How efficient can one be? Productivity and pleasure in the 21st century

Authors: Aaron Marcus
Posted: Wed, February 17, 2016 - 10:40:51

Once, I had to take part in an international conference call at 9 a.m. West Coast time, but I had also scheduled my semi-annual dental appointment at 9 a.m. What to do? Well . . . it seemed straightforward. I would bring my mobile phone to the dentist together with my new Bluetooth earpiece, and listen in to the conference call while the dental hygenist worked over my molars. Simple. A combo business-personal moment joined efficiently.

I asked my regular dental assistant, Tanya (it seemed amazing that she had been a constant in the office for five years; even the dentist in charge of the firm had retired and been replaced with another). My request seemed only slightly unusual to her, and she was fine with my trying to combine two important things at once, as she laughed at my request. 

So while she set up her equipment, I set up mine. The only thing I hadn’t counted on was that the ear hook of the Bluetooth earpiece was meant to be used with an ear in the vertical position. The device dangled precariously from my head in my supine repose. Nevertheless, it seemed it would stay put while I dialed in. I had informed the leader of the conference call in advance (our group was planning a worldwide event) that I would be in a dentist’s chair with my mouth preoccupied and would be only listening, not speaking. She was fine with that, also, and thought it funny. As we started the call, she explained my situation to the participants. They all tittered briefly, then we got on with our call. 

I found there were several advantages to my otherwise constrained situation. Having the phone call to distract me kept my mind preoccupied. I noticed even less than normal the dental technician’s working over my gums with that little hooked, pointed metal device that I sometimes dread. All in all, my teeth are in pretty good shape (no cavities!), so I can’t complain, but as she did her thorough, scrupulous cleaning, it was not always pleasant. 

Meanwhile, my focus on the conversation actually seemed to be improved. It seemed more concentrated, because I could not speak! I could hear “inside the speakers’ comments” and seemingly tracked about three levels of the conversation: the surface or literal level, some implications for myself, and the speaker’s likely background intentions. I suddenly realized I had better write down a few notes. Uh, oh. I had forgotten to plan for that activity. Fortunately, while the dental assistant was cleaning my bicuspids, I found the pen I keep with my phone in my left-breast shirt pocket, and I pulled a piece of scrap paper out of my wallet; I think it was a cinema ticket-charge receipt. Perfect. I jotted down some notes that I used later to write up some comments and questions to the leader after the meeting. It had all gone pretty well.

I suggested to Tanya that the dental office might suggest to patients that they combine activities to make their day more efficient, and more effective in distracting them from whatever fear or pain they might be experiencing. I suggested that manicures and pedicures might be a good additional service offering, much as some Beverly Hills dental spas, or spa-equipped dental offices, now offer.

Then I got to thinking. I had given myself my own once-a-month haircut that morning before going to the dentist. This ritual involved dancing an electric buzz-cutter fitted with medium, short, and no plastic clip-on attachments, and running the device around my dome, progressively removing unwanted tufts of what was left of my former waves and curls. Once my hair was long, dark-brown, even braided down my back almost to my hips in the 1960s. Now, sigh, my few remaining hairs were short, gray, and mostly non-existent, with a bare patch growing ever larger starting at my crown. Ah, age. Anyway, the entire procedure takes about 15 minutes. So . . . why couldn’t this activity be done, also, while I was in the chair?

After the dentist’s visit, I had also planned to visit a women’s hairdressing and manicure salon to get a pedicure. I know. A perfect metrosexual man’s morning activity. Friends always eyed me a little suspiciously when I told them, occasionally, where I’d been. Ah, age; my feet seem so far away from my head and hands now. So after the dentist, I stopped in to see if I could get my once-a-month treatment. The place was empty. Great. I settled back into the big, comfortable chair. The assistant reminded me to turn on the back massage, and suddenly the chair sprang to life with strong, rhythmic vibrations, while the little lights on the chair’s control device blinked on and off to remind me of what was happening. As I leafed through the many women’s beauty, gossip, and healthcare magazines, looking for some additional wisdom that would explain how to understand women better, I thought: so this is why women enjoy going to beauty parlors and manicurists! It’s good to be treated like a queen, or a king, or maybe a princess or a prince, as the case may be. When the assistant began to massage my calves and feet, I was reminded: I am definitely hooked on this healthcare/beauty treat. I usually, but not always, pass up the offers of manicures; after all, a manly man can trim these things with a nail clipper or wire cutter, right? Down at the other end of my body, it’s harder to get my hands and feet in the right out-of-body position, and I’ve grown to enjoy this pedicure experience tremendously

So . . . I began to think: wait a minute. What if all of this could be done at once? Then I could have collapsed about two to three hours into just one. What a savings of time, if not money! I began to wonder: what other activities could be added? 

Then it occurred to me: there should be some sort of Guiness Book of World Records competition for the highest number of things that someone could accomplish at once while lying in a reclining chair at some healthcare service center. (Or maybe in an Aeron office chair, for Google employees.) 

After all, many times over the past decade, when I am sitting at my desk, I am looking at my computer screen, but also above that at the high-definition video screen that is fed the DirectTV satellite or cable feeds with a few of about 1000 stations. I might be listening to classical music coming in on from Europe that is broadcast over the speakers attached to the computer, while I might have two headsets on, one for each of the two phones nearby, with the mobile phone earpiece squeezed in under one of them, trying to field three conversations, while I review some email message from among the 200 to 500 that come in daily, and notice that someone is trying to reach me by voice-over-Internet. The Skype icon bleats for my attention and a new “boing” enters my consciousness. Which means, I have to free up at least one ear to add on the special Skype headset with microphone. 

I know. This all sounds a bit complicated. It is. Sometimes I get a bit confused about to whom I am speaking, what with having to quickly do multiple sequential mutes and un-mutes as I try to field questions or reply to comments from two or three people.

So I am not new to trying to juggle several things at once. Well, what would it be to max out the number of things to happen in a reclining chair? Here’s what might be happening at once:

  • Back massage via the built in chair massager
  • Body herbal wrap, somehow leaving the mouth, head, chin, arms, and feet exposed, as necessary
  • Conference call in one ear (at least!) via Bluetooth earpiece, with note-taking equipment on my lap
  • Dental care, but not x-rays
  • Haircut and beard trim, taking care that things don’t fall into my open eyes or mouth
  • Manicure
  • Music coming into the other ear, or perhaps audio feed form the video image on the wall or the videophone signal coming in over the Internet
  • Pedicure

I suppose I could also be fed intravenously, or some additional skillful person could be performing liposuction or other non-invasive laproscopic surgery that doesn’t require general anaesthesia, but I think we are entering the extreme zone of zaniness here. 

As an additional contextual challenge, all of these services might all be happening in a Spa-Bus or Spa-Limo, or even in my own vehicle, since I shan’t have to be bothered with driving, and the other passengers might be the specialists providing entertainment, nutritional, and other healthcare services.

Is there no end to this quest for efficiency combining productivity and pleasure in our lives of the early decades of the 21st century? Are there cross-cultural versions that may add additional, unexpected activities, like my simultaneously grinding white, spicy roots on shark skin to make hot, green wasabi paste or undergoing acupuncture? I am sure some mathematician or cognitive scientist may be able to prove that there is some topological limit to what can be accomplished, like the five-color map problem. Until then we can dream, can’t we, of beating the limit? We may have a new challenge to worldwide creativity. I await the latest results on some Internet blog.

Note: This text was originally composed in 2005 and has been slightly edited to update the document.

Posted in: on Wed, February 17, 2016 - 10:40:51

Aaron Marcus

Aaron Marcus is principal at Aaron Marcus and Associates (AM+A) in Berkeley, California.
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