A Guide to (Better) Time Management

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“I simply have too much time in the day” –No IT Pro Ever

I’m sure there are those rare few out there that have found a Garden of Eden when it comes to time. However, this post is not for those lucky individuals. It’s for everyone else. As IT professionals, we work hard, things get busy and then we work harder. It’s not ideal and it’s not necessary either. Lift with your brain. There is life outside of work and trust me, it is usually a lot more fun as well.

We have all been there. Or at least we’ve all seen it. Those glossy eyes, that blank stare. Sleep has evaded us again. Late night server maintenance, an emergency call or something else has caught us off guard. Now, I won’t say there is a magic formula that makes this all go away, because there isn’t. What I will say is that if you are more effective and ultimately more efficient, you can drastically reduce those extra hours you end up working.

Now let’s get to the real quote:

“Ability is nothing without opportunity” – Napoleon Bonaparte

You are a rock star at a help desk, a wizard at automation and a genius when it comes to troubleshooting. That’s why you’re in your position. But let’s throw in some trouble users, a difficult project and a micromanaging executive. Are you still as effective? No. Are your talents showcased? No. Are you adding as much value to your organization as you can? No. This is the real world and it is unavoidable. You could complain but it won’t change anything. The only thing you can change is the way you approach the situation. So, to get back to the quote, your abilities and technical skills are worthless if you cannot create an opportunity for them to shine through. This is where time management comes into play.

I look at time management as establishing an unbiased list of priorities, guarding yourself from distractions when necessary and making time for the opening/closing of your day.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

An unbiased list of priorities

As you may have noticed, the word “unbiased” is underlined. Why is that? Because it’s the most important word in this topic. See what I did there?

I moved this to the top of this post so that, if nothing else, you can work on it. We all have a tendency to somehow find the time to do the things we want and like but those tedious, irritating, mundane tasks always seem to slip through the cracks. It’s strange, isn’t it? I am an excellent procrastinator. Always have been. The last minute is the best minute and if I can move that minute sometime down the road, even better.

Admit it, you have procrastinating skills as well. Now that we have admitted our problem, we can begin working on it. When drafting your list of priorities, try not to think about the fact that you have to do it and more about the big picture. Sometimes what helps is to imagine you are making this list for someone else. Often times if you don’t, you make a list of preferences, not priorities. Your preferences are rarely in the most logical order. Also, accomplishing 15 little things is not necessarily better than finishing one large project.

Guarding yourself from distractions

Distractions is a broad term, I know. Maybe you are more familiar with the term “walk-ups.” This could be people knocking on your door, phone calls, emails, Facebook, Pinterest or even your boss wanting to sync up. Regardless of what the distraction may be, it’s a problem.

So you lose one minute on the phone. That’s not so bad. The real issue is that you forgot several minutes of your most recent progress and it takes you another few minutes to even get back to the task at hand. I’ve heard several different numbers over my career as to how much time is lost per distraction but for this example let’s say you lose five minutes. How many times do you get interrupted or distracted on any given day? Five times? Ten times? More? Now let’s do some simple math and realize that this is way too much time to be giving up.

If you are working on a project or a task that takes more than 15 minutes, you need to guard yourself from distractions. Here is a list of actions you can take to avoid being distracted:

  • Close Outlook. That’s right, just close it.
  • Put your cell phone on silent, out of your line of sight and out of arm’s reach.
  • Place your desk phone and chat client on DND (Do not disturb).
  • Close the door or move to a location away from walking traffic.
  • Put headphones on. This will discourage casual interruptions.

Opening and closing your day

I was once told that effort means nothing. I was offended. I have always prided myself on being an extremely hard worker and giving everything my best effort. Then after some time, I started to realize what that meant and have rephrased it a little. Effort by itself means nothing. Strategy is just as important as the effort you give when following through with a plan.

I believe that, given our already tight schedules, we have a tendency to be boots on the ground from first thing in the morning to end of the day. This leads to blind and wasted effort. One of the best things that I have done to be more effective and to get more out of my limited time is to set aside the beginning and end of my day for grouping my thoughts.

In the morning, I take time to read industry related articles or blogs (simply because I enjoy them) as I’m launching applications and logging into my dashboard. Once everything is up, instead of starting work on the first thing I see, I start making a list of all the things I need to accomplish that day (As we learned on my first point, make sure this is in priority order, not preference order). Once the list is complete, I place them on my daily schedule.

For example if you need to set aside an hour to deploy a new application to your sales team, that could be your 10-11am task. Always be sure to block off time for lunch. Also, just because something is very important, that doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be accomplished first. However, if you don’t have time to complete everything, be sure that the less important tasks are the ones that are cut.

This is where knowing yourself comes in handy. The most intense efforts may need to be done when you are at your mental peak for the day. This could be first thing, after lunch, midafternoon or whenever you know you work best. If you aren’t entirely sure, that’s ok. Being adaptable is key. The demand of the business will change and so will yours.

At the end of the day take a little time to roll over those tasks that didn’t get accomplished to the next day. This is also a good way to unwind and be mentally prepared for the next day. Typically this is also when I verify the work that I have completed. Though this may seem redundant, that one time you catch a problem will save you hours of firefighting later. 

Walkaways

Managing your time is important. Most tech jobs are very interruption driven. The art is handling these interruptions and taking the time to plan out your day and priorities. With a little bit of effort now, you will be surprised how little effort you will need to make later. So stop falling victim to the chaos and take control of your daily schedule. 

  • Take a little time every morning to set a list of unbiased priorities and plan out your day.
  • Protect yourself from distractions by proactively guarding against them.
  • Verify your work at the end of the day and roll over incomplete tasks

Follow these tips and you may find your days shortening and you being less stressed overall.

But perhaps my biggest recommendation is to pick up Time Management for System Administrators by Thomas Limoncelli. This book is an invaluable resource. It’s a quick, enjoyable read and you will not be disappointed. After reading this book a few years ago, I have added at least a couple hours each day in additional productivity. Read it and then read it again. The only thing you need to do is actually make time to read it. Knock it out in a day, during the weekend or over the course of a week or two, but set time aside to read through the whole thing and keep yourself accountable.

After implementing some of the best practices I’ve outlined here and that you can find in Limoncelli’s book for a few weeks, you’ll be headed home earlier, sleeping a little better and everyone will be a lot happier.

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