Time Management For Recovering Sysadmins

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Everybody has heard the usual time management lecture; plan your day in advance, work from a list, don’t multitask. All fine and good, but this advice doesn’t really address the constant interruptions that sysadmins deal with. Let’s be honest, it’s really hard to focus on getting shit done while you’re constantly being pinged for help and advice. I spent some time recently thinking about what events distract me the most, and then tried to figure out ways to tune out those distractions. It’s a work in progress, but here’s the advice I’ve got so far.

Choose Your Interrupts Wisely

Face it, systems administration is always going to be interrupt driven. On top of day to day operations, many people depend on you for projects, advice and help carrying heavy things. Not to mention that if a system or service falls over, you’re going have to drop what you’re doing and fix it. You can’t get away from every interruption, but you can categorize interrupts into two types. Things you need to know about right now, and things you don’t.

Does your mail client really need to bounce around on every new message? – Set your email client to check for mail less often, and turn off the alerts. You wont miss out on anything critical (because people will literally run around when shit breaks) and you’ll gain back a significant amount of your concentration. Also, try setting up special notifications for specific important individuals, like your boss.

Do you really need to receive every Nagios alert on your phone? – Many sysadmins that I know like to stay “in touch” with things by subscribing to everything under the sun in the monitoring system. I think this is dumb. Instead, choose carefully which alerts you receive, and reserve SMS alerting for absolutely critical events. Stay “in touch” by planning time to proactively monitor systems and by implementing more advanced automatic health checks.

Should every event in your IM or IRC client make a noise and trigger a visual alert? – I doubt it. In fact, you probably only need to see messages that are either directed to you, or that are relevant to an area of your responsibility or interest. Try setting up alerts in your chat client that automatically notify you when your name and other specific keywords are mentioned.

Do you really need to sift through all that cron output email? – If you find yourself constantly discarding the same sets of cron output each night, stop doing it. Take a few minutes and edit the offending cron job to redirect the unnecessary output to /dev/null, or add a conditional to the cron job to alert you only if the job returns an error code.

Does Your Twitter/Facebook/Whatever desktop app seriously need to be running? – These things are the kings of all time wasters, and they usually aren’t even loosely related to the things you need to get done. Close them.

Don’t be a BOFH

Seriously. You can save a ton of time in the long run by simply teaching and encouraging your co-workers to carry out basis sysadmin tasks themselves. Don’t worry about root access, just give them sudo privs for a few commands at first. It will make their life easier because they can get things done without bugging the grumpy sysadmin, and you won’t have to deal with being interrupted to chown or chmod a file for someone.

Do One Small Thing at a Time

You can’t multi-task. Don’t even try to fool yourself. Seriously. If you want to see what I mean, try to have a phone conversation and write a regular expression at the same time. It’s just not going to happen. Concentrate fully on what you’re doing and keep a todo list. Focus, make notes, and get things done one at a time.

With that said, lists can be really overwhelming until you start crossing things off. So, try breaking down large projects into individual tasks. Things that take maybe 10-20 minutes to complete, max. For me, constantly finishing tasks makes me feel like things are getting done, and motivates me to do more. It also lends itself to focusing on one thing at a time, and provides a nearby stopping point if you need to switch tasks.

Read Email in Bulk

Now that your email client isn’t bouncing up and down every 30 seconds you can check your mail at whatever interval works best for you. Checking mail in bulk is basically just a sorting game. Stuff you need to do gets added to your list and stuff you need to reply to gets replied to. I also find that deleting or archiving messages from my inbox makes it much easier to identify messages that still need my attention. Besides, having an empty inbox just feels plain good.

Close Windows and Tabs When You’re Finished.

Seriously. This is really obvious but its easy enough to neglect. When you’re done with a tab, close it. When you’ve finished reading an email, close it. When you’re finished with a terminal, close it. Not only does it make your workspace less distracting and more focused on your current task, but it also will free memory and cpu cycles which will make your machine run faster, too.

“Self-Healing” Scripts Aren’t Evil

I’ve heard so many sysadmins go on and on about how taking an automatic action on a monitoring alert is a bad idea. This is bullshit. Sure, there may be some oddball scenario where a complication could occur if its a full moon on the second tuesday of the month. But actual problems are what you’re there to troubleshoot and fix, right? I mean, think about how many times you’ve had drop what you’re doing only to find that apache needed a restart. My point is, don’t go crazy. Let automatic self-healing scripts attempt the basic fixes, and have the system page you if things still are still broken. 9/10 times it will fix the issue.

Don’t Attend Every Meeting

Try to only attend meetings that you will pay 100% full attention to. If you’re just planning to bring your laptop and work on something else, why go at all? Also, if everyone in your meeting is on their laptop working on other things, take the hint.

Use A Config Management System

I use puppet, and it rocks. If you don’t already have a config management system in place, it’s time to bite the bullet and set one up. You don’t have to get your entire infrastructure under puppet control overnight. Just set up one thing at a time. For instance, if you need to update the SSH authorized_keys on all your hosts, take the time and write a puppet module for it instead of doing it by hand. It’s a bit more time up-front, but once it’s done, managing that resource becomes completely trivial. Before long you’ll be able to manage all of your machines from a central place, and build out new systems without any manual intervention.

Take Quality Breaks

As a sysadmin, its important to stay up to date on news and events. And as a human being, it’s important to stretch, get fresh air, keep in touch with friends, etc. So, instead of leaving reddit, slashdot, facebook and whatever else open all day long. Get up, go for a walk, get a drink, browse the internets and get it out of your system. Then, when you’re done, log out of that shit. Seriously, it’s really distracting.

Ask Others For Advice

That’s all I’ve got for now. What other time management practices work well for you? Please, leave a comment below, I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences.

6 Responses to “Time Management For Recovering Sysadmins”

  1. Michael Adams Says:

    Two biggest issues in my job..

    1. I have no company card, so anything I need to get for work either has to be negotiated for a week (or three), or bought with my own funds and refunded a week or two later. This gets even more aggravating when the negotiated solution fails to do the job, and I have to fix that.

    2. We had a ticket system: it made sense when IT was 4-5 people; now its 2 + a supervisor that does other stuff. The only things I kept getting tickets for was when our production app would crash (and I’d be getting calls on that too). Right now I’m trying to get people to email us in general for stuff that isn’t an emergency.

    3. Chain of command: if a manager doesn’t like what we’re doing, they’ll go to the owners and demand they fix things; that usually means my supervisor gets to negotiate a solution, or the owners get something themselves and make us use that.

    4. http://theoatmeal.com/comics/printers this this this


  2. Michael Adams Says:

    You can tell I’ve had a long week when I say 2 points and write 4…


  3. Kyle Johnson Says:

    “Take Quality Breaks” <- so important, both physically and mentally.


  4. Mike Marshall Says:

    Excellent blog and article!
    Any advice one estimating milestones and time estimates for projects?

    Thank you,


  5. Sampar Says:

    Interesting thought, Jay!Back when I was rnuning my own Internet Marketing company, I wore all hats software developer, database architect, database admin, sysadmin. I was forced to learn how to optimize MySQL operationally as traffic pounded my sites. Got real imtimate with the my.cnf file, replication, and all sorts of other details that I never needed to know as a pure developer.Ironically, I am currently learning how to be an Oracle DBA. But my role there will be quite limited merely a DBA , not a developer, as Oracle is required by a third-party tool we are using at my shop.But on the MySQL side, I am doing it all schema design, database administration, and sysadmin stuff. I am having to understand how the entire network constellation of servers interact with the application and how that interacts with the databases to diagnose site outages, site latency issues, and the like. It is quite complex, and quite a challenge. I am actually relying on my knowledge of complexity and queuing theory in my attempts to understand the network dynamics. Even though I am not solving equations per se, the understanding of the mathematics actually helps.If you want to be a boring Oracle DBA, you have to work in a large bureaucratic establishment. There, you can rest in your pride that the Peter Principle can dominate your existence. But in a small shop, you really need to be more flexible and wear many hats; there is just no getting around that.


  6. http://w3url.net/chazadams.com Says:

    That’s way more clever than I was expecting. Thanks!


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