Some of you may not want to hear this.

The number one challenge people tell me they have with social media is finding time to do it. They are already overworked in their jobs, and there’s simply no extra time for them to spend with all the listening and checking in and engaging that social media demands.

I think we’ve got it all wrong.

Social media does not exist in a 9 to 5 world. It stretches beyond the boundaries that we create for our work and our play, and therein lies the problem. We haven’t quite figured out that, just because our social media goals might be related to our work, doesn’t mean that when we clock out at the end of our “work” day, the conversation comes to a complete halt until we sit back down at our desks the next day. I’m sorry if you think that sucks. But the truth is, if you’re a marketer or communicator, an entrepreneur or a salesperson, this is an important shift you’re going to have to make, if you want to be successful in this space. Here’s an example:

The other night, I was relaxing at home after a long day, when a message popped up on my screen from Twitter. Someone had posted a reply to one of my client’s accounts. My company is currently engaged as the social media coordinators for an international conference. It’s our job to read and take appropriate and timely action on any and all messages that come through social channels. And since our audience is people all over the world, those messages can come in at any time…even at 8pm on a Monday night when I’m just sitting down to watch a movie.

Do I always need to respond immediately? Sometimes things can wait (though we do respond to everything within 12 hours). But in this case, someone had a question for which the answer was dependent on them making a decision to attend the conference. Had I said to myself at that point “oh well, I’m off the clock, this will just have to wait till tomorrow morning”, that person may well have decided against attending. But, at that moment, I happened to have the answer she needed. So I picked up my phone, and took 10 seconds to reply to her tweet, and she went away happy.

The point of this story is that engagement doesn’t always have a schedule. The person on the other end of that tweet may have only had a limited time to be thinking about her attendance at the conference. She’s busy too. But the fact that someone was there to respond to her right away may have made a difference that worked into a positive for her, and for my client, as my positive response means she now has a positive image of them too. Had I put it off because I was “off the clock”, I may have missed the opportunity to make that impact.

People often ask me how I manage to do all I do (running a business, teaching, speaking, and so on) and still have time for social media (blogging, podcasting, tweeting, and so on). The secret is, it works for me because I’m not always trying to fit it in to my work day only. I write blog posts in my head when I’m walking the dog in the morning. I tweet while standing in line at the grocery store, or during the commercials if I’m watching TV. I collect stories and links to talk about on my podcasts while drinking coffee in bed in the morning. If I had kids, I would probably write blog posts while they were napping or at their Girl Guide meeting.

The truth is, social media takes time and effort. You get out of it exactly what you put into it. And if you really, really want badly enough to succeed at whatever you’re trying to do with social media, then maybe it’s time to re-think how you’re going to put in that time and effort.

Maybe it means talking to your boss about shifting your work schedule to allow for time for you to spend on engaging in the “off work hours”. What if you did 35 hours a week at the office and had 5 hours a week floating for your engagement activities (your numbers may vary, of course). What if you really did decide that when the baby is napping, you’ll focus on cranking out some new blog posts or recording a podcast? What would happen if you stopped PVRing everything and spent the commercial breaks checking your Twitter feed and chatting with folks? I think you may find that your experience with social media would start to change.

People act like spending time online is some sort of crime, like their leisure time is to be spent in an offline cocoon at all times, cut off from the outside world. I beg to differ. As much as it’s good to put down the technology every once in a while (balance is a good thing!), I have found that my life and my work is far richer and better because I find the time in my day to interact with people in the online world.

Our world is changing. It’s not 9 to 5 anymore. And you don’t HAVE to do any of this. But take some time to think about how social media fits into your life. Because if it doesn’t, and you really, REALLY want to succeed in this brave new world, you need to find a way to make it fit.

[photo by poolie]