In Focus: 3 elements to consider, I outlined three elements that affect your focus during a writing session: the task itself, how you are feeling, and the context. I have written a series of follow up articles going into more detail about what that framework looks like in practice.
I use the term “optimize” purposefully. Your goal is not to achieve some ideal state of focus that you can replicate every time you sit down. Your focus will vary based on the particular combination of task, feelings (physical & emotional), and context. Your goal is to optimize your focus for this session given what you are working with today.
One of the 3 elements is the context. By context I mean both the physical environment in which you are working and your general mental environment. This context may have features that are particularly supportive — quiet, an inspiring view, other people also writing, etc. It is also likely to have features that are potential distractions. As I’ve said before, the task and how you are feeling may make those distractions less of a problem (Focus and the desire for distraction). It’s important to consider what, specifically, might be a distraction today.
Grading as distraction from writing
At certain times of the year, one of those distractions is the grading you need to do. By calling it a distraction, I don’t mean it’s not important. Both grading and writing are important parts of your job. One of the difficulties of juggling multiple responsibilities is focusing on one important thing even when there are other important things on your list. So, during the time you have set aside for writing, grading may be a distraction. (Equally, during the time you’ve set aside for grading, writing may be a distraction.)
Grading is probably part of both your physical and mental context. Mentally, you may find it difficult to focus on your writing because your gremlins don’t want you to forget about the grading or treat students as somehow not worthy of your attention. A physical pile of essays or exams may also be a physical reminder of this task that you aren’t working on right now.
While some people decide to not write for the period where they have a lot of grading to do, it is possible to do both. As a client of mine pointed out, it is only possible to grade so many essays in a day anyway before your judgement starts to go, so you might even find that you have more time for grading than you did when you had classes to teach.
Some practical strategies for mitigating the distraction of grading:
Schedule time for grading. The fact that you are not grading right now doesn’t mean you aren’t giving it appropriate time and attention. Blocking time in your calendar reassures the gremlins and means you aren’t actively devoting mental energy to thinking about when you are going to do it.
Set an alarm. When you are busy, your mind can be preoccupied with trying to remember what you need to do. You may find it hard to focus because you don’t want to lose track of time. An alarm enables deeper focus. Set an alarm for the end of your writing session. Or set an alarm to remind you that the time you’ve scheduled for grading is about to start.
Do some grading before you write. If your gremlins have issues with your priorities, making you feel selfish for putting your writing ahead of your students’ needs, then doing some grading first can really help. Remember priority means gets resources before other things. You can make grading a priority without taking writing off the agenda completely.
Remove the physical evidence. Look around your physical environment. Is there a literal pile of essays or exams on the desk or somewhere in your field of vision? Is there anything else in your field of vision that reminds you of the grading you need to do? Can you eliminate that? Perhaps write in a different space from where you grade. Put the grading in a drawer or cupboard while your write. Or just cover the whole thing with a towel or a sheet. Yes, you know it’s under there but the less cluttered visual field provided by the fabric makes a difference.
You don’t have to do both
If the thought of trying to juggle grading and writing makes you want to cry, I hereby give you permission not to write for a bit. Everyone is tired at this time of year. If you have a regular writing practice, not writing for a week or so isn’t going to completely destroy it.
Make a conscious decision. Gather up the writing related stuff on your desk and put it in a drawer or a box or something so it isn’t distracting you from your grading. Make a list or write a letter to remind you what you were doing and give you a place to start when you come back to it. And schedule your next writing session in your calendar.
It’s not all or nothing
You can also decide to reduce the amount of writing you do. How much writing time feels reasonable given your other priorities over this period? What can you do to keep your writing project simmering so it’s easier to get back into when the grading is done?
A full list of the posts in this series can be found in Optimizing Focus: 3 elements to consider
For more on priorities & boundaries see Juggling 101: elements of a good plan
For more on managing grading when you have other important things to do see When priorities and boundaries feel like cutting corners: Grading Edition
For more on establishing a writing practice see You need a writing practice
This article was first published on 12 April 2019 as an email to subscribers of my Academic Writing Studio newsletter. It has been edited. Audio added 12 March 2020.