How can we do productive social work? It can be overwhelming to be a social worker. Firstly, your in-tray never seems to empty. Then, your manager assigns you yet another case. Finally, your clients get into more trouble.
I hope this list of ways to become more productive at social work help you to manage your work better.
1. Turn off your email.
What?! You must be crazy!
I know, I know, but hear me out.
Turning off your email is one of the easiest ways to become more productive because it immediately removes the distraction new notifications bring.
When you are working on an urgent report, or trying to complete an assessment, the last thing you want is for new emails to distract you. Often, it’s tempting for us to multitask, switching between the task we are focused on to an incoming email that needs a reply.
But this is not productive. When we switch between tasks, we leave behind something psychologists call ‘attention residue’ (Newport 2016). This is similar to your phone running too many apps at once, and slowing down significantly as its processing power is diverted to running multiple apps at once.
2. Clear your email in batches
A better way would be to clear your email in batches. Checking it at 3 set timings throughout the day is more efficient. None of us washes our laundry one at a time. (If you do, you might have a strange laundry fetish.) Why not do the same for email?
What if there’s something urgent?!
Well, that’s what a phone is for. If there’s something that needs urgent attention, someone would call you.
You might think that my advice is based on anecdotes, instead of scientific evidence. Well…
Leslie Perlow, studied Boston Consulting Group’s always-on, always-connected culture and forced them to take a day off where they were completely disconnected. From emails, calls, and messages. She found that they were significantly happier, communicated better with their coleagues, and most importantly, produced a better product for their clients.
Tom Cochran, the former Chief Technology Officer at Atlantic Media, realised that the company was spending well over a million dollars a year to pay people to process e-mails, with every message sent or received tapping the company for around ninety-five cents of labor costs. “A ‘free and frictionless’ method of communication,” Cochran summarized, “had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet.”
The evidence is clear. Switch off your email, turning it on only at fixed timings such as 11am, 2pm, and 5pm.
3. Work in 25-minute blocks
We are humans, not robots. This means that we can only concentrate for a fixed amount of time before the energy dissipates.
Besides, how exciting can it be to write a report? We need regular breaks to stay motivated.
When we time ourselves to work in blocks of 25 minutes, we give ourselves a clear end goal. We work in sprints, instead of slow, long drawn marathons.
Try this. Work for 25 minutes, before resting for 5 minutes. Work for 25 minutes, before resting again for 10 minutes. Time these work and rest cycles with a stopwatch. This is a great way to focus. You will find that you are far more effective this way.
4. Block out ‘admin time’
It’s difficult to be a social worker when we have to see clients and then record those interactions in increasingly bureaucratic processes.
For me, it helps to realise that I’m not as good as I thought. I always thought I could move fluidly between client contact and case recordings. I thought I could move easily from a 3pm appointment, record it in 20 minutes, before swiftly moving onto my next client. Well, it doesn’t work that way.
Often, after focusing entirely on a client’s body language, expressions, and emotional sharing, we feel spent. We simply want to kick up our legs and have a cuppa before continuing. That’s important to ensure that you are able to last throughout the day
Therefore, instead of moving between client contact and case recordings, admit that you need a break between clients. Block out clear ‘admin time’ on your calendar. Use those times to type out your case recordings.
5. Concentrate in a quiet place ALONE
Have you ever had days when nothing seems to get done? In the morning, just as you were going to buckle down, a colleague asks you about how your weekend went. After that 25-minute conversation about each other’s weekends, you sit, all ready to churn out that report. Then your manager comes in to ask, ‘How’s it going?’ After a brief update about how your clients are and how you are managing, you tell yourself, ‘Right, I need a cuppa now.’
After generously taking everyone’s orders, you return with steaming mugs of tea and coffee. You’re all ready… and a call comes in.
When I was a student social worker, working in an open plan office was the worst thing that happened to me. I could hear everyone’s conversations and was regularly disrupted from my flow by colleagues trying to be friendly. Sometimes, I wanted to ask them to shut up.
When you need to finish that report, book a meeting room for yourself, take a good cup of coffee there, and focus. You will find yourself much more productive, and much more focused.
This is because your greatest distractions – conversations, colleagues and coffee are removed.
6. Unitask, not multitask
When I was a student social worker, I used to remember that one of my colleagues would often shout, ‘Jo, can you tell me what I was going to do?’ I laugh whenever I think about that, because it reminds me about how our brains are poor at coming back to the initial task at hand when we are distracted.
Multitasking is tempting, especially when we are switching rapidly from answering an email, reading a report, and writing a case recording. It makes us look fast and furious. We think this is more productive, but that’s wrong. This makes us more inefficient. When we switch between tasks, we leave behind some of our attention on the previous task. This means that part of our mind is still thinking about what we left behind. We cannot concentrate entirely on the task at hand.
Next time you work, try doing this. Open one window at a time. Focus on that singular task before moving on to the next thing.
7. Plan your workday
In Cal Newport’s book (2007), ‘How to be a Straight-A Student’, he writes about how straight-A students plan their day effectively. They plan out their day through a simple 5-minute process. They try their best to keep to it despite the many distractions that come when you are a student. Like a sudden trip to a café when you meet someone you haven’t met for sometime.
Social work is also full of surprises. We often encounter crises that we weren’t expecting.
But that doesn’t negate the value of planning. It’s not the plan that counts, but the planning. Whenever something unexpected turns up, review your plan and be realistic about what you can complete for the rest of the day.
Here’s how it looks like in practice. At the beginning of each day, try setting specific time periods for what you are going to do.
0900 – 1000 type case recording
1015 – 1100 meet client
1115 – 1200 emails
1200 – 1300 lunch
1300 – 1400 finish assessment
1430 – 1600 Supervisor meeting
1600 – 1700 type out meeting minutes
8. Set out 3 tasks a day to complete
J.D. Meier, a former Microsoft employee, developed this system as a way for his staff to be more productive. His book ‘Getting Results the Agile Way’ might be something you want to check out to find out more. Before you start the day, set out three goals for what you want to attain. This brings incredible focus to your day, allowing you to say no to things that do not matter. More importantly, it allows you to hold yourself to account. At the end of the day, you get to ask yourself: did I finish what I set out to do?
9. Listen to Mozart.
The Mozart effect, where there is an enhancement in brain activity and focus when classical music is played in the background, has been researched and evidenced by many studies, such as Lesuik (2005). In Lesuik’s study of developers from Canadian software companies, she found that quality of work and positive effect were lowest, and time spent on the task was longest for those who were not listening to any music.
10. Put your personal phone aside
We all know the pattern. A notification appears on our personal phones. We tell ourselves that it will be a quick check, and then before we know it, 10 minutes have passed.
Our smartphones have grown to be smarter than us. Many of us are unaware of how our phones are made to be addictive. From the red globes that tell you how many messages you have, to the buzzes whenever a notification comes in, our phones are designed like jackpot machines. With clear rationale.
The more time you spend on your phone, the more money tech companies like Google, and Facebook make from the interactions you have with their ads.
Our phones are made to be addictive. What do we do with something addictive? We put it as far away from us as possible. When it comes to focusing on something, put your phone in your bag, far away from you. Don’t put it on the table, where it can be easily accessed.
When you are working at your desk all day, and feel the sleep creeping up on you, there’s nothing better than a good stretch to start the blood flowing again.
Besides ensuring that you are more awake, this also ensures that you do not end up with painful conditions such as deep-vein thrombosis, which is caused by sitting for too long.
Thus, that’s why it’s so important to time the amount of time you spend sitting on your desk, so that you do not end up with painful conditions.
Stand up, rotate your arms, try and touch your toes, and stretch your back. I guarantee that this will ensure more productive social work.
Want more productive social work? Try these tips, and you are ready to go!
Want more tips on focusing?
Want to do more productive social work? Here are 5 ways to focus better.
You can also check my video, with two special tips!
Newport, C. (2007) How to become a straight-A student: the unconventional strategies real college students use to score high while studying less. New York: Broadway Books.
Newport, C. (2016) Deep Work: rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York: Grand Central Publishing
Lesuik, T. (2005) ‘The Effect of Music Listening on Work Performance’. Psychology of Music, vol 33:2, pp. 173 – 191