08.13.2015

After we published our article on community productivity, CMX member Nadia Bracken asked us to elaborate on how to break down community work into actionable tasks. A few days later, CMX community member Jen Wedlick asked a simple question that prompted a long discussion: “What do you do all day?”

These questions go hand-in-hand to really get at the heart of what is so hard for us community builders especially: figuring out what pieces of our community strategy to prioritize, taking action to move them forward, and showing our value to our teams.

As a result of these discussions, we set about putting together a roadmap for you to break down your days, weeks, and quarters into processes and actionable tasks that can map back to your role’s value in driving business goals. We integrated CMX member feedback, insights from CMX Speaker Meghan Murphy, more ideas from educational consultant Robin Spinks, and research from productivity experts like Brian Tracy, Scott Belsky, and Steve Koch.

Why is it so important that you know how great community builders get great work done?

There are a lot of tasks that will grab your attention as a community builder. A lot of these tasks will never map back to business goals. A lot of these tasks will be reactive busy work disguised as effective community building. Here are a few examples that we’ve seen in action with a few of our members we have spoken to recently:

  • Spending two hours a day monitoring your company’s Facebook page without ever taking a look at how you could streamline that process and divert your time to work on a community project that could contribute 10X to decreasing churn in your online branded community.
  • Spending four hours a week planning a meetup program that is not strongly aligned with your business needs or community member needs, when you could scrap that project entirely. Instead, you could kickstart member research to identify three member needs that direct all future work.
  • Spending all day on social media task management (we know, it wasn’t in your job description!) when you could off-board that work to a specialist and focus on gathering your most loyal fans in a shared space and make them ambassadors who contribute to the organization’s bottom line.

There’s an economic principle called the 80/20 Rule, which states that 80% of your most valuable work is actually a product of 20% of your time. So what do you do all day? Are you spending 80% of your time confused how to move forward? Or are you able to step back and divert 100% of your time and energy to the 20% of your work that will prove your value to your organization?

This article will give you a detailed plan for stepping back and getting organized as a community builder. 

We need a tailored process for getting things done. 

I’ve been in your shoes before, and I still stand in them today from time to time. I’ve sat between departments and community members with opposing demands, and I’ve found it virtually impossible to create a high-level strategy while also executing day-to-day community workload. The only way to do it is to take this highly tailored approach.

More than any other resource, this guide will help you get the work done that will help you build a better community.  That’s what you need to do after all: not simply to check off more things from your to-do list, but to check off the right things in the best way possible.

How to Break Your Work Into Actionable Tasks

We talk to community professionals on the ground multiple times per week, and, time and again, we’ve seen that many of you desperately care about pushing your communities forward in every way possible. We often feel this way too. 

But you can’t do everything– or at least not well. Instead, you need to figure out what is currently on your plate and break down the most valuable work you do into actionable tasks. This is about putting everything you do in one place and prioritizing your actions according to what will drive business value.

Keep in mind throughout: “A methodology is only effective when it is practiced consistently,” explains Behance CEO and CMX Summit Speaker Scott Belsky. “While every person’s system is different, the most productive people pay attention to the finer details of their rituals to keep themselves engaged.”

How to Break Your Work Into Actionable Tasks (1)

  1. Take stock and prioritize your current community products and future community projects.
  2. Break your products and projects into manageable tasks.
    1. Assign a time estimate
    2. Assign a task owner
    3. Gather reference materials
  3. Map your tasks to chunks of time in your calendar without de-motivating yourself.

Like Scott Belsky said, as you begin to work through this process and learn to break your work down into actionable pieces, you will need to create your own system for staying on task… and stick to it day after day.

1. Take Stock and Prioritize Your Community Projects

As we described in last week’s roadmap, all the work you do is either for a current community product or a future community project. As a refresher, here is the difference between those two types of work:

Product: The actual products your organization provides to its customers e.g. an e-book you’ve created, a mobile app, a forum space that has already been launched. A product is part of your day-to-day operations as a company. The opposite of a product is a project.

Project: A project is NOT part of your daily operation. The purpose of a project is to create a Product/Service that will – on the completion of the project – become part of your daily operation.

Every project has the following characteristics:

Projects are temporary endeavors to create some unique deliverable or end result, i.e. product or service. They are not “business as usual”. Therefore, the activities and skill sets required may be different from your normal working practice.

Projects are an endeavor. They are intentional and planned events, not spontaneous.

Projects create a unique product or service.

What are some examples of projects and products?

  • Initiating conversations on a user-generated content platform that your company has launched: Product
  • Creating a content calendar for a user-generated content platform that your company will launch in six weeks: Project
  • Doing all the tasks required of running a monthly meetup that has been running for 6 months: Product
  • Organizing a Meetup Series that has not yet begun: Project
  • Maintaining and optimizing a feedback program that you launched a year ago: Product
  • Reaching out to members to initiate organized feedback sessions for the first time: Project

For the rest of this article, we will focus on projects specifically, as it is unlikely you’re going to stop offering community products as a result of this work. Rather, you’re going to make those processes more efficient and measurable, and then you can decide to spend more time on more effective and valuable projects.

Before you even think of adding new work to your plate, it’s time for you take stock of what is currently there. Then you’ll know if it’s even possible to help other people with their work and to do your tasks better. When taking stock, you should account for products and how long they take you each week, as that is time you cannot spend working out new projects.

If there are more than 8-10 lines in your products and projects pipeline, you’ve got yourself a red light telling you to prioritize the work that’s there into the most valuable and least valuable work. Then optimize the products you have so you can move on to more valuable projects. 

There’s no shame if this has happened to you. A few years back, I was building community from scratch and found that I had started about five large projects and overhauls of two products — all at the same time. Not to mention all the meetings I was being pulled into, the meetings I was being left out of, and the outreach that had fallen on my lap from my marketing team. Balancing all of it meant that none of it really got my attention, so nothing moved forward in a strategic way. This is the community professional’s nightmare, but taking stock is how you wake up from that nightmare.

Lay out all your work in a spreadsheet where you can rank its priority and begin to see where you should focus most of your attention.

What Your Priority Spreadsheet Should Look Like

What Your Priority Spreadsheet Should Look Like

Here’s that spreadsheet for you. Just make a copy of it and use it in your organization. 

Once you have all of your products and projects laid out and they map back to your goals (we input engagement and goodwill among the two goals, but yours may vary– be careful about what you place there, as it will determine the priority of all your work), you’ll see where you need to put time into creating actionable next tasks for each of these projects.

Now, you have a bird’s eye view of what is on your plate. For the things that rank very low on your priority list, you may want to consider delegating them or doing away with them altogether.

You’ll definitely want to quantify your value, and doing this will help you sell the value of your role. You are only as effective as the results you can measure. That may sound crappy, but that’s simply how the C-Suite operates.

2. Break your projects into manageable tasks.

CMX member Brittany Berger, who spends her time writing content on productivity among other topics, breaks down projects and tasks in a rather clear-cut way: “A project is a result… like a new website design, or an e-book, or a social campaign. Tasks are the steps you need to take to get there,” she explains.

Now that you have a bird’s eye view of what is on your plate, you need to break your projects into a full-fledged process, like we outlined in detail last week. 

So what is an actionable task? In short, Brittany explains, “I try to think… about the actions I’ll be taking. For example, instead of putting ‘blog post’ [the project] on my schedule, it would get broken up into editing, publishing, and promoting. It also makes batching your tasks easier, for example editing three posts in one chunk, when my to-do list is already broken down like that.”

We began to analyze how actionable tasks work for our members, ourselves, and among productivity experts like author of Eat That Frog Brian Tracy and Behance CEO Scott Belsky. To truly create an actionable task in a job that is as dynamic as being a community builder, you need to set yourself up for success with five basics.

There are five pieces of every task, and yet we see among our members that many are only putting projects on their to-do list or are not delegating properly to their team mates and following up. All of these pieces are essential to getting you unstuck when others are waiting to see results.

An actionable task contains:

  1. A verb (preferably the first word in the task)
  2. An owner
  3. A time estimate of over 5 minutes
  4. A due date
  5. A hint at background resources or context you need to jumpstart the project

Anatomy of a Community Task

A Verb

Actionable tasks must begin with a verb to be useful. When I began doing this, I started looking at my to-do checklist as a clear-cut set of actions to take rather than a vague list of items (“Post-event email outreach” changed to “Email 10 members and set up 30-minute feedback interviews with 5 of them to rate how well our first event met their needs”.) Clarity of description leads to definitive action.

This idea originates from Scott Belsky’s “Action Method”:

“Action Steps are specific things you must do to move an idea forward. The more clear and concrete an Action Step is, the less friction you will encounter trying to do it. If an Action Step is vague or complicated, you will probably skip over it to others on your list that are more straightforward. To avoid this, start each Action Step with a verb.”

An Owner

If you have a team, you won’t own each step of your process. Even if you don’t have a team of your own, you will need buy-in and approval at different stages, even if it’s from a community member. Everyone needs to own their part in your process, and you will need to keep everyone accountable if they’re not good at keeping themselves on track. 

You can keep people accountable with task management software. When I ask David to get something done here at CMX, I also ask him if he would like me to create an Asana task for him. This allows me to send all the five pieces of the actionable task to him, and it puts his name as the owner of the task. That reminds me who owns the task in case I forget, and it reminds him that he has to get this work done for us to move forward. 

A Time Estimate

You should put a time estimate next to each task so you can begin to stack up how your weeks and days will fill. If you have 10 tasks of an hour each (which are more likely going to take you 90 minutes because you won’t be focused right away), you can’t possibly do them all in one day. Don’t set yourself up for failure.

A to-do list should always include time estimates each day with plenty of buffer time around them. This lets you know when you’re assigning yourself too much work to do that day.

A Due Date

Due dates are idealistic but reasonable. Don’t put them in your calendar, but do put them on the task. They’re there to motivate you, unless you really do have a hard deadline, in which case you can put that deadline at the top of your calendar on that date (not block of a chunk of time for it) and break the pieces of that project down into tasks that you can then block off time to complete.

A Hint at the Background Resources You Need to Jumpstart Your Work

Oftentimes, getting started on a task can feel impossible without some idea of where to begin. The verb you included will help point you in the right direction, but a task as big as “Write proposal” can make you stop in your tracks before you ever get started.

Instead, include a hint at the background resources you have to begin the task: a template you created, a starting point, notes you keep in your Evernote folder. This will give you a solid place to go to get started if, say, you’ve timeboxed the task for 10AM on a Wednesday and you sit down at that time and have no clue where to begin.

How do you know if a task is too large?

If you only have a vague idea about how to get started, you may need to break down that task further. When you hesitate in starting a task, it’s often a sign that the task isn’t specific enough.

Also, if you dread doing the task, look for the tiniest task you could do to give yourself momentum. A looming deadline can otherwise seem demoralizing.

Brittany Berger gives us a great baseline for what works for her: “I have a ’30-minute rule’ for my to-do list. If I anticipate that any task will take longer than 30 minutes or so, I’ll take a second look and see if it can be broken down further. Partly because I believe this makes a more productive to-do list, but the consistency also makes it easy to picture your day. For example, I can look at my 10-item to-do list, know that each will take 20-30 minutes, and get an estimate of how long I need to get everything done.”

Some tasks (like writing proposals or roadmaps) will take far longer than 30 minutes, but if 30 minutes is your baseline for focusing, that’s as long as any task should be on your list. Instead of writing one task that takes 90 minutes, break it up into 30-minute chunks like, “Write intro for proposal using the template that Person A created” followed by “Write body paragraphs for proposal…”, and so forth.

Map Your Tasks to Your Calendar

As you work out your project tasks, they should start to take shape in stages. The most successful task lists that we see map back to larger project task lists. We recommend visualizing this, as we’ve seen many of our members do. 

Why is this so key? So you can tell others on your team how far along you are in your projects, which now all map back to business goals.

You can visualize this in a few ways. Here are a few examples:

What a Project Process Might Look Like

Or, from our previous article:

Content Strategy Process

Back in 2013, Meghan Murphy (now head of marketing at HandUp) wrote a blog post on creating timeboxes and calendars for successful community managers. In it, she gives a clear-cut strategy for updating your calendar to reflect timeboxes as well as meetings and pieces of processes. 

Last week, we outlined how to assess your energy levels each week. Now it’s time to map your tasks to those energy levels. What tasks take the most energy from you? Which ones require the most time? You will need to do those when you have the largest chunks of uninterrupted time but also when you have the most energy.

When mapping out your tasks, remember that easing into a focused mindset itself takes 30 minutes, according to productivity expert Brian Tracy. “You need at least 30 minutes to get your mind into a complex task like preparing a proposal or report or planning,” he explains in Time Management.

When you look at your calendar with the timeboxed items, it should now reflect how each of those items contributes to your business goals. Any item that is timeboxed can be mapped back to the priority spreadsheet you created, which identified how strongly each project and product contributes to your business goals. At the end of the week, you can then say that you’re at “Stage 3” of “Project B” and “Stage 1” of “Project C”, and you’ll know how those projects specifically contribute to your organization’s goals for you.

A Sample Timeboxed Daily Calendar

A Sample Timeboxed Daily Calendar

That’s how you decide what you should do all day. That’s how you prove the value of your time, day in and day out.

 

Conclusion

Many of us think that we can’t finish projects because we are not motivated enough or don’t have the skills or permission.

But, as design freelancer Paul Jarvis explains, “Action requires that we tell our minds to shut up. We need to stop telling ourselves to be motivated or feel down when we don’t act on our motivation sooner. We can’t argue with ourselves because even if we win, we lose. Small actions often lead to bigger actions. Adding ‘write a book’ to your todo list will result in exactly zero books ever being written. It’s too massive of a task to sum up in a line.”

You may find that after you start doing a task for 5-10 minutes, you get into a groove and actually want to complete a task. If you want to hit a project out of the park, it takes a little planning. Breaking it down into tasks you can act on might just be what you need.

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Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones | @caremjo

Carrie is the COO and Founding Partner of CMX. She has built community at Chegg and Scribd and has consulted with community companies around the world. She lives in Seattle, WA with her pup, Bruce Wayne.