‘Clarity from the chaos’: tips for time management in social work

Zoe Betts shares some practical ideas for prioritising, getting management support and taking control of your time and caseload

By Zoe Betts, social worker
Time. Managing it. Maximising it. Needing more of it. It’s the never-ending battle – striving for an often unachievable balance. The conversation must have been had by tens of thousands of social workers over the years but the same struggles come up over and over again. So what can I tell you that will help any further? Get up earlier? Keep lists? These are probably givens. Let’s think a little more practically.

What does your time look like?

Firstly and fundamentally, you need to understand at each stage ‘how much’ time you have. Write it down: start a spreadsheet with cases, tasks and timescales. By understanding this, you will learn the most important factor – you are completely in control of how you allocate time. At every turn, it’s then just learning how best to manage it.

I’m under no illusion that the format of a social work day often negates any form of structure. But it’s the same for most professions, we’re not unique. Your priorities will clash and events may occur that change everything. But you can control an element of that.

Go back to understanding ‘how much’ time you can spend on resolving the issue that comes up unexpectedly. Importance and urgency are different and they love to compete. My advice? Manage urgency effectively (i.e. what CAN you do?) and focus on importance.

Setting your own routine

It’s the same when looking more widely at you week. Do your days have a structure? Can you initiate your own, even very loose one? We tend to work better with simple routine and implementing one will have massive benefits.

Perhaps you can allocate yourself an admin half an hour at an appropriate time? I’m completely serious. Can you ensure you have no phone calls for 30 minutes following a meeting to get things organised and typed up? Remember; be bold and assertive here.

You don’t need to ‘ask’ for this, you don’t need permission – you are a professional, put it in your calendar and be confident with how you are managing yourself.

If you’re reluctant, then advise your manager or discuss it in supervision. But it is part of your responsibility to work effectively.

Finding clarity in the chaos

Understand what distracts you. It takes very, very little for me – it could be an ant. Know in yourself how best to channel this so you stay productive. I have two techniques I can recommend. Both were used by managers with me at early stages of my career.

The first came six months in, I told my manager I couldn’t hack it. I had 26 cases, zero idea of how to reach a closure and a caseload that was out of control.

He told me to return the next day with a piece of paper for each case with these headings:

  1. What have I already done?
  2. What am I waiting on from other people?
  3. What is outstanding?
  4. When can I close this?

The following day, armed with 26 sheets of A4 in my hand, my chaos had materialised into clarity, and with that came a much calmer Zoe. Use this idea for your own supervision; don’t wait for your manager to always initiate the organising.

Prioritising and escalating

The second was a grid of my whole case load on one sheet of paper, a line down the middle of the page and through the centre so we had four boxes (adapt this to your caseload, mine was adults).

All hospital discharge cases 

 

All reviews
Safeguarding cases 

 

Cases to close

Visually this showed me what to prioritise. It wasn’t as detailed as the first example but I was a year further in to practice so this tool worked better. I used that grid for weeks, scribbling and updating.

The fact was, in both situations I was overwhelmed at the time. The lesson: always escalate.

Your manager needs to know, the onus then moves to them to act on allocations, support and easing the pressure. This is their role after all.

Get technical

Anyone who has heard me say anything, ever, knows of my love for the Outlook calendar. It eliminates the stress of remembering. Colour code your different activities and it helps your colleagues know where you are. That admin half hour you’re allocating yourself? Block it out as ‘unavailable’.

Want more time management tips?
Community Care Inform subscribers can find more suggestions for ways to gain more control over your time in our new guide.

I’m a fine-nib pen, sharpened pencils and highlighter tab uber fan. I’m a list writer. I’m also aware it’s 2015 and we can employ tech to better our organisational skills, so why not look at what apps can help you?

Lastly: say no. Set the expectation. If you physically and realistically cannot meet a deadline, return a call, have a meeting until two days time… Just. Say. No.

It is an ongoing battle, I know this only too well; there is no easy fix but achieving the balance is key. Good luck!

Zoe runs iamsocialwork, organising events and support for new social workers. You can contact her for informal, structured support to help with chaotic times. Email : iamsocialwork@hotmail.co.uk; Twitter: @iamsocialwork

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One Response to ‘Clarity from the chaos’: tips for time management in social work

  1. Alison Sanders July 29, 2015 at 9:53 pm #

    Nice post. It is wonderful to collect any tips that can improve efficiency. Outlook is definitely my go to tool. If you are wanting time management tips for a whole company, you should visit Dale Carnegie. They have created educational tools on a wide range of business related subjects that work for companies of various sizes, in multiple industries. When it comes to taking up your game a notch, you can’t go wrong with taking advice from one of the most successful business men ever. Good luck.