Everybody hates paperwork. Imagine facing a stack of 1.4 million reports more than a mile tall. That’s the reality for graders of the College Board’s Advanced Placement English tests.
As a high school English teacher, I aimed for the highest national achievement I could imagine—becoming a reader for the English AP tests. Last year, a total of 476,277 students took the English Language and Composition test. This marathon of the written word includes a grueling free-response section in which students write three essays in just two hours. In this high stakes testing environment, student writers balance the important ideas they need to address with the urgent deadline they face to express those ideas. Few academic situations contain such intense stress.
Reading those essays is no less stressful. I managed to score about 1000 essays for the College Board in one week, and I learned three good lessons on productivity at the same time.
One Task at a Time
No one can tackle a mile of paperwork. No one can grade 1.4 million essays. And no one has to. As an AP reader, I didn’t even need to score 1000 essays. I only needed to score one. And one more. And one more. And one more. Each individual essay was easy, three to five pages long. Our scoring parameters were clear, so I knew what to do to meet the College Board’s expectations. If I didn’t lose my focus and take on more than the work of the present moment, I could continue to make small advancements toward the overall goal.
All work is the same. We shouldn’t expect epic meaning and purpose from every small task on our to-do lists. There is honor enough in one essay, one well-written email, one kind word. Similarly, we don’t need to be overwhelmed by a lifetime’s worth of goals—or even a whole week of goals. “Each day has enough trouble of its own,” Jesus said—as does each hour and each project and each task. Even Jesus focused on one task at a time, healing or eating or teaching before going to bed each night. Our brains can’t handle every task at once, and my brain doesn’t need to.
Practice Pulling in the Same Direction
When reading the AP exam, we practiced scoring essays after every break to make sure we were tracking with the group. We reviewed the rubric. We read four essays. And we raised our hands as the Chief Reader called out scores. It was easy to see whether I was scoring significantly harder or easier than the other readers in the room. If my hand raised along with the crowd, I was in sync. If my hand raised with just a few other hands, there was a problem.
Staying in sync comes at a high price. Think about it this way. In the time it takes 11,000 readers to practice scoring four essays, they could have read 44,000 unscored student essays. Clearly, the practice is necessary in order to score the tests with the highest level of integrity. How strange then, that it is so hard to take the time to check-in with our coworkers, to make sure we are striving toward the same goals and serving the same vision. When I focus too much on my personal productivity, I can easily fall out of sync with the larger team. Instead, I must take time to reflect regularly on the quality of work I want to produce and prioritize the best use of my time. At the end of the workday, it will be easier to stop if we have not spent the day confusing mere busy-ness with focused productivity.
There Is Always Another Test
Behind every task, every report, and every widget is a real person. Behind every AP essay is a real student. Evaluating the effectiveness of a person’s work is different than evaluating a person’s worth. Despite how often we use work to convey worth, as children of God, we are all worth more to our Creator and more to each other than we can ever imagine. Loving our neighbor doesn’t mean we should make excuses for shoddy work, though. Most small failures—like a poor score on an AP test—provide a chance for deep learning if we have the courage to be honest and straightforward with each other.
As an AP reader, I needed to be careful not to give high marks too quickly. Inflating students’ scores wouldn’t help them. Better to be honest. Better to give them the score they earned, acknowledge the need for growth, point to the higher standard, and provide them an incentive to take another test. Students—or any workers—are worth more than what they produce.
Of course, we are also not worth less than what we produce. Christians sometimes have this strange idea that productivity is a bad thing—as if we are too focused on things of this world. There is great value in laying our pencils down at the end of each day, but let us not adopt a shallow theology that sees no lasting value in the things of this world. Neither should we adopt a shallow grace that declares every effort a success.
Instead let us focus on what we can accomplish today by surrendering the worries of tomorrow. Let us trade personal success for office success. And let us persevere in the work God has given us, always remembering that quality work is a way to show love, not to earn it.
Life is too short to live any other way.
Quitting time would be easier if deadlines, insecurity, perfectionism, and expectations disappeared. We could simply lay our pencils down and walk away from the task in peace. Unfortunately, this is not our experience. The urgent trumps the important. The urgent trumps the clock, too. “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for God grants sleep to those he loves.” Conceptually appealing, yet realistically challenging when pressure knocks on the door, the wisdom of the Psalmist often fails to change our ways.
This article is part of a series at The High Calling called Pencils Down. Our hope is that in everything, from to-do lists to identity, we will be encouraged to make small advances toward stopping when it’s time to stop.