Breathing Space June 2023

by Dan Comer

How to Manage Caseloads in Social Work

Are you overwhelmed right now? It feels like that is a given sometimes in the work we do. To keep going, we have to be able to manage our caseloads and not just wait for things to slow down. Here are some useful ideas to help with that. How many are you using? Experiment with one of these and see if it makes a difference!


  1. Have fixed-schedule productivity.

A fixed-schedule productivity is where you keep rigidly to your working hours. For example, if you work from 9 AM to 5 PM, don’t be tempted to squeeze in an additional hour to complete that report due tomorrow.

Fixed schedule productivity is effective because it forces you to prioritize. It forces you to think, What is important and not important today? It forces you to cull activities that are a waste of time. That nice-to-have meeting to learn about    ? Nah. It forces you to stop thinking, I will do this later, when I stay back after work.

This is key to managing a high caseload. When you fail to keep to your working hours, it fuels faster burnout. We tend to assume that working long hours equates to working productively, but this is seldom the case. Pushing yourself to keep a fixed schedule helps you to win in the long run.

  1. Schedule your day.

Starting your day with a schedule ensures that every minute is accounted for. Starting your day on autopilot is a definite way to fall behind or be led astray from your most important work. Start your day with a schedule—it only takes 5 minutes.

Decide in advance what you need to get done today. Schedule times for it throughout the day. It is vital that you have an idea of what you are planning to do. When we set ourselves a clear plan with a distinct deadline, we become more focused and productive.

Everything might not proceed according to the plan, but it is much better than being led by whatever crisis lands in your inbox.

  1. Schedule 5-to-10-minute breaks.

You are not superhuman. Having regular breaks between each task ensures that you can focus optimally. It is also better for your physical health when you get up and take a short walk around.

  1. Decide what you need to do, should do, and can do.

When you break each day’s tasks into must, should, and can, you start to be realistic about what you can do each day.

  1. Check your email only at certain times.

Why do we clear our email one at a time? I would hazard a guess: it is much easier to take our mind off the difficult tasks we are focused on and switch it to something easier, like email.

Clearing our email in batches, at fixed times of, say, 11 AM, 2 PM, and 5 PM, ensures that our day is not constantly interrupted by the ping of an incoming email. This is a hard—and valuable—technique!

  1. Schedule meetings at the end or beginning of the day.

Avoiding scheduling middle-of-the-day meetings prevents interruptions to your work. It improves the flow of the day, giving you more uninterrupted time to concentrate on your work, rather than having to be constantly disrupted to attend yet another meeting.

  1. Meditate with an app like Headspace, Insight Timer, or Calm.

The biggest benefit of meditation is the ability to stay present as you are managing your caseload. It helps you to stay in the here and now, rather than worry about the future or the past.

  1. Use the 2-minute rule from David Allen.

David Allen, a productivity specialist, has a deceptively simple rule. If something takes less than 2 minutes to complete, do it right now. Slotting it in your to-do list or in your calendar will take longer than the task itself—just do it.

  1. Do things in batches.

In another technique from David Allen’s useful book Getting Things Done, he recommends that we do things in batches, not in drips and drops. Rather than put everything you need to do on a single list, split it up according to its type and what you need in order to perform it. For example, you could split one list into calls, computer tasks, and emails. Then do all the similar tasks at the same time.

  1. Remove distractions like the internet when trying to focus.

Switch off your internet when you’re trying to focus. What?! Don’t be absurd! How can you switch off your internet? Try it. I’m confident that you won’t regret it. When you switch off your WiFi connection, you realize that you can’t be distracted. You can only do your work. There’s no running away now—you must do your work.

  1. Ban yourself from distracting websites (like Instagram or Twitter) with Chrome extensions like Self-Controland DF Tube.

I find the Chrome extension Self-Control useful in helping me to focus. It automatically blocks sites that you designate. When you try to access it, it give you a warning message that you set up. DF Tube blocks out the YouTube feed, preventing you from going down yet another rabbit hole of cat videos. (You know you do!)

  1. Work in 25-minute blocks.

This is one of the most effective ways towards increasing your focus. Called the Pomodoro Technique, it acknowledges that humans are not robots and we cannot focus forever. Start your stopwatch for 25 minutes. After working for 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break. It can be a simple walk outside the home, a cup of coffee, or a break in the washroom. You will return to your work recharged and ready to rumble. I have used this technique for years and can confirm its usefulness.

  1. Listen to Mozart.

The Mozart effect, in which 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.


So, if you are feeling overwhelmed, try one thing different and see what difference it makes!


Adapted from: Lim, J. (2023, April 21). How to manage caseloads in social work. Save the Social Worker.