Getting out of Grading Jail*

*the term “grading jail” is borrowed from a popular Twitter hashtag #gradingjail

At this time of year, it is tempting to drop everything else and just grade all the time. After all you have lots of grading. You might as well get through it so you can get on with other things.

If you love grading and find it inspiring, stick with that plan. But if grading is more in the category of necessary evil, this can be demotivating and counterproductive.

The value of boundaries

Back in the mid-90s my partner and I were living in different cities. I discovered that I could grade more essays in the 1-hour train journey to visit him than I could in a normal hour at home.

The boundary provided by the train schedule gave that hour focus and intensity. There were also fewer distractions.

When you get up in the morning and say “I’m going to grade until it’s done”, you lack that boundary. You are more easily distracted. You don’t have the intensity. And it takes you longer to get the work done.

It feels like grading is taking forever because it really is taking up all the time available.

Give yourself boundaries. Do grading in focused blocks (maybe 90 minutes). Take a real break between each block. Go for a walk. Sit down for a proper meal. Do some yoga. Go for a run.

Filling your tank

You are also more likely to be distracted if the task in front of you is not that inspiring. Very few of us find grading inspiring, despite the occasional great paper in the stack.

Doing uninspiring work tends to drain your energy. Grading seems to take forever because you are trudging along at low energy for a big chunk of the time. A lot of effort is being expended just staying at the desk and staying focused on the task at hand.

Some of the work you have set aside might have the opposite effect:

  • Reading.
  • Writing.
  • Analysing data.

Or you could do some kind of home-based activity: baking, sewing, knitting.

These activities often inspire and nourish, even when they are challenging. At the very least knowing that you are making progress on tasks that are important to you can give you an energetic lift.

You can start your day with a nourishing activity or you can make it the sandwich filling between 2 blocks of grading to give you a lift before starting again. You could do both.

Energy + Focus + Intensity = Higher Productivity

Yes, I am proposing that you spend less time grading. Or, that you spread the grading out over more days.

Don’t drop all of your other activities. Devote time each day to an activity that nourishes you and gives you energy.

I honestly believe that by setting boundaries and doing an activity that increases your energy level, you will get more done per unit of time than you will by scheduling open ended time and banishing everything you enjoy until all of it is finished.

A version of this post was published on December 10, 2012. It has been edited.


  1. I could not agree more with you. A pattern I have find extremely useful for marking, but also for writing more generally, is the Pomodoro technique. It involves combining periods of very intense work where you are concentrating fully on the task at hand and short breaks during which you can do exactly what you feel like doing: a few tweets, making a cup of coffee, or doing your ironing, etc. The typical pattern for a pomodoro consists of 25 minutes work and 5-minute break, with a longer break after 3 pomodoros. Alternating 25 minutes work with 10 minutes breaks worked however better for me. I have also found that doing things which required standing up and being physically active, for instance domestic chores was extremely useful and helped with concentrating better for the next pomorodo. Typically I spend the longer breaks going for a walk or exercising. This has more or less become my standard work pattern and it is incredible how much can be done in only 3 daily cycles of 3 pomodoros. For more on the Pomodoro technique see: