As a social worker, it can feel like you’re being pulled in several directions at once. With so many high priority tasks, knowing how to work efficiently and manage your time can make or break your ability to stay on top of your cases.
Of course, efficiency and effective time management shouldn’t mean leaving a job half-finished or cutting corners, especially in a field as important as social work. Instead, whether you’re working independently or as part of a team, your time management strategies should maximize the limited time and resources you do have to ensure your most pressing tasks always get completed.
This article will explore four time management strategies specifically for social workers to help you work more efficiently:
- Use automated tools.
- Organize tasks based on priority and efficiency.
- Block out your time.
- Stay on top of your data.
Deliberate, quick, and thoughtful case management is essential to your clients, and staying on top of your workload is essential to managing your own stress levels and ability to plan for the future. So do both yourself and your clients a favor by taking purposeful steps to improve your time management. Let’s get started.
1. Use automated tools.
It’s easy to feel like you need to do everything manually to manage your cases correctly. However, one of the fastest ways to save time and reduce your overall workload is to set up automated processes to handle administrative work for you.
Social Solution’s guide to social work case management walks through the four core aspects of case work and potential ways to automate each process:
- Intake. While your first meeting with a client is essential for determining their immediate needs and establishing a connection, you can speed up the process by minimizing the amount of information you need to collect during the meeting. Consider setting up self-service tools that allow clients to enter their essential information such as their demographic and contact information when they first reach out. This way, you can keep your meetings to the point and jump straight to figuring out each client’s core needs.
- Needs assessment. A thorough needs assessment can take time, but you can set up tools to identify a client’s core needs more quickly. Create standard assessment tools that you can reliably use in most cases to help gauge how pressing a client’s immediate needs are and what services you should assign to them.
- Service planning. Your service plan is your roadmap for each client, defining what goals you have for them and what steps need to be taken to achieve those goals. You can keep your service plans organized and up to date by using a streamlined database or case management platform that allows you to easily update each client’s plan.
- Monitoring and evaluation. Ensure you are always monitoring each client’s progress toward their goals to determine if and how well the services you assigned them are working. While you should talk to clients to understand their perspectives on their progress, you can also use reporting tools to generate reports with quantified data that can help you assess your overall progress at a glance.
Additionally, automated tools can provide timely alerts to keep your team on top of key details that could potentially fall through the cracks. This is especially important with teams with several members working from home, as information can get lost or simply not communicated to team members working remotely.
If you are working from home, consider if there are any tools you can use to speed up your own workflow or better manage your time. Working from home can have the side effect of blending your personal and professional life, making it unclear when exactly you are on and off the clock. Take advantage of work-from-home tools and strategies to create an office environment in your home to help you stay focused while working on your cases.
2. Organize tasks based on priority and efficiency.
How you manage your daily tasks is essential to how well you’re able to maximize your time. While it can be easy to fall into a habit of tackling tasks as they come up or even handling things based on when they were added to your task list, these strategies can leave you putting out fires and delaying important cases.
Be sure to take a moment to assess your current list of tasks and organize them by two key factors: priority and efficiency. Here’s what these factors mean:
- Priority. How important is each task? This can be influenced by time sensitivity, urgency, and overall importance. Emergencies do come up, and your task list should allow you to prioritize them as necessary. Tasks that need to be completed at some point but are not of immediate concern or importance will be low priority, while those with an immediate deadline that require urgent action are high priority, with everything else falling in between.
- Efficiency. How quickly can you complete a task? Often, many small tasks can get pushed off and add up to create a significant time sink later on. Identify which tasks will take more time and which you can complete quickly. Then, when you finish your high-priority tasks, you can knock out several quick tasks at once, such as assigning or referring clients to services. Doing so can help boost morale as a seemingly insurmountable task list can be cut down significantly by prioritizing quick tasks.
Another trick some social workers find helpful is color-coding tasks based on priority and efficiency. This approach can help you organize your daily schedule at a glance, though be sure to regularly refer to your main organization and scheduling platform as your source of truth for all tasks. After all, it’s not uncommon for a high-priority task to suddenly come up that wasn’t initially penciled into the schedule you already set for the week.
3. Block out your time.
As mentioned, you should assess your to-do list for tasks based on how quickly you can complete them. Estimating how long each task should logically take can help you block out your calendar, creating a schedule that gives you the time you need to prioritize specific assignments and check in on everything else later.
Using this method can benefit your team by:
- Improving employee engagement. With time blocking, employees are more likely to have uninterrupted time to complete their top priorities. Because this method also promotes daily goal-setting, they’ll be more motivated to complete a certain amount of work each day and, in turn, engage more deeply with daily tasks. Additionally, time blocking can help them use their time more wisely to accomplish more during standard work hours, limiting the risk of overworking and burnout.
- Making meetings more efficient. Meetings with clients and members of your team can easily go over time without someone watching the clock. While it’s always a good idea to be polite when ending a meeting, your time is valuable, and it’s your responsibility to protect it. During busy days or seasons, set (and make attendees aware of) hard stops at the end of meetings to allow you to keep moving throughout your schedule and avoid getting overwhelmed.
- Ensuring priorities are completed. Consider choosing a “protected” task each day that you must complete before the end of the work day. While it’s normal to shuffle your daily schedule a bit as tasks arise, choose one high-priority task each day and create an unmovable time block during which you will complete it. For example, to get your youth program ready for back-to-school season, you may need to block off time for protected tasks related to that program during the summer.
Social work can feel overwhelming, and the caseloads your team has to juggle may make it hard for them to prioritize tasks or maintain a healthy work-life balance. Share resources about practices like time blocking and daily goal setting to empower caseworkers to protect their time and productivity at work.
4. Stay on top of your data.
Re-entering the same information about each of your clients can get tedious, and it’s not uncommon to make an occasional mistake. Human error is natural, but unfortunately, mistyped information in your schedule or team’s case management system can result in confusion and slowdowns.
While it can sometimes feel like busywork, you can improve your overall efficiency by staying on top of your data. NPOInfo’s guide to nonprofit data hygiene outlines a few steps you can take to keep your database functioning properly:
- Audit your database. Auditing your database is the first step to cleaning up your data. Determine the main issues you’re facing related to your data to help you take a more targeted approach to organizing your data.
- Remove unnecessary information. Look for and remove or archive any information that is either incorrect or irrelevant. For example, a duplicated client’s profile, or you may be able to safely archive a former client’s information.
- Standardize your data formatting. Self-service intake forms can significantly free up your time, but leaving many individuals outside of your organization to figure out how they’ll fill out your forms can lead to incomplete or inconsistent data, making compiling reports difficult. Standardize your data formatting and adjust your form fields as necessary to steer clients into filling out your forms as correctly as possible.
Taking the time to regularly clean up your data can save you time in the long run. Data errors and inconsistencies tend to accumulate over time, and leaving many errors unfixed can create a far larger problem down the line than if they were addressed immediately.
Social workers have a wide variety of important tasks to get to every day, and it’s easy to feel like there isn’t enough time to get to everything. Use the tools available at your disposal to automate tasks, stay organized, and ensure your schedule prioritizes high-priority assignments.
Tre Cabrera, MRP, MSW
Tre Cabrera is a Community Development Executive on the Portfolio Marketing team at
Bonterra. She joined Social Solutions in 2021 and is a professional urban and regional planner with a 16-year career in economic development, community planning, and educational equity. She earned a Master of Regional Planning from University at Albany and a Master of Social Work – MACRO community practice – from University of Maryland School of Social Work in Baltimore.
In the field, Tre’s fundamental goal is to connect people and places to vital resources that strengthen community and elevate impact. Tre has led research, program development, leadership development, strategic planning, advocacy, policy, organizing, and fundraising; and her career has given her access to work across sectors, industries, and partnerships in major urban centers, suburban cities, and small rural towns.