Time Management in the Age of Social Media

David Allen talks about ways you can make Facebook and Twitter work for you on the job

These days I'm asked frequently about the role of social media in personal and organizational productivity. The question is timely, as the major social media applications have millions of users and are still growing fast. Also, the phenomenon is closely tied to e-mail, which itself has presented major challenges to professionals in time management and keeping an appropriate focus in their work and life.

The most obvious issue about social media: Is this a useful way to spend your time, or is it a sinkhole of attractive distraction? It could very easily be one of those one minute, and the other the next! It all depends on why you're doing it, and this must be evaluated moment to moment. It's an important distinction to make for yourself, because focus is probably your greatest asset that you can control. You must be judicious about where you place it and what you let grab it, thus reducing your effectiveness.

Bear in mind that the most potentially productive activities (e.g. meetings) can undermine your control and focus if they're not carefully managed. And some pursuits that are commonly viewed as "time-wasting," such as random Web surfing or Facebook socializing can be productive, if you use that term in the broadest sense of achieving something you want.

Someone noticed that I was now on Twitter and said: "How can you be productive on Twitter?" My simple answer: "If I want to have Twittered, then it's productive!" I wasn't trying to be facetious. The truth is, if you're taking a vacation to relax and you don't relax, then it's an unproductive vacation.

Why would I (or anyone) want to "have Twittered," or be involved with any of the social media at all? There is inherently some sort of magic between the lines in much of it that seems to have struck a chord in so many of us. I attribute this to the transparency, connectedness, and immediacy that social media offer, which are key attributes of quality relationships—something humans crave at a basic level.

Looking at if from a more tactical, practical perspective, it seems there are three main reasons that it can serve people well:

You're an incorrigible extrovert, and you just love to schmooze.

If so, social media may be right up your alley. You simply need to be careful with balance, and whether your virtual social life is detracting from your physical one, or from your other responsibilities. You may need a prenuptial agreement that it's O.K. to disappear for hours away from your real-life partner to chat with people you'll never see. But if you're wired to get inspirational juice from multiple relationships in that way, it can be productive.

You have an agenda that is supported by this kind of connection.

If you need to know what's new and what's happening, moment to moment, social media can provide a competitive advantage. If you are building a global brand, as I am, and leveraging your personality and having a following is part of that strategy, playing in this arena is smart. I've only been on Twitter for a couple of weeks, but already it has invigorated lots of great discussions and a sense of connectedness with thousands of people in and around my network.

If having some sort of immediate communication from me helps reinforce the best practices that my methods represent for people's work and life, then there's lots of goodwill as well as good ideas spreading virally and quickly. Or, if you're in a business that excels with its "now-ness" in the market and culture, such as entertainment or consumer high tech, you'd better be on board. Or if you're out of a job, this hugely expanded Rolodex may be your best resource for your next opportunity.

You're researching.

You're intrigued, maybe a little intimidated by the early adopters and the popularity in the media about these media, and you're curious about what all this is about and want to find out whether and how you should engage. That's probably the majority of us, and I think there is still much to know about this world. You'll be in testing, trying-out mode. I'm still very much in this space, attempting to not miss out on whatever opportunities might lie waiting while at the same time not letting myself get too sidetracked along lines that start to require more energy than they deliver back.

It's not an easy call, because I've discovered that the proof is in the pudding. That is, I've got to participate in order to really know what's going to pay off and what isn't. The experience in Twitter was unexpected; and it took quite a bit of experimentation to get a feel for what was going on, and how to find a groove there.

The big key is to stay very clear about what your agreements with yourself are, relative to your engagement with such things as LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter, and the like. The opportunity that the various social media offer is the ability to quickly communicate, collaborate, and get feedback from a large and previously inaccessible number of people, with varying degrees of filtering capabilities.

The challenge is that each of those social media involvements can represent another virtual in box, with an implicit assumption that you should think about and deal with what lands there. If "processing" those additional streams of input is simply a matter of scanning to see what's of interest to you, that may not take much time; and you can simply drop in and out on a whim. That's no different than channel surfing, other than the added seductiveness of interactive rabbit trails to pursue.

But if you are expected—by yourself or others—to be more familiar with the content, or to contribute and respond to content directly, you're going to have to be judicious in how you manage your social media commitments. It's not as innocuous as another cable station, unless you have specifically downgraded your expectations of how you're going to be involved.

Depending on your personal and professional interests, you can choose from the variety of social media the ones that fit for you. If the productivity best practice is to target your social media very precisely to attain your goals, then the productivity worst practice would be to indiscriminately hook into multiple sources of poorly defined static. To use social media effectively, just be sure that you aren't putting more effort in than the result you're getting.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.