OK, most of us don’t grade papers anymore, but we do evaluate a tremendous volume of student work online, and then we compose (create) written feedback to share back with them. This is an extremely high cognitive brain activity that consumes a tremendous amount of energy. It also happens to be one of the most challenging aspects of every teacher’s job, and it is made vastly more difficult because of our work spaces.
Let’s start with the obvious: we are not robots, but our school leaders and family members often treat us as though we are robots instead of living organisms. You may have heard people say things like, “Grade your papers now” or “Just do it then.” These directives make sense if you were performing a low-cognitive task that requires relatively few neurons to be firing at the same time, and thus low caloric consumption and a short neural recovery period. It’s not that your boss or spouse is being malicious, they (and most of the world) just do not understand the nature of high cognitive work or the ultradian rhythm. This is completely understandable, and I suspect this observation applies to the vast majority of humanity, so don’t be angry with those you love, just do your best to explain what you need to do so that you can be effective at your job.
Research has demonstrated that it is most effective to perform high-cognitive work in 90 minute blocks. Why? While doing high-cognitive work, nerve cells in our brain consume tremendous amounts of energy and unbalance the ratio of our sodium-potassium ions. As a result, our brain can last for 90 minutes at optimal (high-frequency neural firing) levels before requiring a roughly 20 minute break.
We have all experienced periods of super high productivity referred to by researchers as the flow state, where you are totally absorbed by and deeply focused on the task at hand, beyond the point of distraction. Time feels like it has slowed down. Your senses are heightened. You are at one with your work. You can accomplish more high-cognitive work in 15 minutes in the flow state than you can in 6 hours outside of it. Some people describe this feeling as being “in the zone.” This is the flow state and it’s accessible to everyone, if you design a work environment that allows for it to occur. Designing a work environment that allows you to get into the flow state is especially challenging when you are working from home, because it requires clearly communicated boundaries and the cooperation of others to respect those boundaries.
It is sometimes hard for others to understand, because many of the routine tasks we do each day do not require high levels of brain activity, and you can continually perform them for hours on end, and you can do them effectively on someone else’s schedule. Activities such as doing laundry or mowing the lawn fall into this category. Grading papers, done properly, certainly does not fall into this category. Those who work with or love someone who grades papers need to understand this, and allow the educators in their life to perform this vital task, or their students will be the ones who ultimately suffer the consequences, in the form of delayed or ineffective feedback.
Learning how to ride the cyclical ultradian performance wave can enable our brains to operate at peak efficiency.
In a widely cited study of prodigious violinists, psychologist Anders Ericsson found that the top performers all had the same practice characteristics:
They practiced in the morning
They practiced for up to three sessions
Each session was 90 minutes or less
There was a break between each session
This same pattern is observed in other top performers: focus then rest, focus then rest.
Let’s be honest: Most professionals, including educators, won’t be able to create more than two 40 to 90-minute periods where they can get in the flow state each day. That’s just the nature of schools and their bell schedules. There are just too many interruptions, some of which are absolutely necessary. Hopefully, we redesign the school day to better optimize human performance. Until then, we work in the world that exists.
You can’t enter the flow state when someone else wants you to because it fits their schedule. You need to align your work environment and your mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. If you are upset, you can’t enter the flow state. If you happen to be working from home, this can be especially difficult, and sometimes those you share a home with just don’t understand the challenge you are facing. However, if composing high-quality lesson plans, evaluating student work, and providing valuable feedback to students is part of your job, do whatever you possibly can to design a work environment that allows for two periods of flow state each day. Then, enter your flow state.
Grading papers, providing written feedback to students, and data entry takes time. The following chart shows how much time is required to process one set of papers.
Schedule focus times and be vigilant to guard them by setting clear work-time boundaries to prevent interruptions. To do our best work, we need to be able to focus, both to get into the flow state and to remain there. Focus is one of our most important resources. According to a UC Irvine study, it takes the average person engaged in a high-cognitive task 25 minutes to get back to the point they were at before a distraction lasting only seconds. In another study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, subjects that were interrupted for just 2.8-seconds doubled their error rates on cognitive tasks, and their error rates tripled after a 4.5-second distraction. The people that surround you must respect your work time. An additional important point is that pets are also a common source of interruptions for those who work at home, and pet owners need to take thoughtful, proactive steps to prevent them from causing interruptions during your flow state.
Being ‘on’ is impossible without also being ‘off’. After your flow state of up to 90 minutes, eat a snack alone and refuel, meditate, close your eyes, take a nap, go for a walk, talk to a friend about something completely unrelated that relaxes you, or read the news online, just relax. You earned it. For 20 minutes. Then, get back to your work.
This is a critical caveat: When you take your 20 minutes of authentic off-time, do not allow other people to dictate tasks to you. You need to truly relax for 20 minutes before your neurons can fire at high enough levels to summon another high cognitive session, and you cannot truly relax without having full autonomy of your time. If you do other tasks at the behest of others, for example fill out a form for your boss, fold clothes, make lunch for your kids or take the garbage out, which are OK to do, your 20 minute timer doesn’t begin until those tasks are complete. Just as you need to be uninterrupted during the flow state, you must be uninterrupted during your off time.
In summation, create a work environment that allows for 90-minute periods without interruption. Then, rest for 20 minutes. This will require that you communicate clearly with those around you, those with whom you work, spouses, even your children if they are old enough to respect these boundaries. Share this blog post with them, if necessary.
If you work in accord with your ultradian rhythm, you will do better work.