Using a time diary to stay on top of your workload

A simple self-evaluation tool to understand how you use your time on a day-to-day basis

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In an in-depth guide for Community Care Inform Children and Adults, social worker and service head Sacha Rymell gives key advice on managing your time. Below are her tips for using a time diary. Inform subscribers can read the full guide on Inform Children and Inform Adults.

Lack of time is a huge issue in social work. A climate of austerity, fewer resources and increased caseloads leaves little spare time in the day for any social worker. Two-thirds (67%) of those who responded to the Community Care/Unison survey had not had a lunch-break that day, and 64% said they almost never took a break at work.

This is undoubtedly an issue for government, heads of service and senior managers to focus on. It doesn’t matter how efficient or productive an individual social worker is, if the wider organisation they work in has too few staff or an increasing number of cases. But if you are concerned about improving your time management and making the best use of the time you spend at work, there are things you can do.

Time diary

This is a simple self-evaluation tool to understand how your time is used on a day-to-day basis. The purpose is to gain awareness and identify where you could change your approach.

The following statements about time generally hold true:

  • When we are enjoying ourselves or concentrating, time passes quickly.
  • When queuing or awaiting a delayed train, for example, it seems to pass slowly.
  • We are not particularly good at assessing the passing of time or how long things will take.
  • In general, people are overconfident regarding meeting deadlines.
  • We are more likely to overestimate the time a new task will take.

Our perceptions are often quite different from reality. This tool can support you to examine how your time is really allocated, to become more aware and to learn how you use your time more effectively.

A time diary does take an initial investment of time, effort and commitment but the rewards can be illuminating and help lead to a more manageable work life, better work-life balance, self-knowledge and an insightful analysis that can be used in supervision for reflection and planning.

Completing the diary

The diary should be completed for one whole week in order to obtain the detail to analyse. Pre-arranged appointments and meeting times should be set out within it; indicate where these timings change to reflect the reality of your week and changing demands.

Divide the day into 15 minute chunks. For each, list the time, identify the task and activity or activities you are doing, and include all breaks and interruptions. In the third column write your comments. This can include a reflection on the tasks at the end of the day including:

  • What went well?
  • Was there anything you would change?
  • How did the day compare with what you planned to do at the outset?

Analyse the diary

Set aside some time the following week to analyse your diary. Look at the activities and comments you have noted down and follow these steps:

  • Identify core and routine daily tasks such as checking emails, attending team meetings.
  • Add up the number of 15 minute segments spent on each task. What percentage of the total time in your week is given to routine or core tasks?
  • Examine the tasks that are unusual – for example covering for a colleague or an emergency meeting – these are ‘irregular activities’.
  • How much time was spent on these irregular activities? What proportion of this was initiated by you as opposed to initiated by others?
  • Was it right for you to undertake these tasks – were you the most suitable person to do that job?
  • Consider other activities: travel, talking to colleagues, lunch etc.

What were the similarities and differences between your planned week and what actually occurred?

Once your analysis is complete you can identify:

  • How long daily and routine tasks such as dealing with email take. You can now factor these in and schedule them realistically into your calendar.
  • Do routine meetings overrun? If so, can you speak to colleagues to focus these or encourage accurate scheduling?
  • How long was spent on tasks/activities outside of your core purpose – was it you that needed to be involved in these?
  • Development opportunities: now you know how your time is used. Are there other activities/projects that you can discuss opportunities for with your line manager?
  • What were your “time stealers”? If some things aren’t a good use of your time, could you change your behaviour or response to particular situations to ensure your time is not taken with unproductive activities?

Then see if you can establish what percentage of your time was spent on immediate, unplanned tasks and what percentage was on activities core to your role. This will tell you how your time was divided between “proactive planned tasks” and “reactive unplanned tasks”.

The balance between these will largely depend on your job role; some people may always have to respond to urgent situations. It’s important to remember that you can only plan for your proactive planned time and this tool will support you to reflect on how you manage reactive unplanned tasks in the best possible way and feel more in control of your time.

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One Response to Using a time diary to stay on top of your workload

  1. Letha Frederick January 29, 2018 at 3:26 pm #

    Thanks for the helpful article. For me, in fact, this is an important topic. It’s hard for me to stay on the same level of working capacity throughout the day. So I even looked at the tips for and similar resources, has not yet reached you. Thanks to the great author, this article really helped me!