5 Time Management Tips for Social Workers

How to Juggle All of Your Professional Responsibilities as a Social Worker

November 05, 2019

Time management can be tricky for social workers. Not only are you balancing services such as case management, counseling, and administrative duties, but you also have to be there for your clients, too. You’re wearing a lot of hats, and with email and Facebook accessible on your phone, it can feel like people expect instant answers and you have to be “on” 24 hours a day.

So how do you juggle all of your professional responsibilities as a social worker? You have to use your assessment skills to decide what has the highest priority or what tasks can wait. To help you get organized and make the most of your day, we’ve identified five time management tips for social workers that can guide you as you try to keep yourself sane and protect that work-life balance.

#1. Be decisive.

Making decisions every day can be overwhelming. Time spent deciding which training session to attend, which project to tackle first, or even what to have for lunch doesn’t just take precious hours out of your day, it also zaps your energy.

  • If you’re not great at making decisions, use tricks like flipping a coin or putting a timer on those decisions that really aren’t that significant. If all else fails, go with your gut. Intuition is powerful!
  • If two competing tasks need your time and are equally important, divide and conquer. Alternate an hour on each project and then set it aside, rotating back and forth until they’re both complete (or until one definitely takes priority over the other).
  • Break big tasks into smaller pieces, tackling one important part every day until the task is completed. If you absolutely have to transfer all of your handwritten notes into the digital file system, commit to doing 20 minutes each day until all your files have been transferred.

#2. Make a game plan.

Since your schedule will probably look a little different every day, take a few minutes each morning to make a full list of everything you need to do and rank it in order of priority.

  • You’ll probably have a few “non-negotiables,” like appointments or meetings, but aside from those, decide what absolute must get done today and what can wait until tomorrow. For example, anything that might impact your funding will take priority over basic administrative work. Then, designate blocks during the day when you’re unavailable to everyone else and can give your priority tasks the major concentration or focus they need.
  • To prevent those smaller tasks from piling up, make them a part of your process. For example, if you’re terrible about writing your notes after a client meeting, add five minutes to every meeting and write them immediately after the client leaves. Then, you won’t be faced with a full hour of record keeping that you’re constantly pushing off to tomorrow.

#3. Play to your strengths.

Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, plan to complete bigger projects or more demanding tasks during the time of day when you know you’re most productive and you’ll have the least amount of distractions. That may mean coming in early or staying late – or even doing some work at home if you know you’ll get the quiet time you need to focus with fewer external demands. Those distraction-free blocks of time may be a pain at first, but they’ll pay off in productivity – which will reduce your stress and make them well worthwhile.

#4. Set boundaries.

Social work is a profession in which the “use of self”  and “self-awareness” are key. In other words,  all sorts of feelings for the clients as well as the social worker can come up and it is not always as easy to “leave it at the office” as it is with some other professions. For that reason, setting boundaries is crucial for social workers.

  • When your client walks in the door, you can set a firm boundary by announcing exactly how much time you have and what you plan to do during your session. If necessary, discuss the need to inform the client of the time that is available and remind the client that “we have five minutes left”.  This might feel difficult at first, but remember, your relationships are partnerships. Acting in your clients’ best interest sometimes means respectfully enforcing limits for both of you.
  • Let your colleagues know when you are and when you aren’t available for meetings, assistance, or support. It’s easy to get roped into an entire day of meetings, leaving you with no time to do your individual work. Decide how much of your day you’re willing or able to give to others (for example, no more than three hours of daily meetings), and make your limits clear.

#5. Make technology your friend.

Setting boundaries is fairly easy, but enforcing them can be incredibly difficult. Getting pinged or constantly bombarded with email all day long can extremely distracting and can cause anxiety, but technology can come in handy and give you an assist.

  • For clients, choose one means of contact that should be used for emergencies or crisis calls. It can be email, text, phone, or whatever works for you, but it should be routed through an account that’s different from your primary accounts so you can leave the notification on at all times. For every other account – your primary work phone, email, text, and messengers – designate specific office hours and share those with everyone. Then use app settings or third party apps to silence the alerts during all non-office hours.
  • In the office, let your colleagues know you’ll check email, phone messages, and other communication at designated hours – (like 9am, 11am, 2pm and 5pm). Determine a reasonable amount of time (10 to 30 minutes) to check and respond to all messages at those hours only. If a colleague needs your attention at another time, ask them to visit you in person or use the emergency contact system you’ve established for clients.
  • Set up a digital calendar that allows clients and colleagues to sign up for appointments or meetings, and block out sufficient hours to allow yourself time to work on projects. If you’re uncomfortable scheduling “work time” – or if you find others don’t respect it – schedule it as a meeting with Maxima (which is a Latin name that means “miracle worker!”).

Figuring how to handle your social work responsibilities can be challenging and stressful. These tips and tricks can help, but you’ll probably have to experiment to find what works – and what doesn’t – for you. Balancing all the aspects of your job that are competing for your attention is crucial. Not only will it help you avoid burnout, but it can help to keep you feeling satisfied and sane – and able to appreciate the rewards that come from all the hard work you’re doing.