The Bartleby Trough

By my slacker standards, which are best illustrated by this Bender meme, I’ve been unusually overworked lately.

So I made this futile graph in an effort to find some solace.

I guess it’s an overwrought version of the Ballmer Peak mashed up with some notion of the NPV of the must-do part of your to-do list, and an existential-Buddhist-stoicism twist thrown in at the tail. With alcohol % replaced by commitment level. As Jerry Seinfeld liked to ask, is this anything? 🤔

Basic idea is that I seem to turn into Bartleby the Scrivener when my must-do backlog starts to look like a full work week, or 40 hours. I’m at my best, 100% motivation, when the backlog level is about 10 hours, where the green of motivation transforms sharply into the red of unpleasant overmotivation (which is unpleasant like overcaffeination, but worse). Curiously, I think I also hit 100% motivation when I’m overloaded to like 70 hours. But that’s a kind of stoic suffering motivation brought on by raw survival pressures. When the universe has you by the balls, heart and mind tend to follow. I try to keep away from that zone, and mostly succeed, except during tax paperwork season.

A full nominal work-week’s worth of backlog, or 40 hours, is for me the trough of the pit of negative motivation. The Bartleby Trough, the opposite of the Ballmer Peak. I really can’t operate with a horizon longer than a week, at least where visceral things like motivation are concerned. So if a week ahead looks packed with nothing but grindset work, it triggers the bleakness of Bartleby mode. The weak ahead can’t breathe. The location of your trough on the backlog axis may vary somewhat but I suspect 40 hours may be a common mean.

In the ideal world of people who make service labor scheduling apps, I suppose motivation would increase with backlog and hit 100% at 40 hours, like the dashed 45 degree line. A full nominal work week should fully occupy the mind of the happy worker, so they live weekend to weekend, waiting for the bliss of relief from the grind, which lasts just long enough to recharge and restart. That’s what “back to the grind” means. Sometimes you have to admire the elegance of the emergent dark optimality of the industrial age. I’m glad it’s unraveling.

Another way I like to think of it is in terms of a meta-breath tempo of grasping versus releasing; or focus versus relaxation; or holding your breath versus breathing. That last metaphor tracks best for me. The fully optimized industrial work week feels like holding your breath and operating in anaerobic mode, with some kind of lactic acid of the psyche building up a kind of cognitive soreness. The weekend then turns into pure recovery.

When I have “industrial” weeks like this (fortunately rare), it really wipes me out, which is why I don’t do them. I don’t like going anaerobic for more than a day or two at a time. In fact I like long periods of aerobic punctuation activity in a single day.

Interestingly though, writing is an aerobic activity for me, which is why I can be unreasonably productive on that front. The hours don’t count somehow. Writing is rarely a backlog item for me, even when it’s a must-do piece of writing (though editing other people’s writing definitely is).

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Keally Newmann says

    Thank you for posting. High level, creative thinking. I enjoyed looking at your motivation graph, though it is set up to show correlation between x and y, whule you are arguing inverse correlation between x and y.

    You are clearly a smart guy, but you are wasting cognitive energy fretting like Hamlet over a sea of data instead of getting shit done. Two words: Occam’s razor.

    All that said, your Blog is more intelligent, and engaging than 90% of what’s out there.

    Thanks for writing.

  2. I am wondering if the shape of the chart is the same for most people. also, how do you factor in “looming work” – does not need to be done yet, but it might fall on you any day (or maybe any week). a bit like technical debt.

    i think the shape you show might have to do with a lack of unstructured “adventurous” time.