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System and network administrators are usually very busy people. Juggling projects, meetings, support tickets, and verbal requests from people in the hallways can make a real mess. We've discussed some request tracking systems here in the past, but what other methods or tools do you use to manage your time to be more effective?

Thomas Limoncelli's book, Time Management for System Administrators, has some great ideas, but what works and doesn't work for you in the real world?

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11 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Getting things done.

Good use of a ticket system.

Good use of comprehensive documentation (wiki) on system configuration, network, etc that is always up to date (so I never have to research anything)

-Adam

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The Todo.txt Command Line Interface (CLI) -- Cross Platform, Futureproof, Works over SSH. What more could you want?

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In all honesty, I just downloaded it yesturday to give it a try, and have recently ordered Limoncelli's book. Quite the timely question, I dare say. –  Clinton Blackmore Jun 11 '09 at 15:02
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The system I use is Getting Things Done, mentioned above. I also found the Time Management for System Administrators (also mentioned above) very valuable.

The thing I liked most about GTD was how agnostic it was about your "system". It can be paper, electronic, anything. As long as it works, who cares?

I started out using index cards stuck with a binder clip that I carried around everywhere. Each index card was a different GTD context. This is probably what kept me closest to the GTD principles. After that I used OmniFocus for a while, I even participated in the public beta and got a really cheap copy. But I found it too darn complicated. (and I just opened it last week and closed it again nearly as quickly just out of fright!) Plus I don't like that they're charging $25 for the iPhone version, as if the $70 for OmniFocus isn't outrageous already. After that, I used a plain text file that I kept open in vim all day long. Probably my best system so far, but it wasn't very portable. So I moved the text file to a wiki and had plans to use an extension in Firefox to allow me to open it in vim, but I used that far less than when I had vim open all the time.

Now I'm using Things for Mac. So far, so good. It's very simple. Probably its best feature is the "Today" category where you put things you want to get done today. That's not very GTD, but it works for me. The biggest problem with Things is that it's far too easy to lose track of tasks. Is it listed under next? Scheduled? Someday? Projects? Why do next actions in projects not show up under areas of responsibility? There are a lot of shortcomings and I wish it had the ability to create your own custom views like in OmniFocus. But despite that I bought a license and will probably buy the iPod touch version soon. It's not perfect, but it's helping me stay organized which I guess is the only thing that really matters.

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If you're not a one-man-band, having a support rota is a must. The benefits of being able to deflect support questions onto someone else for a week cannot be underestimated; it allows you to get your head down into the mid-to-long term things that otherwise keep getting delayed.

In terms of time/task management, I have 3 lists:

  • @desk: this is stuff that I need to action;
  • @waiting: stuff I'm waiting on someone else for;
  • @somestage: rainy day stuff that would be nice to fix/get to, whenever there's a free moment.

The @desk list is further sorted by due date, with more urgent things at the top.

Also, the @somestage list is surprisingly cathartic; it's nice to have somewhere to write down the stuff that really, really bugs you but you can't justify spending the time to fix right now, as it's not service impacting.

A couple of general tips in terms of working habits, which while not directly about time management will probably save you time in the long run:

  1. Never leave stuff half fixed. If something has broken and you've put in a temporary fix, get the permanent fix in at the first available window. Otherwise the hack will stay in long enough to make it onto your '@somestage' list.
  2. Whenever you make a change, always ensure that you reflect it on your documentation. As soon as a document doesn't reflect the production environment, it's worse than useless, and will cause you hassle later.
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We use a software called AdvenNet ManageEngine for the whole IT Dept. It is a great tool for submitting and tracking tickets, assets and knowledge base.

When a user stops me in the hall, I honestly let them know I will forgot by the time I get back to my desk, so please submit a ticket. These tickets can track progress, time, etc and the users can check in on them at anytime.

Check it out, it is a great tool.

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Personally I use a combination of ticketing system (Request Tracker) and my Outlook calendar. I work from the ticketing system for fix-them-now type tickets, but for larger issues, those that will take multiple periods of work I schedule them into my outlook calendar. I just drag the tab or address bar over and drop it into the calendar. I leave the reminders set to remind me 0 minutes before due so I know when to switch tasks. If something interrupts me (and it does frequently) or if a task needs more time I just drag and my tasks around on the calendar accordingly.

I love the idea of one person handling interruptions while the other person has a "fortress of solitude" to concentrate on important, but not urgent matters. Then switching positions later in the day. Unfortunately, I'm a one man show most of the time and I have no door on my office, so I get lots and lots of drop-bys.

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I use my own hybrid of GTD (see Adam's answer) and Linenbergers "Total Workday Control" (see below).

IMHO, the keys are:
1- Recognize that you can't control time, you can only control tasks. The biggest value of any system is identifying the best thing to do next.

2- A single place to gather all tasks, projects, next actions. I use Outlook tasks, with connectors to ToodleDo on my iPhone.

3- Regular review of the tasks, projects, next actions, etc. I do it weekly.

4- Discipline. Discipline to use the system to find the next task, discipline to put everything into the system, and discipline to minimize interruptions and distractions (like ServerFault!).

Note about TWC. I didn't link because the version I use is no longer current. I read version 1 of his book "Total Workday Control using Microsoft Outlook". He updated it (version 2) to "Manage Your Now", which I haven't figured out.

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I use Remember the Milk. It can tie into Outlook. It has 3 levels of priority, can be tied with other people, allows you to use tabs to group items, and allows the use of tags. If you have a Blackberry or other mobile device, there are clients that will keep RTM and your tasks list in sync. So if you're having that hallway convo and a todo comes up, you can type it into your phone. Then it shows up in your inbox the next time you hit the website (I tend to have it up on my screen). And you can do recurring tasks, etc.

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Go to Manager-Tools and find their podcasts on Calendar Management. You cannot manage time, it does not respond well to attempts to speed it up, or slow it down, and there really are only so-many hours in the day.

I use a ticket system for both fix it now, and project based tasks. For tasks that recur, and intermediate tasks I use Outlook.

Data Capture: You need a way to capture requests, ideas, requirements, etc when you are not at your desk. I went out and got a MoleSkin notebook, its about 4"x6" and Black, so it looks good enough to take into the board room. I print my Outlook Calendar each monday, and fold it so it fits and slip it into the page where I'm at. during the week, I'll update the paper copy and Outlook.

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If you're on a Mac, OmniFocus is pretty awesome for managing a bunch of projects and tasks associated with the tasks. It's fairly simple to use and implements some of the Getting Things Done principles, but doesn't force you into it.

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While I have tried the Total Workday Control method mentioned elsewhere, I was never able to make it work well with my workflow. I have had MUCH better luck (and strongly recommend) Take Back Your Life by Sally McGhee, which basically takes the principles of David Allen's Getting Things Done and applies them specifically to Outlook (where I spend the majority of my day). Although I have currently fallen off the wagon, it is the only time I have ever had an inbox with ZERO items (and kept it that way for months at a time). STRONGLY recommended (and... making a note to go re-read the book myself :).

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