How to Make Space for Social Media

Harvard Business Review

Few professionals were sitting at their desks in 2004, eyeing the empty slots in their calendars and wishing that somebody would just invent a new way of communicating to fill those long and lonely minutes. People's calendars were already full.

Social media demanded attention. It had to be put into the rotation, but that doesn't mean we took something else off our calendars to accommodate it. Instead we just added it to the marketing teams' tasks, challenging them to figure it out until they could make a business case for hiring full-time social media staffers.

Flash forward a decade, and any organization with serious social media ambitions has those full-time staffers. They've expanded teams and reassigned resources by eliminating now-deprecated communications channels. (Paper newsletter, anyone?)

For individuals however, it's harder to expand and reassign resources. What are the rest of us taking off our plates to make room for the time we spend on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook? Not much.

If social media is worth doing, than it's worth making time for. Anyone who's spending more than an hour a week on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook has presumably made at least a subconscious calculation of the benefits of participating (or better still, an explicit set of goals for what they expect to accomplish with the time invested in social media usage).

But all too many of us decide that social media is worth doing without deciding what is worth giving up for it. And unless you're one of the miraculous few who does have plenty of empty space on your dance card, you must give something up in order to make time for social networking.

How do you decide what to eliminate? You can prioritize what to keep and what to retire by answering these questions:

What am I learning from social media? If you use social media as a news gathering, training or learning resource, ask which of your prior news tracking or learning activities can be retired. If you're now reading 10 blog posts a week on professional best practices, maybe you don't need to attend that annual training workshop anymore.

Who am I meeting through social media? One of the great rewards of Twitter, LinkedIn and other professionally rich networks is the discovery of new colleagues or the deepening of professional conversations and ties. If you're consistently expanding your professional network through the time you spend online, consider scaling back the number of face-to-face networking events you attend in order to build out your rolodex (and why don't you retire the rolodex while you're at it).

Who am I reaching through social media? Blogs, Slideshare, YouTube videos: social media provides an extensive array of opportunities for sharing your ideas and building your reputation. That may allow you to reduce the other kinds of reputation-builders that formerly filled your schedule. You may still get value from presenting to an audience of a thousand, but are you better off speaking pro bono to a room of 25 people, or writing a blog post that will be read by 250?

How am I replenished by social media? If you've made time for social media, it's probably because you actually enjoy it. So tune into the emotional impact of the time you spend on Facebook or Twitter, as compared to the other kinds of activities or interactions that formerly filled up your leisure hours. What's more relaxing: watching TV or catching up on Facebook news? What's more fun: going to a bar, or kibitzing on Twitter? What's more restorative: reading a blog post or reading a novel? Depending on your personal preferences, you may decide to shelve some of your less-satisfying hobbies in favor of some of your new social media activities.

One virtue of this kind of evaluation is that it not only allows you to evaluate which pre-Facebook activities are less valuable than social media, but also to notice where social media has crowded out professional or personal activities that offer more rewards than you get from spending that same hour on Twitter or LinkedIn. The key is to make these trade-offs conscious and explicit, rather than letting social media take over more rewarding activities, or letting it crowd out the remaining space in your life.

Because you are giving something up to make time for social media, even if what you're giving up is sleep or (rarer still) empty space. Indeed, that empty space may be what's most precious, because it's the margin that ensures that when the next must-do activity appears on the horizon, you don't go ten years without noticing you need to take something else off your plate.

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