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Time Management for System Administrators by Thomas A. Limoncelli

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Chapter 4. The Cycle System

In 1997, I received an award for my political activism. In addition to my full-time system administration job and very active social life, I spent my spare time involved in four nonprofits, one of which I had been president of, another that I had founded. Someone asked me how I kept it all coordinated. I smiled and thanked them for the compliment, and politely held back from saying, "I'm a system administrator! I manage chaos for a living!"

The truth is that I had figured out how to keep track of the flood of requests and to do items that came my way without losing any of them. It's easy to look like you know what you're doing when you have good follow-through .

Your customers value your ability to follow through more than they value any other skill you have. Nothing ruins your reputation like agreeing to do something and forgetting to do it. The secret to perfect follow-through is to record all requests and track each request until completion. My key to perfect follow-though is a system I call The Cycle because it repeats every day, and the output of one day is the input to the next. Sort of like in grade-school science where you draw a circular diagram that shows how a frog starts life as an egg, becomes a tadpole, grows legs, turns into a froglet, becomes an adult frog, and gives birth to more eggs, which starts the cycle all over again. This system is just like that, except that each cycle is 24 hours, and you don't have to live in a pond.

The Cycle uses three tools: a combined to do list and today's schedule, a calendar, and a list of long-term life goals. Store all these tools in one place. The process is the same whether you use a PDA or an old-fashioned planner or organizer (PAA) that can be found in a stationery store.

Keeping all three databases in one place is important because:

  • The three databases interact with each other. You want to be able to easily flip between them.

  • It's easier to track the location of one thing rather than three things.

  • You need to keep the databases with you all the time, and it's easier to carry a bundle than it is to carry three individual items.

This chapter explains The Cycle System in general. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 will explain The Cycle System's parts: to do lists and schedules, the calendar, and life goals. These might be the most important chapters you read in your system administration career.

Figure 4-1. 

Don't Trust Your Brain

System administrators in general are smart people. You're smart. I'm smart. We're all smart. We've achieved our stature through brainpower, not brawn. Sure, our good looks help, but deep down ours is a "brain" job. On average, people have a short-term memory capacity of seven items, plus or minus two. What about the average reader of this book? I bet you're closer to eight, nine, or, heck, you in the back row reading the comic book might be as high as ten (plus or minus three).

Turning to my personal to do list, I see about 20 items. Damn. That's a lot more than 10.

There's no way I can trust my brain to remember 20 items. I need a little external storage. So do you.

I hope you aren't insulted when I say "Don't trust your brain."

I don't trust mine. That's why I write down every request, every time. Whether I use a PDA or PAA, when someone asks me to do something, I write it down. This has become the mantra:

Write down every request, every time.

My brain feels a little insulted by this lack of trust. When someone asks me to do something my brain starts yelling, "I'll remember it! Put down that PDA, Tom! Trust me this time!" However, all the inspiration I need to record the request is to hark back to those times when I've had to face a customer who was upset that I hadn't completed his request and deliver the rather lame excuse, "I forgot."

In Chapter 2, I discussed delegate, record, or do. When we delegate a task, we don't have to record it, though it is sometimes wise to record that we should follow up with the delegate to make sure the request was accomplished. (We are, so to speak, our brother's keeper.)

Also, if we are going to do the task, we don't have to write it down. If someone asks, "Please pass the salt," I don't write in my to do list, "pass the salt," and then cross it off my to do list. That would be silly. However, if someone asks me to do something and I say, "Sure, right after I'm finished with this," then I write it down. Don't confuse "when I'm finished" with doing something right away. In fact, for me, the biggest temptation to not write something down is when I think I'll remember it because it's what I'm going to be doing next.

Our poor brains. So insulted by the suggestion that they can't remember everything. However, remember that our brain is also where our ego is kept. Sometimes our ego oversteps its boundary and oversells its buddy the brain. When you hear yourself think, "I don't need to write this one down," or "I'll make an exception this time, how could I possibly forget this request?" just remember that it's your brain—ego big as Montana—overpromising like a Microsoft salesperson trying to meet his monthly quota.


I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I remembered who was telling me this.

 --Emo Philips

If it makes your brain feel less insulted, just remember that by not filling it with boring lists of to do items, we are reserving it for the powerhouse tasks. In Chapter 1, I mentioned the story about Albert Einstein trying to reserve as much of his brain as possible for physics by eliminating other brainwork, like deciding what to wear each day. Legend also has it that Einstein didn't memorize addresses or phone numbers, even his own. The important ones were written on a slip of paper in his wallet so as not to use up precious brain capacity. When someone would ask him for his own phone number he would tell them that it's in the phone book and politely ask them to look it up. Be like Einstein; reserve your brain for system administration.

If I don't have my organizer with me when someone makes a request (this usually happens when I'm on the way to the men's room), I am very forthright with putting the onus on the requester to make sure her request gets recorded. For example, I'll say, "Gosh, I'm running to a meeting and I really don't want to forget this request. Could you promise to send email to 'help' [which creates a ticket in our request tracking system] that says, 'Glenn. I need x-y-z. Ask Tom for details.'" I know that I have to put the responsibility of remembering the request on my organizer or back on the person making the request. Anything but my brain.

I don't trust my brain to remember stuff. Paper, on the other hand, I trust. Once something is written down, it's there. If I have a list of 10 to do items on a piece of paper I don't have to worry that one might vanish. Disappearing ink is something that only exists in cartoons, and a dog has never eaten my homework.

I also trust PDAs. I do fear a PDA breaking or somehow losing my data, but that's why when I do use one, it gets synced to a file server that is backed up. When compared to the number of times my brain forgets things, PDAs are nearly as reliable as paper.

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