Time Management Skills for Community Managers
How Community Managers can organize their work to overcome overwhelm, minimize scope creep, and take back their time.
If you’re working on a community project full-time, either for a brand or as an independent creator, chances are you want to maximize your time. Maybe you want to be as efficient as possible so that you can achieve more with your project, or maybe you just want to get the important stuff done more quickly so that you can spend more time with your hobbies and loved ones.
Whatever your motivation, most community professionals I know want to use their time wisely—but, time management is also one of the top things my colleagues and clients in the community industry struggle with. I’ve heard some version of “I can’t grow my community/career on a high level because I keep getting stuck in the day-to-day” more times than I can count. And although struggles with time management plague professionals across industries, I think there are some unique challenges that community managers face in this arena.
This could be driven by the fact that community is still not well-understood as a profession, which often leads to over-scoped roles. Or, it could be driven by the fact that community is often a generalist’s game that can require switching focus multiple times a day from moderation, to project management, to relationship-building, to strategy, to reporting on business impact. Likely it’s a combination of these factors.
In my time as a “team of one” managing community full-time at Teachable, as a team-lead for C School at Commsor, and in my consulting work, I’ve honed some skills in time-management on community projects that I’d love to share with you here. While I’m aiming to share (mostly community-specific) tactics that are repeatable, I think it’s also important to acknowledge that time management is deeply personal, and what has worked for me might not work for you—but, I hope it’s a good starting point for experimentation.
Don’t let the forum eat all your time.
Think about a community as if it’s a small town. If the town has no infrastructure for garbage—no at-home or public bins, no curbside pickup, etc—they may have to hire a big workforce to go around picking up garbage all the time. Spending time and money on that workforce may make setting up infrastructure seem unattainable, and it may seem too scary for the town to stop picking up the garbage to give themselves time and resources to set up that infrastructure. But, if they use their same workforce to focus on distributing garbage bins and teaching people to sort recycling, they’ll give themselves a huge advantage in the long run and reduce the need for constant trash pickup. Communities are like this, too—proactive work saves time from reactive work.
When I first started in community management at Teachable, I spent all day every day in the Facebook group. It was a large, very active community, and one where there was almost always something to respond to...and not always in a good way. While my ever-presence was awesome for ensuring my community members got quick responses and lots of staff engagement, there was a pretty significant downside: I didn’t have any time for proactive and strategic work. This meant that my community didn’t get a lot of programming, and my team didn’t get a lot of insight and reporting on the community.
When I started to get more strategic about community management, I decided to put some boundaries around my forum engagement. For me, that meant I designated specific times of day when I would engage and respond in the forum, and tried to cap this at about 25% of my overall workload. This wasn’t easy, because it meant I had to get my team to buy-in to a different way of doing community, and one that sometimes meant that the forum would feel like it was getting less love. And, to be successful with this boundary and the impact I was trying to achieve with it, I had to stick to my boundary even when things felt urgent in the community (which, spoiler alert, was always). But, ultimately, doing this made space for me to focus on community strategy, launching new programs for my members, and making sure my team got lots of juicy insights from the community. Through this change, I was able to report on a significant impact to the business—a reduction in churn for community members—which I believe was a direct result of this shift that elevated the quality of the community.
When I hear community managers say they’re struggling with getting larger projects off the ground because they keep getting “sucked into the forum,” this time-capping strategy is one of the first things I recommend. While it’s scary at first, the reality is that nine times out of ten, taking a step back to focus on proactive projects often reduces the need for reactivity in a forum to begin with because it positively impacts the culture and quality of the community.
Beware of "community scope creep."
Learning to “say no” to unmanageable work is a cornerstone of time management skills in general, but there are some unique challenges to this for community professionals. Namely, because community roles are often not defined clearly enough and are often seen to encompass “anything and everything that has to do with people,” community managers can be particularly vulnerable to “scope creep,” or the tendency for their projects and workload to expand in complexity until they become unmanageable. And while it’s true that swag programs, ambassador programs, content creation, and event management are often a justifiable part of community roles, it’s really difficult for one person to manage all of these things at once.
I believe that the antidote to this problem for community managers is strategic clarity. What I mean by this is that in order to effectively defend your time as a community manager, you need to have a crystal clear picture of the “north star” metric you are trying to impact through your community project. A good “north star” metric is usually one that has revenue impact, is simple to express, and that your business as a whole already cares about reports on. For example, in my time at Teachable, my north star metric for community was retention—I reported on stuff like whether community members churned less or had higher lifetime value than non-community members.
Having a north star metric like this is powerful for community managers because it gives you a clear filter through which to evaluate current and prospective work—and anything that doesn’t impact that metric, impacts it less than another project, or takes more time to produce that impact, becomes easy to say “no” to.
Only “do stuff that doesn’t scale” if the community is going to scale it for you.
“Do stuff that doesn’t scale” is a common refrain in the community industry in particular. There’s a great kernel of truth in that idea—it teaches us not to shy away from the personal, the high-touch, and the “extra mile” that are so often critical to authentic community projects. Like most aphorisms, though, this idea is best taken with nuance. The nuance I like to add to this idea is that when you “do something that doesn’t scale,” you should be doing it with the intention of creating impact that ripples because of how you’re empowering a community member to step up into a leadership role that impacts the community.
The general idea is that you want to make sure your 1:1 efforts have flywheel potential. I’ve worked with so many community managers who are struggling with time management because they are investing too much time in 1:1 interactions that have no flywheel potential—doing things like spending more than half their week on user interviews, or doing 1:1 onboarding calls with every single prospective member. Choosing wisely where to put your high-touch efforts based on which ones will impact the rest of the community can both free up your time and empower members. For example, instead of doing onboarding calls with every single member, focus on getting to know the members who have taken a few steps to engage in the community already, and focus that time on empowering them to engage other members.
Lastly, here are some time-blocking tricks that worked well for me.
While I’ve focussed in this article mainly on time management tips that are community specific, last up here, I wanted to share a quick rundown of some of the more general time management skills that have served me well in my career—most of these rely on “time-blocking.” Time blocking is a way to manage your time where you add more granularity to your calendar above and beyond “free time vs. meeting time.” It’s a great way to group together similar tasks, prevent your calendar from becoming overly meeting-heavy, and make sure you have enough time to focus on heads-down projects. There are two time-blocking strategies in particular that have worked well for me:
Hour in, hour out, hour break: The entire time I was in my role at Commsor, I consistently blocked off the first hour of my day, the last hour of my day, and my lunch hour as recurring, un-bookable events where I wouldn’t take meetings. Having blocks on my calendar to “get started” and “wrap up” was not only helpful for giving me breathing room to plan my day and take care of any small tasks that piled up throughout the day, it was also a great way to help my colleagues visualize my workday when they were booking on my calendar, and prevented out-of-hours meetings. I often tried to limit my “email and Slack” catchup to those times. Except lunch—lunch is lunch.
Working blocks and working days: In my time at Commsor, I also tried to establish one heads-down day per week (in my case, Wednesdays) where I didn’t take meetings at all, and could plan to have time to work on projects without interruption. Because I built my team while I was there, I was able to establish this culture across my team as well. In addition to this, I often blocked off half-days from meetings as well, if my workload demanded it. My calendar (before other meetings and obligations) usually looked something like this:
When I first started doing this, I was definitely nervous that it would seem “too intense,” or like I was being inflexible with my time. But, ultimately I’m really glad that I worked in this way and enjoy working with others who are clear about their time, too—it helps you ensure you have enough time to create the impact you want to create, and helps you avoid saying yes to stuff you can’t actually commit to finishing. And, of course, trying to establish your ideal schedule doesn't mean you have to be inflexible—things often came up that caused me to move these blocks around, but it was the ideal I was striving for.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this—I hope it’s a helpful start for you if you’re struggling with time management as a community manager. I’ve found that which time management and project management tools work tends to be highly specific to the individual. This is because our core reasons for struggling with time management vary—some people struggle with it because they don’t have the right tools, some people struggle to strategically evaluate which work is most important, and some people run into psychological blocks around overwhelm. Because of this, it can be helpful to try to understand why you struggle with time management, and seek the tools and strategies that address that root cause—I hope this has given you some good ideas to start experimenting with.
Want to take all this a step further?
I coach clients 1:1 to help with community strategy—stuff like how to choose the right technology, how to create impactful engagement, and how to report on ROI. If your team is working on a community project that you could use a hand on, check out ways we can work together here. I’d love to hear from you.
Lastly, you can get free resources on community building straight to your inbox —like a templatized guide to a community launch, a cheat sheet for community management job postings, and more—by clicking below:
Thank you for reading!