10 Lessons from 10 Years on the Frontline: 7, Effective social work depends on effective time management

By Richard Devine (08.09.2020), Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council

Lesson 7. Effective social work depends upon effective time management

Introduction:

Poor impulse control; easily activated fear system motivating avoidance of difficult tasks; and the inability to organize and structure my time according to a set of priorities are all issues that I struggled with. It soon became apparent that if I was to be effective for the children and families I worked for, I would need to address these flaws, and improve my capacity to manage time and complete various pieces of work within tight timescales. Therefore, I have spent considerable time learning how to manage time!

There is a wealth of information available on the subject of time management. From my experience, some of it doesn’t apply well in child protection because of the varied and unpredictable nature of our work. I will therefore outline 5 time management techniques that I have used the most consistently and had the greatest effect. I am no longer a case holding social worker (I write parenting assessments and provide interventions), but I will explore these techniques from my experience as a case holding social worker.

5 techniques:

  1. To-do list:

At the beginning of every week write down a to-do list. Time management 101. For every family that I work with, I will write a list of all the activities and tasks that I need to do. If it is a big piece of work, I will break that down into actionable tasks. This is where most people end with managing their time and move onto executing the most pressing tasks. However, there are some other crucial steps to make that will make a substantial difference.

2. The four quadrants:

Once I have done a generic to-do list then I divide them into a different category system. This category system is one of the most helpful ideas I have encountered. It originates from Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of the Highly Effective People (1989: 151):   

Covey (1989: 151) makes a helpful distinction between important and urgent. He says ‘urgent matters are usually visible. They press on us; they insist on action. They’re often popular with others…And often they are pleasant, easy, fun to do. But so often they are unimportant!’ whereas important matters ‘has to do with results…it contributes to your mission your values, your high priority goals’ and ‘require more initiative, more proactivity’

The challenge, especially as a newly qualified social worker, is figuring out what is important versus not important; it can sometimes feel as if everything is important. You have to balance the expectations and demands that derive from an electronic system plagued with built-in timelines as well as tasks from your manager, from the families you work for, requests from other professionals, as well as undertaking the work that you consider to be of value. You can’t do it all. Therefore you have to assimilate all these expectations and tasks, and situate them into a hierarchy of importance such that you can take action on the tasks that matter.  

In my experience, the activities that are the most important, from the perspective of making an impact on the lives of children and families, are undertaking chronologies, writing assessments, developing care plans, and direct work with children and families. All of these activities are in my opinion quadrant 2 activities (not urgent, important). As much as possible you want to diarise your calendar so that these activities remain in quadrant 2 and avoid leaving it too late until they are in quadrant 1 (urgent, important). It is an eternal struggle, in part because the unpredictable nature of child protection repeatedly forces you to address emerging issues, and this places you in  quadrant 1 (urgent, important), but it is nonetheless still worth pursuing. You either want to be working on what matters or what can not be avoided.  

The aim therefore by using this category system is to spend as much time as practically possible in quadrant 2 (not urgent, important), whilst recognising that inevitably you will spend a good amount of time in quadrant 1 (urgent, important). 

You want to avoid all activities that would fall into quadrant 3 (urgent, not important) and 4 (not urgent, not important) where possible. In my opinion, the vast majority of e-mail exchange as a social worker is quadrant 3 or 4 material, albeit disguised as quadrant 1 material. I would go so far as saying that e-mails are one of, if not, the major source of distraction and time wasted. Part of their allure, for me anyhow, is that they make me feel wanted/needed, and with relatively little effort, especially compared to important tasks, I can write an e-mail or reply to one and this makes me ‘feel’ productive. One thing I noticed is when I have returned from annual leave after 2 weeks and opened my inbox to 100’s of e-mails, I have found at least 90% of them to be of no use. E-mail is ubiquitous though and thus can not be avoided, therefore the strategy I employ is to block a segment of time each day to read and reply to e-mails for 30 minutes.

  1. Time Blocking

This idea is from Cal Newport (his podcast is one of my current favourites), which I learned from his book Deep Work (2016). The basic premise of this idea is that at the beginning of each week you schedule every minute of your workweek. Once I had completed my to-do list, evaluated the different tasks by urgency and importance, I would block time my week using my calendar. Each day of the week would look like this: 

8-10.30am: Write Case Conference Report 

10.30am – 11am: Travel

11am – 12noon: Core Group

12noon – 12.30pm: Travel

12.30 – 1pm: E-mails 

1pm – 4pm: Chronology writing

4pm – 5pm: Visit to family

The advantage of this method is that my activities throughout the day and week are being determined by that which I have identified as important, rather than being directed by less demanding, more exciting but ultimately less productive activities. Newport (2016) makes the distinction between shallow work and deep work. Shallow work activities don’t require a lot of concentration and can be done efficiently (phone calls, e-mails, referral forms, etc) versus deep work which is impactful but requires high-level concentration (reports, chronology’s, etc). When I block out time to write a case conference report or a chronology, it is imperative that I avoid all distractions, because even brief distractions are costly. Each time you reply quickly to an e-mail, take a phone call, speak to a colleague, it can take up to 20-30 minutes to get back into the activity you were engaged in. It is not the distraction itself that is costly, rather the residual effects caused by the distraction. To avoid this, I will turn off e-mail notifications (and social media notifications on my phone!), ask administration workers to field incoming calls, or just don’t answer them and call back afterward, and if necessary, I will find somewhere quiet to work where I won’t get distracted.

I have never had a week whereby the plan I have developed has been executed 100%. You have to adapt to urgent issues, and this can disrupt the timetable. When this happens, I rearrange my timetable and continue. In a typical week, I suspect I completed 70%-80% of my schedule but I still got a substantial more done than I would without the schedule.

  1. Presence 

According to spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle (1999), stress is caused by being where you are right now and wanting to be somewhere else. Here are some examples of this: When I was a student social worker, I wanted to be a qualified social worker. Soon after, I was a social worker, I wanted to be a senior social worker. If I am working on a report due on Thursday and its Tuesday, I want it to be Friday so I don’t have to be concerned with the report. When Friday arrived I wanted it to be the weekend. The problem is that when the moment I previously desired arrives, then a new problem or desire emerges, and once again I am caught up thinking about a moment in the future that promises, finally, to offer me contentment. A great deal of psychological distress, according to Tolle (1999) is self-generated as a consequence of this type of thinking and derives from dissatisfaction with the present moment. Therefore, I try to be present. If I have 3 hours blocked out to write a report, then I permit myself to enjoy the opportunity to spend 3 hours working on a designated piece of work. If I have to drive 2 hours to see a young person, instead of spending 2 hours caught up in my anxious thoughts about what I could be doing and what I need to be doing, I allow myself to enjoy the car journey. When I am writing a report or driving to a visit, there is nothing else I can do. Therefore there is no utility in allowing self generated-thoughts to create a high level of anxiety when there is no opportunity to act upon them.

  1. Changing the evaluative metric

Even with these time management strategies, I have never been able to keep on top of my work. Child Protection is a highly pressurised, challenging, stressful, and at times, overwhelming work environment. I have learned that you don’t get to do everything you need to do; there is always more! There is one strategy that helps with this feeling, but it only has an ameliorative effect. This is defining, or redefining what constitutes a productive week. Some weeks, no matter how efficiently and effectively you work, you can end the week with more work than when you began. Therefore, I try to measure the success of my week not by how much my to-do list has shrank, rather how productive I have been, including how many hours of ‘deep work’ I have been able to achieve. This way, I can squeeze out a modicum of satisfaction that although I’ve barely made a dent in my overall workload, I have at least, done everything within my power to be as efficient as I can.

Conclusion: 

Child Protection Social work can be an incredibly stressful experience, and time management doesn’t remove that, but it can significantly reduce it. Even with the above strategies, I was rarely successful in working my contractual hours when I was a case holding social worker. Working additional hours, rightly or wrongly, was the norm. I have seen some social workers in child protection not work much overtime, but I have never been able to do that. I did have boundaries. I never worked on weekends or during annual leave. I have children so I would automatically book annual leave every 6 weeks for half term/school holidays – this happened to be a good system because I would book it in advance and it provided a regular and well-needed break. Some of my colleagues who didn’t have children could go months without taking leave because the overwhelming nature of work left them feeling they didn’t even have time to take annual leave. I would have done the same, however, failing to take a break can become counter-productive and can seriously undermine well being and productivity.

By Richard Devine (08.09.2020)

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Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

One thought on “10 Lessons from 10 Years on the Frontline: 7, Effective social work depends on effective time management

  1. Oh my gosh – this explanation is how I’ve been operating, without being able to describe and actually extract the logic from it all lol. You do a great job of breaking it down

    Like

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