Editor’s note. This short science fiction piece is an experimental addition to our recent series on procrastination. Does fiction help give you a visceral experience of a more productive future for yourself? If this topic interests you, please also look at our more traditional personal improvement pieces on the science, strategies, and tools for beating procrastination. ~Tony
Alex fidgeted in Eric’s chair. Her job as an engineering team leader at Cellputer was usually to deescalate drama — not create it.
Ambushing her boss by waiting for him in his own chair was certainly dramatic, but Eric had blown Alex off all week, and she needed to act. Forcing a confrontation like this was the only way her idea would be heard, and she’d procrastinated enough. Her idea for a mood-repair application was way outside the box, but Alex was confident that the ideas could pass Eric’s famous scrutiny — if only he would hear her out.
Her team was sharp. They had great ideas and could fix code fast; that was their job. But Eric didn’t see their potential to generate ideas and create new products. He called them “meatball surgeons”: Their only job was to make the fix and write it up for the design team so it could be properly integrated and regression tested in the next product release. But Alex was tired of seeing her team members move on to more innovative roles elsewhere, and she knew this idea was big.
During long nights and weekends of troubleshooting, Alex’s team naturally speculated on the future of their work. Some ideas were completely off the wall and became running jokes. But others were practical and occasionally brilliant. This one was the latter, and it would be a huge win for the company that eventually pulled it off. Cellputer had that potential.
This dramatic confrontation was risky. Alex knew that Eric was busy. She also knew the risk went beyond Cellputer — his divorce had once been fodder for rampant company gossip, and he hadn’t seen his son in months. Friday afternoon could turn out to be the worst time to press him.
The door opened. Alex drew in her breath and tried to sit a little straighter in Eric’s chair.
“Did someone forget to tell me about a change in our roles?” Eric asked with an exhausted look on his face.
“I’m sorry. You canceled both of the meetings I scheduled. ” Alex began to regret the dramatic chair move. “But it’s important to me and to the team to make sure you really consider our proposal and project plan.”
Eric’s office felt like a fish bowl, with its glass walls looking out into the engineering department.
“Alex, I haven’t seen my son in months. It’s Friday afternoon and I just want to go home.” Eric placed his tablet on his desk and flopped down in a guest chair.
“Well, this is the easiest conversation you’ll have all week. I don’t want any budget, just a little bandwidth to work through some details.” Alex had rehearsed this and was optimistic.
“Bandwidth costs money. Put something on my calendar for next week. I promise I won’t skip it.” Eric was being optimistic too.
Alex avoided conflict, even when she was right. Tara, one of the engineers on her team, stood up and appeared over the top of her privacy cube just then. Alex wondered if she should go out and get her for moral support but realized that would just be another form of procrastination.
“I’m trying to make this work for you,” said Alex. “Can I at least get a hint on what has to happen for you to hear me out?” That was as strong as she could muster.
Eric shook his head and leveled a steady gaze at Alex from across the desk. He was the vice president of engineering for Cellputer, a category-defining developer of cellular computers. They had deployed trillions of units that were collecting data from a dozen body organs in tens of millions of people. Listening to a triage coder pitch a new product was a poor use of his time.
“Every year, Angela challenges the company to think outside the box,” said Eric. “And every year, I sit behind that desk and listen to pitches for solar windmills, microbial bulldozers, and gene sherpas. None of them are viable.” He raked a hand down his face. “If you can’t at least reach out and touch the box, you are too far outside of it to matter to me.”
“Understood,” Alex nodded nervously. “But I can touch the box. In fact, I’m taking most of this from the box and using it in a new way.”
“I doubt it. Your write-up was about mood repair? I think we’ll pass.” He had read the proposal — or at least the first sentence.
Moods influence most of our actions. This was a fact. The brain is focused o the short-term — survival and comfort now is the mandate. Feeling lazy or uninspired feels good in the moment but has negative long-term consequences. Alex knew her team was onto a solution.
“You want to alter people’s mood? Sounds like a drug to me. Go out and look in the top drawer of just about anyone’s desk out there. Antidepressants are not a new idea. Innovation does not mean rebranding or updating packaging. Break some new ground and we can talk,” Eric said sharply, letting his irritation show.
“Drugs are like a hammer. This is like a mood scalpel,” she hit back.
In her head, the conversation didn’t go exactly like this, but she had guessed that the drug angle would come up. Her family and friends all thought she worked for a drug company, and it was a common objection the sales team dealt with.
“That’s clever. Let me guess: You’re going to use our devices to control the amount of a drug you pump into someone’s brain. I agree, it sounds innovative, but time-released drugs were invented in the 1930s, almost 100 years ago,” Eric replied.
Alex tried to steer the conversation back. “It’s not just about amounts. You mentioned the microbial bulldozer. Well, that’s what available drugs are like when it comes to moods—they’re a mood road grader. Happy, sad, excited, or depressed, it doesn’t matter. They all get flattened. It’s as if as long as people are steady, that’s good enough. But it’s not!”
“I’m not saying our country has the best approach to the mental health crisis, but it’s not our mandate. We make cellular-level devices to monitor natural body functions,” Eric said, parroting a line from Cellputer marketing.
“Moods are a natural body function. I think we can monitor and repair them.” Alex knew as soon as she said it that ‘I think’ was a mistake; she needed to be more confident.
“What the hell does that even mean? Repair a mood? Maybe you should transfer to marketing if you want to keep coming up with crap like mood scalpel and mood repair.” Eric stood up and waved her away from his chair.
Alex also stood, knowing that this was when the real discussion began. “Our brain makes mistakes. Like sometimes when you have something important to do, your brain will trick you into thinking it’s easier to skip it. You’ve been in some of our team meetings. Procrastination is real.
“Sometimes I put off calling my mom just so I can avoid the lecture about why I don’t call. I’ll look at the tablet and consider pressing her contact icon, but I don’t do it. I’ve even cleaned my bathroom instead of calling my mother—and I hate cleaning my bathroom!” Alex considered using her nuclear option. A drip of sweat formed at the small of her back.
“Getting people to call their mother is not our mandate.” Eric dismissed her while moving things around on his desk.
“Well, the thing is, the good mood that comes from skipping the call is short-lived. All night, I toss and turn with regret. Why don’t I just call her? It’s easy. Not only that, but every time I reach out after more than a week, she sends cookies. I love cookies. The good mood I get from calling her is so much better and longer lasting than the one I get from putting off the call.” Alex prayed that Eric would give in before she had to detonate.
“Go call your mother and eat some cookies. I have to review the weekly reports and make sure procrastination isn’t winning.” He was already done with the conversation.
Nuclear option then. Alex pushed the button: “Have you ever skipped seeing your son to avoid an uncomfortable conversation with your ex?”
“It’s complicated, and not something I like to talk about at work.” Eric lowered himself into the chair and looked at the door.
“I bet seeing him feels better than getting cookies. Mood repair will help people pass on the good mood that comes from doing the easy thing so they can get to the genuine, long-lasting good mood from doing what they really wanted to.” If Alex really had a future in marketing, her inner critic observed, she’d have phrased that as a tighter value statement.
“In my mind, bringing in drugs chemically or tricking the body into producing drugs is the same thing. Even if I believed your claims, this is not our mandate.” He still wasn’t listening.
“Stop talking about drugs!” Alex slammed her hand on the glass wall.
It was an intentional move that felt scripted. Alex needed adrenaline, and Eric needed to focus on her words and not his preconceived notions. This meeting itself was a microcosm of the issues mood repair could help with.
Eric pursed his lips and breathed in through his nose. Alex could hear a faint whistle as his chest rose and fell. If there was hope of repairing his relationship with his son, he might listen. If not, he might call security.
“How is your idea different?” Eric leaned back in his chair and put his feet on the desk.
“Body temperature, heart rate, brain waves, blood sugar—we’re tracking all of this information on millions of people. I’ve done a sample of our data pool, and we can correlate moods to a matrixed index of points. We know when you’re happy or sad.” This was directly related to their mandate and should get him excited.
When presented like this, mood tracking makes more sense. There could be challenges with scaling data analysis, but maybe it wasn’t crazy.
The next part was the weakest link. Getting him to consider leveraging the opportunity-identifier artificial intelligence being developed in skunkworks required some finesse. Business development asked for artificial intelligence that could look for a long-term growth market that is indicated by a short-term down market. Alex wanted to flip the perspective and teach it the inverse.
“So, this AI you referenced interprets the mood we send it, and then what? Flashes a message across the retina that says, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’?” Eric was trying to simplify it to dismiss it.
“No, being happy isn’t always the answer. The AI will determine if our mood correlates to a long-term good or a long-term bad. We don’t want to flatten out every mood. Sometimes we need to be sad or lazy or even scared. It’s only when the mood doesn’t match with what someone really wants that we would go in and repair it.” This was a concise explanation that Alex was happy with.
Eric was exceptionally smart, and she could see that he was connecting the dots and at least thinking through the idea. There were problems to be solved, no doubt, but the potential payoffs made them worth solving.
There were many commercial applications for this technology. Without even thinking too long, Alex knew that athletes and artists would pay big money for something like this. Self-doubt and insecurities derailed more people who were well-prepared than real-world accidents did.
In most industries, success came to people who could overcome their mood and take a risk. Offering mood repair tied to actual performance data would give leverage to those who were better prepared. Better people taking smarter risks would open up incredible opportunities.
Eric finally asked, “How do you plan on facilitating the repair?”
This is where Alex went from fact to speculation.
“That’s what we need the bandwidth for. Right now, there are some open circles in the workflow.” She had some ideas but would prefer to get more details before telling the man with all the resources.
“How many circles? I’m not going to free you up to chase after an idea if coming true hinges on the stars aligning.” Eric was known for being detail-oriented.
“We don’t need the stars to align. Once the mood is identified and repair is needed, we hand it off to a mood-manager module. This module is individualized and has a data store of all your moods as represented by the data we track. It also connects with other personally relevant data, date, time, location, etc. If you went to the beach and relaxed for an hour, we would know where you were relaxed and how it showed in your body.” Alex liked the beach analogy.
“So, this mood manager can piece together what the right mood would look like for me personally. I like it. Tailored just-in-time analysis. Keep going.” A smile was creeping across Eric’s face.
“We can also mine metadata from across the internet and pull together sights, sounds, smells, tastes—all kinds of information relevant to the mood you need to be in. The mood manager would bundle everything into a mood-repair package and send it to the mood interface.” Excitement popped in Alex’s every word.
“You could use the prototype neural lace to stimulate the brain. If I’m nervous but should be relaxed, the mood repair will trigger my brain into causing a physiological reaction, complete with sensory stimuli. I’d have to fight to not relax.”
Eric’s eyes were wide with his own growing ideas of what was possible.
“Exactly. You wouldn’t consciously know you were thinking about being at the beach, but your mood would adjust so you could focus on the right thing for your long-term benefit.” Alex folded her arms across her chest, feeling more satisfied.
This was the aha moment she was waiting for.
Eric challenged, “What’s the competition?”
“Well, the self-help industry, I guess. Maybe CRISPR makes this obsolete in a generation?” She hadn’t thought about competition.
“How about nothing? Doing nothing is cheaper and easier than mood repair.” Eric frowned.
He had a point. Overcoming the “why do I need this” was one of the biggest sales challenges. Not just for winning over customers but also for management.
“There will always be people satisfied with doing nothing. This idea isn’t for them. Cellputer could position Mood Repair as a premium product to help turn preparation into performance. It could become another category defining concept.”
Productization wasn’t Alex’s strong suit, but she had included a few ideas. Over time, they could productize different pieces of Mood Repair for different markets. Some people would want only to be aware of their moods and come up with their own way of repairing them. Others might be interested only in collecting repair packages like mementos. There would be some flexibility in the implementation that could make this easier to sell upstairs.
Eric still hadn’t said yes, but he was getting there.
“I have a timeline and some dates projected for trials. If I start Monday, we could—,” Eric held his hand up and cut Alex off.
“I need the weekend to think about this some more. Go home and call your mom. And next Friday, I want you in here with the cookies.” He smiled and let out a deep sigh.
Silicon Valley weather is quite predictable, and Eric hated fashion. Why, then, had he changed clothes three times already this morning?
He looked at the time display on his mirror and wondered if there was enough time to change back into the original jeans and T-shirt. His son’s soccer game was starting in less than five minutes, and it was a 20-minute ride to the field. One more change and he could still get there by halftime.
As Eric’s head pushed through the hole of a different black T-shirt, Alex’s words ran through his mind. When it came to his son, Eric did want to get to that genuine, long-lasting good mood she was talking about.
Could mood repair help him right now?
While the autonomous car navigated to his son’s game, Eric wondered how he could solve the problem on his own. He procrastinated to avoid dealing with his ex. What was she going to say that bothered him so much?
Preparing was better than avoiding when it came to addressing conflict. She was going to tell Eric that video chats were not good enough and that he needed to work harder to be physically present. This was almost always her complaint.
Convincing her that his Tuesday and Thursday chats with Brian were enough to maintain a relationship was a tough sell. Eric didn’t believe it himself. The only way to prove that he understood the need for being present was to routinely show up. Today was not a good start.
Approaching the row of parents on the sideline, Eric silently repeated to himself, “I’m here now, let’s move forward.” This was his mantra, and he hoped it would be enough to get through this morning’s conflict and to an enjoyable afternoon with his son.
“Can you give me five minutes after the game? We need to talk about schools.” His ex had long ago given up on small talk.
Eric was caught completely off-guard. “I thought he was doing great in school.”
“He is, but I think there are some places that could challenge him more. We need to have an actual conversation, after the game.” She would only do things her way.
Eric’s pulse quickened, and he could feel a bead of sweat on his forehead. She demanded custody of their son, and now she wanted to ship him off to boarding school? Not only that, but she was ambushing him with the idea on the sidelines of a soccer game.
Eric wanted to leave. This is why he dreaded coming these things when he knew she would be there. No matter what he did, she always found a new way to blindside him.
How was Eric supposed to enjoy his short time with Brian when she did everything in her power to anger and frustrate him?
After a few minutes of silence, his breath slowed and the frustration receded. Maybe mood repair could help with more than procrastination. He pulled out his tablet and opened the calendar.
Sliding around a few meeting blocks freed up 90 minutes first thing Monday morning. Alex would still need to answer some tough questions, but it was worth going through the proposal point by point.