Remember The Milk Time Management

If you’re a system administrator, chances are you’re always pressed for time. Between supporting end users, working on new projects, and just maintaining all those systems you administrate, it’s hard to find the time to get everything done. I know I’ve found time management to be a difficult thing to tackle, but there’s a book I’ve read that addresses our particular situation. Time Management for System Administrators by Tom Limoncelli is a great read for anyone who either needs help organizing their time, or could use some original and effective strategies for our line of work. It says “for System Administrators,” but it is a great “getting things done” book for anyone who has a high volume of things to do and a lot of interruptions that create new tasks.

In the book, Limoncelli puts forth a method (called “The Cycle”) to tackle day-to-day tasks in a logical way that maintains task priority, even while being bombarded with more things to do. I have taken this system and modified it to fit my own needs. I have been using Remember the Milk (RTM) as a way to implement the system, and I have found it to work perfectly with this method.

For this system, you’ll need a single list to store everything you have to work on. This can eventually be more than one list, such as one for personal, one for work, etc., but you’ll want to group large portions of tasks together. To start, enter all of the things you don’t want to forget about, but don’t plan on actively working on in the immediate future. Enter these with no due date, and you can classify them further by priority if you desire. Next, enter future due dates for any tasks that need to be set aside for a later date (such as following up with a vendor after a week). Finally, enter a due date of today for everything else. I should note that even though you’re setting this due date of today, that does not necessarily mean you will be working on those tasks today.

For everything that you set due today, you’ll need to assign priorities because these tasks will be your list of things that follow you day-to-day until they can be completed. Limoncelli’s system uses A, B, and C, which corresponds perfectly to Remember the Milk (1, 2, 3). Priority 1 (P1) should be everything you actually plan to do today. Plan this seriously with how much you know you can do, and mark fewer tasks than what you think you’ll actually accomplish. Priority 2 (P2) is everything that you need to do tomorrow. You will change these to P1 tomorrow when you are planning out your day. Priority 3 (P3) should be for everything else. At this point, you’re all set to begin the daily process of using this system.

According to the system, your day’s work will come from all P1 tasks due today. If you happen to finish those, you can move on to the next priority (tomorrow’s work), although this is not expected. The following day, your tasks jump up a priority, and you have what you’re working on that day. As you’re interrupted during the day, you can quickly throw the tasks into P3 for today (for example, “Fix Susan’s e-mail configuration today !3”), or at a higher priority as needed. The key to the system is to document new tasks that come up, but forget about them until it’s actually time to do them. The less brain power you waste on keeping track of things, the more you can spend on actual work.

An added bonus you’ll get from RTM is the search list. You can create a search for your daily tasks by searching your main list for everything P1 that’s due today. After prepping for the day, you can switch to this search list so you can actually finish everything on your to-do list for the day! It’s very disheartening to look at your list of hundreds of things to do, with no hope of ever emptying it (if you did empty it, you might not have a job :)). This search list lets you complete everything on the list, and actually feel accomplished.

There are several other bonus features that are extremely convenient. One feature is time estimates. By filling this in for your tasks, your search list will give a nice total time estimate of how much work you have left for the day. You also will benefit from repeating tasks. Have to swap a tape every Monday? A P1 task due every week on Mondays will make sure it’s always in your daily list when it’s necessary. Finally, you can have a great repository for all of your completed tasks with RTM. It’s great for job reviews, since you can see everything you’ve worked on over the year in one convenient location!

This system has definitely increased my productivity, and has helped me make sure nothing falls through the cracks. Plus, it keeps me motivated by fighting back constant interruptions and letting me see the end of a list to know I accomplished something!

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