely pragmatic way to, well, get things done, and Tom's book complements GTD in two ways. First, Tom describes his own personal system in the space of a couple of chapters, for those who aren't interested in drinking the GTD Kool-Aid but still need to start using a system. Second, Time Management for System Administrators is totally system-agnostic -- whether you use a PDA or index cards, just about every chapter of the book will amplify the effectiveness of your existing system. He also tells you how to get into Disneyland and ride all the rides without waiting in line, and how to minimize the time you spend walking around the video store looking for something to rent.

Anyway, I need to cut this short; I'm supposed to be packing for a trip to a weeklong conference, and my girlfriend just called to remind me that we were supposed to see a movie tonight, and -- well, you know.

Incidentally, anyone who runs computers for a living should also own, read, and re-read The Practice of System and Network Administration. Buy it now if you haven't already. Also buy it for your staff, your peers, and your boss. If you don't have time to do that now, add it to your to-do list. You do have a to-do list, don't you?
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on December 11, 2005
One of my fellow admins sent me the Amazon link to this page, and I promptly sent it to our manager. The next day, a copy arrived. I read half of it in one sitting, and the second half in the next sitting. Then I told our manager to order ten more.

It really is that good. Limoncelli focuses on building good habits designed to take the pain out of chores that everybody hates. He's a big advocate of combining your work and personal priorities, to prevent the former from taking over the latter. To take back your work time is to take back your personal time, too -- something we ALL need to do in light of the unhealthy, self-sacrificial corporate demands running rampant in our culture.

Limoncelli knows that there's no better way to decrease stress than to exert more control over your own schedule, something systems administrators desperately need. This book will make admins AND their bosses much happier. I wish I'd had it earlier in my career.
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on December 20, 2005
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'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 week.

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 approach.

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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on September 27, 2012
Have owned my copy of this book from Amazon for more than 6 years and I like to trot it out every couple of years for a reread (it's that useful!). After putting Limoncelli's ideas into practice I found that my effectiveness and appearance of competency at work increased. The book is a good investment for any entry or mid level computer scientist, not just systems administrators.

Recommendation: Buy.

Summary Notes from Time Management for System Administrators by Thomas Limoncelli (spoilers!):

1. Keep all your time management stuff in one place - your work and personal appointments, to do list, calendar, goals, etc.

2. Focus on the current task; use external storage to record/remember everything else.

3. Develop routines for things so there are no oopsies or important items left undone or forgotten. A good routine is to start each day with our to do list, estimate duration to complete each task, prioritize the tasks, schedule them to be completed, and work the schedule.

4. Pre-compile decisions by developing habits and mantras. Habits such as using the first quiet hour of the day to work projects, or to put gas in your car on the same day every week.

5. Maintain focus during work tasks- do not allow distractions like email, internet surfing, IM, etc to derail you. Study in a quiet environment whenever possible.
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on December 27, 2005
System administrators have a stereotypical reputation for grumpiness and irritability. Some times this misanthropy is a cultivated pose, designed to deter casual or trivial requests that would take time away from more important activities like playing nethack and reading netnews. More often, however, sysadmins are disgruntled simply because they can't seem to make any headway on the dozens of items clogging up their todo lists. If you're an example of the latter case, you may find some help in <em>Time Management for System Administrators</em>, the new book from Thomas Limoncelli (who you may recognize as one of the co-authors of the classic <em>The Practice of System and Network Administration</em>).

This slim book (only 226pp) packs a large amount of helpful information about making better use of your time at work, so that you can make some headway on at least some of those tasks that have piled up around you, while still managing to have a life outside of work. One of Limoncelli's main points is that sysadmins have to develop some way of effectively dealing with the constant stream of interruptions in their life if they're going to accomplish anything. The other point is that they also need a good tracking system to make sure they don't lose track of new, incoming requests in the process of dealing with existing ones. The book continually reinforces these two points, and presents several alternative, complementary ways to accomplish them.

The first three chapters deal with high-level, generic issues: principles of time management, managing interruptions, and developing checklists and routines to help deal with the chaos of day-to-day system administration. The middle third of the book details how to use "the cycle system", Limoncelli's task management plan for sysadmins. Basically, it's a hybrid between Franklin-Covey A-B-C prioritization and day planning and David Allen GTD-style todo lists, with a few sysadmin-specific tweaks thrown in. The final chapters of the book address a grab-bag of issues: task prioritization, stress management, dealing with the flood of email that all admins seem to get, identifying and eliminating the time sinks in your environment, and documenting and automating your work-flow.

In general, I think this is a great book for sysadmins that are looking to begin addressing time management problems. People that have already done some investigation of time management techniques (like the aforementioned Franklin-Covey and GTD systems) may find less value here -- but I still think the book will be interesting, especially the chapters detailing the workings of "the cycle system". Personally, after reading this book, I don't see any reason to move away from my modified GTD system, but I have gone back to using some daily checklists, which are helping me keep on top of my repeating tasks a lot better. I suspect that any working sysadmin will take away at least two or three productivity-enhancing tips from this book.
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on December 2, 2005
This book is badly needed to all busy (as usual) system administrators, dealing with customer interrupts while trying to manage and improve IT infrastructures.
The "cycle system", as Tom Limoncelli calls it, works great! For those who read "Getting things done" from David Allen, you notice a great similarity in concepts, and the truth is: it just works.

If you're not yet convinced to get it, you can watch a video with Tom giving a quite detailed presentation overviewing the book's contents (check his website [...] for details or search Google Video for the book's name). I wish every author would do the same.

Follow Tom's advice and get "into" an old, boring day...
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on December 18, 2005
The ideas presented are extremely helpful in helping sysadmins break things down to easily digestible portions and scheduling how you'll take it all in. Best of all, for those of us that just cannot break away from the screen, this came with a 45-day O'Reilly Books-Online key. After years of shunning electronic books, I found that I actually read much faster in non-print format and I read it in a weekend. Dedicate a weekend to yourself and let this book adjust things in your hectic life.
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VINE VOICEon December 22, 2005
This book seems really odd to be published by O'Reilly. As time has progressed, O'Reilly has branched out so much from their roots of being a great nuts and bolts coding publisher and this book falls along those lines.

This book is a nice resource for anyone that is a sys admin manager or a manager in general. So much of the time this book seems like a self-help book, and that's very much what it is, but it's a self-help book in using your (and your employee's) time more efficiently. Many of the topics covered in this book seem so basic like using PDAs, marking meetings on calendars religiously and so forth, but the points that are being driven home here are really important for running an efficient IT department and becoming a better manager.

I don't have any major issues with this book, but a lot of the info covered here is pretty much common sense and I didn't get anything "revolutionary" from it so that is what is preventing it from getting 5 stars. If you are a manager in IT or a manager in general I think this is a book worth picking up. If you are just a regular employee that feels they could be working more efficiently/smarter, this is also a nice read and gives lots of practical advice that can be immediately applied.

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on February 22, 2008
Tom Limoncelli is a well-known system administrator, author and orator. He speaks at conferences around the globe on issues ranging from firewall security to time management. He has also published papers at conferences such as the Usenix LISA on a wide variety of topics including innovative firewall techniques, coordinating massive network changes, models for improving customer support, and the security issues related to firing your system administrator.

I like the book "Time Management for System Administrators" because it is written BY system administrator FOR system administrators.

The book covers not only the general time management principles, but also valuable advices for system administrators: how to make use of automation, how to cope with multiple customers, bosses and tasks, and so on.

In addition to this book, I can recommend the other great titles that I liked much: "Never Check E-Mail In the Morning" by Julie Morgenstern, "Getting Things Done" by David Allen and "Time Drive" by Gleb Arkhangelsky.
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on June 3, 2013
This book changed the way I approach my job as a sysadmin, and my boss took notice and purchased a copy for the office to pass around and read. It helped me take control of the factors in my job that were causing me to lose focus and avoid major projects, some (like automation, also discussed in the book) that would make my job easier if I could just sit down and put four straight hours into them. It has great tips for end-user and boss relationship building, and while the terminology is a bit outdated, the job itself never changes.
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