Coping with Social Media Realities: Time and Information Management

In our overcommitted, busy lives, lack of time is a common lament. The time challenge is exacerbated by information overload and the speed with which digital technology continues to change. For social media rookies in particular, these challenges can be overwhelming. This post highlights certain immutable realities of the world in which we live and work and offers guidance for how to cope with them.

When thinking about the digital engagement of active social media users, rookies generally alternate between wondering (often enviously or wistfully) “How do they find the time?” and scoffing (often dismissively and disdainfully) “How do they have so much ‘free’ time?” In our overcommitted, busy lives, lack of time is a common lament. Many people are so challenged to manage the things they feel they have to do, they can’t imagine how they’re going to find time to engage in activities – like social media – they still perceive as peripheral rather than core to the pursuit of their goals and objectives.

The time challenge is exacerbated by information overload and the speed with which new platforms and tools are introduced, all of which combine to create an overwhelming and scary proposition for people who prefer a slower, more methodical pace and/or more traditional forms of communication and collaboration.

I speak to social media rookies all the time, both formally and informally. I could sugarcoat reality for them, telling them that social media and other new digital technologies are short-lived phenomena we’ll eventually abandon. Or I could reassure them that even though these changes are permanent, everything’s going to settle down and they’ll be able to catch up when it does. But I would be lying. Instead, I choose to show them a little tough love by highlighting certain immutable realities of the world in which they live and work and offering guidance for how to cope with them.

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The truths inherent in these realities apply to both individuals and organizations and are not bounded by factors such as industry, organizational size or type, or individual age or career stage. And although the degree to which they’re applicable may vary, they are relevant regardless of the type of involvement an individual or organization elects to have. When it comes to time and information management, the challenges faced by everyone – from social media listeners and lurkers, to commenters, content curators and creators, and community managers – are fundamentally the same.

This post addresses the six time and information management realities I generally highlight, as well as some of the coping tips I offer. What other realities and tips would you add? As always, questions and comments are welcome.

Constant Change, Lightning Speed, and High Volume are the “New Normal”

Though I am not a tech person myself, I spend enough time following the industry – particularly the start-up community – to say with certainty that new tools, technologies, and platforms will continue to be introduced, often at a dizzying pace. And the more new ways we have of communicating and collaborating, the more information we create, share and reshare. It’s a relentless onslaught, and there’s no end in sight. As you may have heard, it’s a brave new world – even if you want the old one back!

Coping Tip: Should you follow every fad, jump on every bandwagon, and learn how to drink from a firehose? Of course not. What you need to do is have a clear sense of  your goals and objectives and let them guide your decisions about when, where and how to engage. And of course you need to educate yourself. I’ve created lots of conceptual and tactical guidance to help you do just that, including:

You’re Never Going to Find the Time – you Need to Make the Time

Many people think – or should I say, naively hope – that one day their schedules will open up sufficiently to allow them to climb the necessary learning curves and become more digitally sophisticated. But the longed-for time never materializes… and it never will, at least not on its own.

The only way to find the time you need to more effectively leverage new technologies is to make it a priority, which means that you want and value new ways of communicating and collaborating more than traditional approaches. That’s why other people are able to spend seemingly endless amounts of time on social media. They’ve made it a priority because they derive value from it and perceive the time spent as an investment rather than an expense. They’ve also found a way to integrate it into their personal and professional activities rather than layering it on top of them.

Coping Tips:

  • Think about what less-productive activities (relative to your goals) you’re going to give up to make time for strategically-valuable social media activities.
  • Schedule time for social media on a regular basis, as part of your professional activities. Start by working it into your week (one hour on one day should be manageable), then graduate to two-three times a week, striving to commit to daily engagement.
  • Build habits and routines for ongoing activity to fully integrate social media into your professional life. Remember to be disciplined and proactive rather than reactive, however. Don’t let yourself be interrupted by technology’s incessant demands and resist the temptation of the black hole/time suck.

Large (Initial) Investments of Time are Unavoidable

If you’re a true digital rookie, then there’s no getting around the fact that you need to prepare yourself to devote relatively significant chunks of time to learning how to function more effectively in the Digital Era. Both in general and with respect to specific platforms/tools, the beginning part of the learning curve can be extremely steep.

Some people think they can avoid the personal learning curve by outsourcing social media activities, but I don’t think that’s in anyone’s long-term best interests. Even if you are able to delegate specific tasks, you shouldn’t completely abdicate leadership or responsibility for your own brand to either junior associates or outside parties. And as digital technologies and social tools become more widespread, they will increasingly be integrated into organizational operations of all types. So although people may be able to delay the learning process, most won’t be able to avoid it altogether. Learning how to use new technologies is a question of when not if – and the sooner you start, the easier it will be.

Even social media sophisticates face ongoing challenges to expand their knowledge and skills, as new platforms and tools emerge (e.g., Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat) and existing platforms and tools make substantial changes (e.g., Twitter’s new interface). In the new normal, the only constant is change – and that requires a commitment to continuous learning…

Coping Tips:

  • Immersion is the best way to learn and is ultimately more efficient/ effective than trying to tackle a new platform/tool in small chunks.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek assistance – and be willing to pay for it. Even though it’s your mountain to climb, having a Sherpa can help you get to the top more quickly and with much less risk than trying to venture out on your own. For more thoughts on “social media experts,” check out Hiring Social Media Experts: Guidance for (Rookie) Buyers.
  • Be patient with both the technology and yourself. Don’t give up before you can truly assess the potential value of a particular platform/tool. Although the learning process can be very frustrating in the beginning, once everything falls into place and you “get it,” the learning curve levels off immediately and the platform/tool becomes infinitely more manageable.
  • Plan for periodic re-immersion to familiarize yourself with changes to specific platforms and update your presence and engagement accordingly. You’ll also want to make changes based on the experiences you’ve had and the lessons they’ve taught you.

Digital Engagement is a Marathon, not a Sprint

Getting started with a specific social media platform or tool is relatively quick and easy. With most it takes mere minutes to open an account and lay a basic foundation. As people become more skilled, they can complete the necessary set up in a few hours (or less), depending on the complexity of the platform/tool. Novelty, determination and enthusiasm can drive and sustain an initial burst of activity, but soon enough it becomes evident that effective digital engagement is a grind. It requires ongoing attention, persistence, discipline, and hard work. The prevalence of “digital ghost towns” throughout cyberspace offer silent testimony to the harsh reality of the challenges of following through on relatively easy initial commitments.

Coping Tips:

  • When deciding whether to establish a presence on a particular platform or engage in a given community, think realistically about what it will take to maintain your presence/engagement, not just what it may take to get started. If you don’t feel confident that you can maintain a longer-term commitment, it’s probably best not to start.
  • And remember some of the earlier tips to integrate digital engagement into your professional life: build time into your schedule, develop habits and routines, plan for periodic (re)immersion.

It’s Impossible to “Have it All,” “Do it All,” or “Know it All”

I’ve been fully immersed in the applications and implications of digital technology for the past three years, and I can personally attest to this reality! Even if I spent all day every day keeping my eyes on the digital horizon and my ear on the cyber ground, I still wouldn’t be fully aware of the latest technologies, tools, and trends. And even if I were aware, I still can’t judge with certainty what will be a “flash in the pan” or “the next big thing” – no one can.

If a presumed social media expert confesses to the challenges of trying to keep up, what hope does a social media rookie have? It’s tempting to just ignore everything or do nothing, but letting yourself act like a deer caught in headlights or an ostrich is not in your best interests.

Coping Tips:

  • Learn to embrace the uncertainty and chaos of the world in which we live and accept that you would drown if you tried to drink directly from the firehouse of information every day.
  • Don’t let your fear of missing something make you become addicted to staying tuned in or following the latest craze.
  • When it comes to information, emphasize quality over quantity and allow yourself to be selective. You can manage the flow of information by:
    • Limiting yourself to a few news sources and thought leaders that consistently offer valuable content
    • Relying on content curators whose judgment you trust
    • Unfollowing people whose content and activity have too much noise and not enough signal
    • Investing the time to set up an aggregator (e.g., Flipboard, NetVibes) or other techniques that allow you to control how, when, and where you receive information
  • When it comes to technology, don’t feel pressured to jump on the latest bandwagon or be a fad follower. Let yourself take a “wait and see” approach and only consider committing to a new platform or tool after it demonstrates it has staying power. There’s little risk in being part of the second, or even third, wave of users.

Technology and Tools can Help, but They can’t Replace Good Judgment

As new social media platforms emerge, opportunistic developers start working on creating new platforms, tools, and techniques to help people manage them. That’s terrific, but we have to remember that social media engagement is fundamentally a human endeavor. Although “high tech” tools can help us, they are a poor facsimile of the “high touch” interactions that are necessary for success.

In a similar vein, we have to remember that although sharing content created by others is an efficient engagement tactic, it should not be the only tactic you employ. Your voice needs to be authentic and convey a sense of who you are as an individual or organization. Excessive parroting of the information and ideas of others can cause people to tune you out, thereby undermining your goals.

Coping Tips:

  • You can schedule posts on Twitter and other platforms using a tool like HootSuite. Although not everyone agrees, I think it’s fine to queue up posts on a regular schedule. But you should still stay attuned to the activity and be prepared for real-time interaction when circumstances warrant it.
  • Avoid excessive posting/reposting, as well as automatic cross-posting on multiple platforms. Although it’s appropriate to share the same content in different places, the posting norms and language used in each varies significantly.