Managing Your Time Better: Ideas for Busy Youth Workers

19 April 2011 — 13 Comments

Something I’ve been struggling with for a while, especially since taking on more responsibility and oversight for a number of different areas in my job, is about managing my time better. Generally I have a good sense of what is important, and usually manage to achieve what is needed in the right timeframe, however I know that I’m not always methodical or organised in my approach and often waste time by doing too many things simultaneously.

From my limited experience, I think this is an issue for many youth workers. Because (generally speaking) we are practical, hands-on, relational people; the admin, planning and organisation don’t always come at the top of our list (or maybe approached in a reluctant battle-focused manner)! Recently I’ve been working through my own systems and challenging myself to work smarter. Here’s a couple of things I’ve learnt:

Switch off push email

Owning a smart phone is great for many reasons, but I’ve found having my phone buzz and beep every time a new email arrives is very distracting. I would often catch myself opening the email and replying to it immediately, in spite of what I was currently doing. I would end up flitting from one thing to another without properly focusing or finishing each. It also had the added issue that people were starting to think that I was available to them at any time as I would respond instantly. A few weeks back, I turned off the push notification. I can still get email instantly whenever I need it, I just have to tap the button to open the app. It’s been hard to resist temptation, but I’m now starting to limit how often I access my email. Ideally I want to only check and respond once or twice a day.

Structure my calendar better

I’ve been sharing online calendars with my family and work colleagues for years, so people are able to see what I’m doing or when I’m available. The thing is, if there is no particular meeting or event the day looks empty and I end up doing whatever is most urgent on my task list, and not always being too productive. Recently I’ve been experimenting with blocking out times for certain tasks each day or week and putting my focus into that. For example, Monday mornings are staff team and church leadership meetings. Because I’m in the office, I’ve started blocking out the rest of Monday to stay in the office working alongside the team and hitting the general admin like reading the post, responding to emails, etc. I know it’s a little thing, but structuring the day and setting aside that time has really helped my productivity.

There’s been some good blog posts on this subject from well-known leaders recently that caught my attention. Michael Hyatt posted about How to Better Control Your Time by Designing Your Ideal Week, and Doug Fields recently did a 3-part series outlining 5 Steps toward the death of “to-do” lists. A big part of it is about structuring his calendar:

  • He defines his main roles within his work.
  • He then lists all the most important tasks for the upcoming week under those role headings
  • He estimates a time frame for each task
  • Then he blocks out any meetings & events on the calendar
  • and works out a time slot around the meetings for each task.

It’s essentially prioritising the most important things and then ensuring there’s a set time to get it done.

Talking of important things, the Urgent Vs Important dilemma is very relevant to youth work. I learnt about this a number of years ago, but Michael Hyatt does a good job of explaining why you need to focus on important and ignore the urgent. Check out  Is That Task Important or Merely Urgent?

So what about you? How do you manage the many demands for your time? What tips can you share?


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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

13 responses to Managing Your Time Better: Ideas for Busy Youth Workers

  1. I tweeted this in response to Jon’s question: Anyone got any good ideas for managing your time better in Youth Work?

    “diary discipline, routines, rhythm, clear communication, downtime, play and space for serendiptious moments”

    He asked me to expand… here goes:

    Diary discipline – this is really important. Making sure you know what you are doing and where you need to be is a basic activity that many stereotype youthworkers as being bad at! Just because the nature of your work may not feel “official”, being organised and purposeful is part of serving all stakeholders in youth ministry. Whether it is paper or electronic doesn’t matter, keeping your schedule is important. I think you should have one diary for you… this should include all dates from all aspects of your life – work appointments, holidays, days off, social things, band practices etc. As to who you share your aspects of diary with requires discretion as sometimes things will clash and it is best if you are in control of that rather than someone else who can see your schedule – i keep a paper diary of all my life and share my work appointments and sessions with my team on Outlook server so they can see what i am doing. Anything i don’t want them to see i mark as private and they can see i am unavailable but not what i am doing.

    In short what you need to communicate is that you arrange meetings/work flexibly, attend meetings punctually and that if you aren’t able to you should always send your apologise for your absence in advance. This tells people that you are intentional and can be relied upon. Sometimes life gets hectic and you need to make a call on your scheduling of activity – if people think you are disorganised they’ll dismiss you… but if you have a “can deliver” character

    Routines & Rhythm – part of work life requires routine…sadly! However, i believe if we embrace them they can help us be efficient in the use of our time. Simple things like answering emails once a day – rather than constantly, is a good example. Your work pattern of regular sessions with young people will shape your routine… e.g. the after school session on most Wednesdays. YOu need to find your routines and plot them into your schedule. Getting into a rhythm for work and life is no bad thing… like a timetable it helps getting the work into some pattern. If you are the kind of person who hates routine then doing youth work (informal education) could be hard for you as the reason we have patterns is deliver targets and goals (oh yeah do you have those?).

    Clear Communication – in terms of time management it is important to know what you are being asked to do and deliver! If you have no goals and targets communicated in real terms rather than expectations you will struggle with motivation eventually. Also clear communication is about being positve to others about what you do with your time… I know some youth workers who moan about how tired and busy they are – to be honest in the addage of “you become what you say” they are stuck in that cycle. Plus in some cases you wonder what they might be doing to make them so tired… can they cope? Part of your image as a youth worker (especially church-based) is to commuicate the benefits of what you do… and if you get shattered and miserable doing it, why would any join let alone pay you for the privelege! Lastly, no-one likes a clock watcher – it says alot about your attitude!

    Downtime & Play – we all need this… again it needs planning in and putting in the diary. I find that having a good homelife is essential. Evening cleaning and doing chores around the house is part of this… and suprisingly fulfilling in another way. In terms of play I would recommend a hobby that is nothing like your work… mine is photography ( In terms of having a “day off” i always take a flexible approach and balance it against other commitments. The same is true of holidays. As an adviser, I have found some youth workers work harder on protecting their “day off” than doing work across the other days… this communicates a bad vibe and is counter-productive. In terms of being accountable for resting it is important that you do it… but how you go about it is a fine art.

    Space for serendiptious moments – whilst time-management can seem rigid (it’s not) you should always be prepared to be suprised by the moment. This is less about finishing an xbox game for 6 hours and more about pausing your youth programme because of what is happening in the lives of young people. So in terms of “work” this is more about understanding your goals and purpose – in that way you can still give account for what you have done.

    Lastly I would add… that giving account for your time is less about being defensive and more about being matter of fact. If you haven’t done something own up to and correct what you can. If you haven’t got enough time because one aspect of your life is dominating… it could indicate a bad habit or the fact that you may not be fit all your work in. If you are working to agreed goals then this can be addressed – if not you will struggle and your self-esteem will hit the skids. Being accountable is not only being accountable to work… but also the other stakeholders in your life – family, friends etc… please be sensible and strike a balance. If you get known as someone who puts one before the other all the time… this is unhealthy. Life is busy and hard and time is limited….try your best!

    • Thanks Ben, a very thorough and wise response! I agree with all the things you’ve mentioned, and am doing well with most of them… I think the rhythm/routine has been my downfall previously.

      It’s OK for the regular activities, they happen each week and that’s fine. I always know I need to be at that club at that time. My problem has been the empty spaces. As I work from 2 offices and often attend meetings in various locations, having a regular pattern has proven difficult – I’ve just landed wherever I’ve needed to be, flitting in and out and doing tasks randomly in those spaces. Now though, I’m organising meetings and events around my pattern (e.g. avoiding other commitments on Mondays so I can be in the office with the team).

      • so you are making a pattern and working effectively… having many places to work from can be an issue. I try to carry my office in my bag… that means when I get time between spaces i can tick off tasks like emails and journal reading

  2. Rachel Blom also posted on this subject today and has linked to some other posts by youth workers on managing time. Check out the post here.

    • Thanks for the mention! Needless to say, I like your post. It’s something a lot of youth workers struggle with (and not just youth workers either). For me, finding balance between work and my family was hard. I’ve had to learn to make some tough choices there and communicate these to other people (example: Saturday = Sabbath…don’t call me unless someone has died) It amazed me that some people really didn’t appreciate this, understand it or even respect it!

      What I liked about Michael Hyatt’s weekly approach is that it focuses on priorities and focus areas, instead of on activities. I’m working on my own version right now!

      • Thanks Rachel, I also had to force myself to create boundaries for availability. I’ve basically told people: call my mobile phone. If I answer, I’m available. If not, leave a message!

        I liked Michael Hyatt’s daily ‘theme’ too. It helped my think about grouping activity/tasks together into a focused period of time. I’d be interested to see your own version. Will you post it?

        • I doubt my schedule will be much help to others. I’m working from home at the moment, completely focusing on my blog, my writing and my family (not necessarily in that order) so I’m in quite a luxurious position right now…Not a schedule many youth workers can relate to I’m guessing!

  3. Some good.thoughts. Ben gives some well rounded stuff, may need to pinch that (with permission, of course)

  4. yo……. i love talking productivity in relation to youth work. i have spent a lot of frustrating hours trying to figure out how to be the most effective in the shortest amount of time. i never had paid staff and admin assist to help share the work load, so i had to develop automated systems that create behaviors without too much of my time, effort, and energy.

    all my productivity posts are found here:

    my favorite post is here:

    • Thanks Jeremy,

      I’ve read a couple of your posts on this theme. I think you mentioned about not answering email as it comes in. That got me thinking and eventually made me turn off the push notifications on my iPhone. Thanks for that! 🙂

  5. Some good stuff being said

    Time Management may not be the most helpful way to sum this up. A helpful term is priority management. If you do not understand or know priorities in job/life then things will be challenging. ‘Everything might need to be done – but not necessarily now!’

    Some Tips
    Being flexible
    Planning ahead
    Knowing when you are most productive during the day
    Looking at task and the impact of this task if not done.
    Managing ‘interrupters’
    Out of this, you can develop lists (Daily, Weekly, Monthly – whichever works)

    Having a look at an audit of how your day and then managing your diary so putting in diary key Non-Negotiable times (Personal/Family/Well Being), Negotiable (Meetings/Follow Ups) Flexible (Slack Day that can deal with Pressure)

    Just my take..

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  1. Time management in Youth Ministry: designing the ideal week | Youth Leaders Academy - 19 April 2011

    […] I had just finished writing this blog post when I saw another post on Jon Jolly’s site about the same subject, be sure to check it out! […]

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