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Guest Review: Fraser Speirs on "Time Management for System Administrators"

Review by Fraser Speirs

At the end of 2004, Merlin blogged about possible extensions or specialisations of Getting Things Done for specific constituencies, such as programmers, students or parents. Thomas A. Limoncelli’s book Time Management for System Administrators is perhaps the first example I’ve seen of a book which advocates a GTD-style workflow with some modifications specific to the system administration “lifestyle”.

Book Structure

The book is laid out under the following thirteen chapter titles:

  1. Time Management Principles
  2. Focus Versus Interruptions
  3. Routines
  4. The Cycle System
  5. The Cycle System: To Do Lists and Schedules
  6. The Cycle System: Calendar Management
  7. The Cycle System: Life Goals
  8. Prioritisation
  9. Stress Management
  10. Email Management
  11. Eliminating Time Wasters
  12. Documentation
  13. Automation

The core chapters for GTDers to think about are really chapters 4 through 8 and 13. The material about maintaining focus, handling email and managing stress will be familiar to regular readers of 43 Folders.

Although Time Management for System Administrators is not a simple modifier on GTD, in the sense that the author doesn’t explicitly reference GTD until the epilogue, much of the structure of Limoncelli’s suggested workflow will be recognisable to those familiar with David Allen’s book. Although Limoncelli doesn’t refer to GTD in the body of his work, it’s hard to avoid certain very obvious parallels such as the analogy of one’s memory as “RAM” (c.f. Allen’s “psychic RAM”) and the strategy of “Delegate, Record or Do” (which sounds much like Allen’s “Do, Defer or Delegate” in another order).

However, it would be unfair to dismiss Time Management for System Administrators as a GTD knockoff. It’s certainly not. One area in which I have personally found GTD to be weak is that of helping me decide ‘what to do next’. Certainly, David Allen does have some advice on that matter, but I always found it a little difficult to relate to my workplace. Limoncelli’s Cycle System is, I believe, a very strong contribution to filling that gap in GTD.

The Cycle System

Limoncelli’s Cycle system has seven steps:

  • Create your day’s schedule
  • Create your day’s to-do list
  • Prioritise and reschedule
  • Actually do the work
  • Finish the day
  • Leave the office
  • Repeat

Let’s break that down a little.

Create Your Schedule

Creating your schedule is as simple as taking your appointments calendar and blocking out the times in which you are committed to be somewhere or do something. For most people in Systems Administration this means meetings or presentations but, for example for teachers, it might be class times. Having created the schedule, you now have a rough idea of the remaining hours left to progress your projects.

In GTD parlance, this is your hard landscape.

Create your To-Do List

Many systems administrators use a ticketing system to track user requests (and those who don’t ought to!), so that can be considered a master list of to-dos. In a Sysadmin’s workflow, it’s not unreasonable to use the request tracker as the canonical list of everything that needs done.

The Cycle System suggests that you take a number of items from the master list (and from your email, voicemail, etc.) and write them down for today. Beside each item, estimate the duration of the task. You now have some idea of the time you need to complete these tasks. It is unlikely that this time will be shorter than the time available, so this leads us to prioritisation and rescheduling.

David Allen warns against creating daily to-do lists as their incompletion can be demoralising. Limoncelli argues that interruptions and associated slippage is inevitable for the busy System Administrator and should not be considered representative of failure.

Prioritise and reschedule

The Cycle System provides for three priorities, defined very pragmatically:

  • A: “The deadline is today”
  • B: “The deadline is soon”
  • C: “Everything else”

When you find yourself overflowing the available time for today’s schedule there is a simple rule for rescheduling:

  • Move all “C” tasks to tomorrow.
  • Use one of several suggested strategies to make the rest fit.

The suggested strategies include:

  • Decompose tasks into smaller chunks and schedule them individually. For example, unpack a server one day and check that all the parts are there. Next day, rack it up. Next day, assign IP addresses and install it. This is very next action-ish to the seasoned GTDer.
  • Find a way to narrow the scope of a large, high-priority task. The example given is installing a user’s new machine. Instead of building it to perfection, install the OS and create user accounts, then leave the user to polish it up to their liking. This only works with certain classes of user!
  • Delegate - a principle familiar to GTD fans.
  • Ask your boss. This can sometimes help make your boss aware of cross-department support issues that can be resolved at a level higher than the individual System Administrator.
  • Delay an appointment or meeting. If you have a large task that requires real ‘in-the-zone’ focus, it might be appropriate to re-jig your hard landscape to allow time for that task.

Do The Work

Most 43 Folders readers will have their own strategies for avoiding interruption and distraction, but Limoncelli provides two tactics for the Systems Administrator that I found novel:

  • Create a “Mutual Interruption Shield” - if you share an office, have one person take all the interruptions in the morning and have the other take the afternoon shift.<
  • Structure your office or group seating arrangement such that the junior or tier-1 support people are the first people that a visitor will see or walk by on entering. This enables those people to protect the more senior people from interruption by visitors.

Finish The Day

Come the end of the day, if you haven’t finished your tasks, it’s necessary to manage that situation. This feels a little like a GTD weekly review in miniature. The recommendation is to take 30 minutes and the end of the day. The hard but important part is handling the unfinished Priority-A (“The deadline is today”) tasks - Limoncelli suggests a phone call to the user and the development of a contingency plan.

For other tasks, the Cycle System suggests that they’re simply pushed to the next day’s cycle. Presumably, although it isn’t stated in the book, tasks which are blocked should go into some kind of ‘waiting’ state. GTD has this made explicit in that some projects or actions are “waiting for” some external event or input.

Other Parts

Chapters 9, 10 and 12 talk about Stress Management, Email Management and Documentation. All of this material will be more than familiar to GTDers and general life-hackers.


Chapter 13 deals with the question of when to automate processes. Automation, when correctly applied, is a huge win for System Administrators. Limoncelli decomposes the decision about when to automate by dividing tasks into ‘simple’ and ‘hard’, and their frequency into ‘once’ and ‘often’.

The argument is that tasks which are either frequent but simple or one-off but hard should be automated. One-off simple tasks should be done manually and frequent hard tasks are often best served by some off-the-shelf or bespoke software package.

In general time-management processes, automation can be powerful. Imagine, for example, going back to the days when you couldn’t sync your phone’s address book with your computer’s. Automation allows you to:

  • Do something frequently and consistently (e.g. check that your phone matches your computer)
  • Reduce the need to remember those rare-but-complex steps of operations (e.g. remember how to add a contact in your computer and your phone)
  • Scale to a much higher level (e.g. tapping in 10 phone numbers is OK, 200 much less so)
  • Avoid errors

Whilst the automation examples in the book are probably not broadly applicable outside the world of System Administrators, I found the ‘when to automate’ decision matrix to be a simple but enlightening tool for clarifying my thinking on the matter.


Although Time Management for System Administrators is intended to stand on its own, anyone familiar with GTD will immediately see parallels and wonder if the Cycle System is intended as a replacement for GTD. I don’t think it’s complete enough to do so. I do think that, for some work situations (and certainly for the System Administration ‘lifestyle’), the Cycle System is almost a drop-in replacement for David Allen’s advice on ‘what to do next’.

I work as a Systems Administrator, and one of the difficulties I often faced, despite implementing GTD, was trying to decide which project was important enough to do next. Limoncelli’s Cycle System nicely plugs that gap in GTD for this particular audience.

David Allen’s idea of the Next Action is powerful, but can often lead to an approach which is more tactical than strategic. The Cycle System is similarly tactical. If there’s a criticism to be made of the workflow described in Time Management for System Administrators, it is this: sometimes in your decision making, you need to give weight to the question of the long-term tactical advantage that a project will deliver. For example, if you’re getting a lot of calls about a small but niggling problem, it’s probably worth promoting that to a higher priority, even if it’s not immediately deadline-driven.

Time Management for System Administrators is an easy and quick read, particularly for those already sensitive to the issues involved in productivity and time management. It’s certainly recommended for System Administrators; others may find it useful too.

Buy Time Management for System Administrators at Amazon.com »

About the Author

Fraser SpeirsFraser Speirs is a Software Engineer and Educator. He runs Connected Flow a shareware producing apps for Mac OS X, including the popular iPhoto plugin, FlickrExport. Fraser also teaches Computing Studies and was formerly involved in setting up one of the first production Computing Grids in Scotland, as part of the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid project at CERN.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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