By Matt Bee
I once landed a job because in the interview when asked what I’d do if I found myself snowed under with work, the phone ringing, emails pinging into my inbox, my desk the epicentre of crises and chaos, everything getting too much, I said that I’d go and make a cup of tea.
That’s a good answer it turns out, although not the obvious one.
After I started work there, my boss explained they’d been trying to understand how I’d prioritise my workload under pressure. For the record, the job – like so many other social work positions – was exactly like that. By far and away it was the hardest role I’ve taken on. Working in an older people’s team, it was next to impossible to keep pace with the referrals flooding into the department. I drank a lot of tea.
And a good job, too, because taking five minutes out gave me a chance to re-group. It never failed to work and I’d return to my desk and start working in an efficient, focused manner, rather than flailing from one pressing issue to the next. I’d quickly make back the five minutes spent in the kitchen – and probably stopped myself from having a coronary to boot.
I imagine most social workers have a to-do list near to hand. I couldn’t imagine doing the job without one. Occasionally I’d try and jump into the modern world and upload it all onto Microsoft Outlook, so that the computer would leap into life and remind me of any pressing actions. But a social worker’s day is too unpredictable for that. And, besides, I liked using my notepad. Most of all I liked the feeling of striking a line through a job done; one down…felt good.
But although I mastered the to-do list quickly, there was one problem I really struggled with and that was putting things off.
It wasn’t even the most obvious things I’d put off. I had no problem ringing angry clients, handling conflict, taking on difficult cases. Instead it was usually something small. In fact it was always something small – like, say, a routine review of an individual budget. Not long after individual budgets came out, I remember no one in my team knew what paperwork we were supposed to use, where it was to be sent, who we contacted in finance. And when I’d ring finance, they’d be no clearer either. It would just be two confused people on either end of a phone line. Typically, that would be the sort of thing I’d put at the bottom of the list.
No one’s at risk,” I’d think. “Do it later.” And if I didn’t have a deadline to work to, that ‘later’ became evermore distant.
Why I feel this is a good thing to admit, I don’t know. Perhaps there’s a social worker out there right now who finds themselves in this sort of jam. Well, to them I say feel reassured; you’re not alone.
To briefly get back to the issue of deadlines, though, if I didn’t have a date to complete by, or even if I did but knew no one would ask about it, that task would keep on churning over from one day to the next. I’d start feeling guilty about it. I’d even start pushing it back down the list if it started making its way to the top. I’d supplant it with something, anything, more urgent.
I should stress again this only happened with minor tasks – small things, stuff that if it slips a day, a week, nobody says anything.
Prioritise minor tasks
Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this story. I got on top of this personal failing early on in my career by first of all recognising it as such and then by managing it. Whenever I started writing my to-do list, I’d force myself to prioritise those minor tasks first. I had to. I didn’t have the discipline to trust myself to do them later.
And what I found was that it worked like a charm. First of all, not only did I get those minor tasks done but I got them done quickly – much faster than anyone expected. And second, by using this approach I found time for all those other things I’d been promising to get round to – like researching a new therapy, reviewing a workflow process, writing up a proposal to improve the service.
In the meantime I still got all my urgent work completed as planned. It turns out that urgent tasks prioritise themselves. But if you really want to manage your workload well, it pays to sweat the small stuff.
Matt Bee is a social worker based in the north east of England