Life in IT may seem like a never-ending stream of tasks, but it’s possible to gain control by applying a few basic tactics.
Time is precious. This is especially true if you’re a sysadmin or sysop facing a daily onslaught of incident alerts, user requests, computer glitches, and long-term projects to manage, all pulling you in different directions at once. As a new year gets underway, it’s as good a time as any to reevaluate your approach to how you’re going to spend it.
Tom Limoncelli, system administrator and author of the classic Time Management for System Administrators has developed strategies that he believes help anyone in IT Operations work through their daily tasks with maximum efficiency, helping to reduce toil and expediting the resolution of the critical situations that inevitably arise in any modern IT environment. By referencing the experiences of numerous ITOps professionals, Limoncelli’s ever-relevant handbook delivers practical, tried-and-tested strategies that help with improving focus, reducing time-wasters, managing interruptions, and skillfully using the documentation, collaboration, and automation solutions that tools like Moogsoft AIOps can provide to eliminate mundane tasks from one’s workflow.
In ITOps one of the ways businesses can help create more productive workplaces and happier staff is to focus on reducing toil and increasing productivity with more time spent on engineering work.
Saving Time Benefits Everyone
Improving your time management skills is critical in ITOps for a number of reasons. Time may be precious, but time is also money. Donald E. Wetmore, a time management consultant and founder of the Productivity Institute, says research indicates that 80% of an average workday is spent on things that have little to no value, while just 20% is spent on things that really matter. The issues that arise from this in any IT work environment are obvious. This level of productivity, or lack thereof, is not only damaging for the business but also for the individual, and an IT team’s morale.
In ITOps one of the ways businesses can help create more productive workplaces and happier staff is to focus on reducing toil and increasing productivity with more time spent on engineering work. Toil is high-volume, low-value, and should be automated wherever possible to reduce stress amongst IT operators. In Google’s book Site Reliability Engineering, members of the Google SRE team explore how reducing toil has helped the company to grow and allowed more time for engineering projects, invention, and strategic planning for the future.
Toil can be defined as the kind of work tied to running a production service that tends to be manual, repetitive, non-tactical, conceivably automatable, and devoid of lasting value. This includes mundane work such as manually running a script; repetitive fixes that find yourself doing over and over again; handling interruptive text messages and annoying on-call alerts; writing documentation; and generally working on tasks that don’t result in a permanent improvement of a service. Tasks conducted by a human that don’t require human judgment, which could instead be automated and performed just as well by a machine, would also be classed as toil. ITOps and even AIOps may never be able to eliminate this type of work completely, but there is value in continually working towards minimizing it, and Limoncelli’s tips can help. Proper prioritization, automation, and dividing work into small actionable tasks increases productivity and reduces toil and stress among Ops teams.
What follows is my best summation of the Limoncelli approach, grouped into four basic tactics…
1. Minimize Interruptions and Context Switches.
When a system administrator says “Users are always bothering me!” what they really mean is “I wish I could maintain focus on my tasks.” In Chapter 2 of his book, Limoncelli discusses the effect of focus vs. interruptions on productivity. Sysadmins are often interrupted for urgent tasks and fixes. Limoncelli points out that not only does the task they were working on become delayed by however long it takes to fix the problem, but it also adds much more lost time to switch back into the context of the job they were working on before the disruption. In order to minimize this disruption, he suggests employing the following tactics:
- Designate one dedicated person on the team to handle incoming requests.
- Have a plan to route the interruption. Apply one of three viable responses while the interruptor is present:
- Delegate the task to a member of your team.
- Record the task into a ticket system to be completed later on.
- Do the task immediately.
Limoncelli also suggests that in order to make progress with large projects, sysadmins and sysops should lock in dedicated time and make important projects a sole focus for a defined period of time, and not use this time for varied unrelated tasks. Limoncelli says most people have, at most, 4 or 5 hours of productive work in them each day. So use your peak brain-power hours for the tough, important projects. Avoid distractions by blocking distracting websites and apps, turning off instant messaging, and refusing to check email during the defined time period. And ensure that you deflect interruptions by using one of the three responses outlined above, rather than being stymied by them when they arise.
2. Develop Habitual Routines
Routines help to form long-term habits where tasks become second nature. In his book Limoncelli uses the analogy of saving memory and using fewer CPU resources (i.e., brain power) because routinized tasks become more automatic in nature and don’t have to be thought about or processed.
Routines can be triggered to start reliably by attaching them to actions that you already perform daily—for example, arriving at your desk in the morning can trigger writing your daily task list. Other time-management routines might include scheduling responding to a batch of emails at a specific time (before lunch is suggested as a good moment), and adding structure to other work and social tasks in the office such as catching up on news, a walk around the floor to check in with colleagues, or a weekly reporting meeting to management. All these events can also be triggered by calendar alerts, initially, until the new habits begin to take root and give rise to a more temporally efficient world.
3. Write Down Tasks and Don’t Rely on Memory
According to Limoncelli, people have a short-term memory capacity and on average can remember approximately seven items at time. Because of this he says that even though sysadmins are smart, they can’t trust their brains to remember everything they have to do. Limoncelli recommends writing down every request, every time, so you don’t forget.
A cluttered desk, a pile of Post-it Notes, or the never ending to-do list are a recipe for misery, so instead Limoncelli recommends a system he calls the Cycle.
The Cycle system is much like a Bullet Journal, with a list for each day of the year that starts again every 24 hours. The idea is that you can feel good after completing just a single day’s tasks, without being overly burdened by upcoming ones.
The Cycle system is made up of three tools: a combined to-do list and today’s schedule, a calendar, and a list of longer-term goals. The three tools should be stored in one place whether you use a smartphone or an old-fashioned organizer from a stationery store.
4. Trust in the Power of Machines
As Limoncelli says, automating anything takes time to set up, but the payback can be immense. The best tasks to be automated, in his view, fall into two broad categories: simple things and hard things, done often. Simple things done often is an obvious area where automation will deliver a big impact. The time you invest in automating a procedure will deliver results quickly as the tasks are ones that you perform regularly. Always automate the simple boring, repetitive stuff to become more productive. Hard things done often can be much more challenging to automate, and lots of system administrators get stuck here.
To automate tasks in this category successfully, sysadmins should try to convince senior leadership into putting more money and time into the problem. As Limoncelli suggests, this could result in the purchase of a commercial product and integration of new tools into your workflow. This might include new automation technologies like AIOps that leverage the power of machine-learning to handle both the simple and hard tasks. With Moogsoft AIOps filtering the vast majority of noise and reducing your IT incident clutter, enabling you to focus on small actionable situations that lead to big results, half the battle of time-management is already won.
In any event, it’s clear that as the responsibilities of an ITOps pro pile up and the to-do list grows, some degree of stress and inefficiency is inevitable. But by implementing the tips and tactics outlined above—and ensuring you have the best tools in your technology stack—it’s possible to increase your productivity, improve your team’s morale, and generate better business results for this year and beyond.
About the author
Dominic Wellington is the Director of Strategic Architecture at Moogsoft. He has been involved in IT operations for a number of years, working in fields as diverse as SecOps, cloud computing, and data center automation.