It's on the list: an essential guide for IT folks managing daily life

We've all experienced it. Everyone is at us. Everyone's priority is supposed to be your top priority. Everyone wants everything done today. Here's how you can begin to manage all that.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

It's an undeniable fact of IT life: everyone seems to be pulling at you. Every day, there are more and more things that need to go on the list. Something breaks. Someone needs an upgrade. Some new directive is handed down from management.


And then, on top of all that, there are the projects you're supposed to be working on, like the new plan to finally virtualize all your old, vintage physical servers. You need to get that stuff done, too.

We've all experienced it. Everyone is at us. Everyone's priority is supposed to be your top priority. Everyone wants everything done today.

It never seems to end. It sometimes feels like a battle that will never be won.

That may be how it feels, but it's not reality. The reality is you're doing a job, you'll get done what you need to get done, and you've been getting it done for years. The key is how you manage yourself and the expectations of everyone you work with.

It gets better

First, let's accept one simple fact: you know how to do your job. Whether it's migrating to virtual machines, updating desktops, recommending IT plans for the next year, evaluating vendors, whatever... you know how to do your job.

It's not the how to do your job that's the challenge. If everyone would just settle down and let you get it done as you get it done, you'd be fine. The individual tasks of IT are something you've either mastered or know how to come up to speed on.

This is what's called "domain knowledge," and most of you have it in spades.

Therefore, we can stipulate that you know how to do your job. That's not what's driving you bonkers. What's driving you bonkers is everyone pulling at you, from the minute you show up until three hours after you were supposed to leave so you could have dinner with your family.

Let's accept two other simple facts: there are 24 hours in every day and seven days in every week. Period. Easy enough. We all acknowledge this.

The next fact is a little harder to reconcile. How many hours are you able to work? The mythical average is the 40-hour work week. Some of us manage to hold the line on 40 hours, but most don't. So where is the top end? Do you work 50 hours, 60? 70? 80? 90 hours a week?

Many companies, particularly those with programmers, accept as a matter of culture that you're not humping enough if you're not doing your 90 hours a week. This is a vestige of the startup culture of the various phases of computer evolution and — on very rare occasions — it's true.

But... nobody can sustain 90 hours a week indefinitely. It generates wear and tear. It rips families apart. And, from a business perspective, it encourages mistakes. No professional can sustain working insane hours and keep focused, make smart decisions, and avoid mistakes.

Both pilots and truck drivers have mandatory rest periods. Truck drivers may not work more than 70 hours per week, and if they do, they must rest for 34 consecutive hours, including two nights rest from at least 1am to 5am. Passenger pilots must get at least ten hours of rest between shifts, may not fly more than eight or nine hours per shift, and must have at least 30 consecutive hours of rest each week.

While IT professionals are generally not driving 18-wheelers or 747s, we tend to build the systems that run infrastructure that a lot of people rely on. IT pros need to be clear, awake, aware, and alert and that means a work week of 40-60 hours is probably the most you safely should work.

There is no doubt we've all experienced "the push," that time when it's an all-hands-on-deck, all-nighter team effort to get something done. There's nothing wrong with having a push once in a while for a good reason. But the push must be rare, once or twice a year. It may not be common practice, or it's simply an indication of poor resource management.

What that means is that no matter how many people are "at" you, it either all has to fit inside the time you have or you have two choices: some things don't get done, or you find ways to become more efficient in how you get things done.

It's not a matter of staying until midnight each day. It's a matter of learning to prioritize, making sure you have your management's support of the realities of quality work, and developing tools and systems that will allow you to cut an hour here and an hour there of wasted time.

If I can give you one tool, right now, it's ruthless prioritization. Some things are more important than other things. Not everything that's urgent is important (thanks, Stephen Covey!). Whenever you have a pile of things to do, the famous list, the one key is comparing items on the list to your overall priorities and deciding what must come first and what must be done later.

No, not everything can be a top priority. If you have that situation, where you have a ton of items that are apparently all the same, top priority, prioritize them. Be ruthless. You will have winners and you will have losers. The only way you can keep it all on track is by developing this skill.

It's okay if you put things on the list. But also get in the practice of taking things off the list. Deleting items is allowed. After all, once you have a list that takes you into 2025 to complete, it's not realistic anyway. Go ahead and prune from your list. Those lower priority items will become their own squeaky wheels later and will find their way back onto the list.

Remember, though, to pick your battles wisely. Sometimes the reality of your situation may break through the practicality of your prioritization. If the top dog in the company insists on something, you might find it more politically expedient to go that way than to stand your ground on priorities. It's a game of balance, not absolutes.

That should get you started for now. Ruthless prioritization is your friend. I'll add more to this topic over time, but remember that you're one person, you're entitled to go home at the end of a day, and working too many hours will cause mistakes, not demonstrate your loyalty.

I'll leave you with one final thought. Developing the skill (and intestinal fortitude) to ruthlessly prioritize and manage your time is as much a professional skill as managing a server. If you want to truly be a pro, and not feel like you've been drained of all your life force getting there, you need to protect your time, your sanity, and your ability to perform effectively. Doing so is not just for your own good.

Being able to perform effectively is important for your company's mission as well.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Editorial standards