Maximum Efficiency

by Joseph Evergreen

The calendar was painted on the wall. Jessica stepped back and marveled at the thing. The calendar reached from floor to ceiling. It was decorated with notes and appointments and was sorted by priority. It was color-coded. The calendar was absolutely perfect.

“What did you do to the wall?” Micah asked her.

“I made a calendar,” she told him. “It has all of our family plans on it.”

Micah moved closer and squinted at it. “It doesn’t have any of my after-school clubs. It doesn’t have Colby’s drum lessons either.”

Jessica’s other son wandered into the living room. “What’s this about?” Colby asked her.

“I’m getting organized,” Jessica told her kids. “I’ve decided that I haven’t been using my time as efficiently as I could be. I want to get more done at work. I want to spend more time with my children. And I want to make time to do more fun activities.”

Colby concluded, “So you’re having a midlife crisis.”

“I am not,” Jessica said sharply.

“You just turned forty,” Micah said, taking his brother’s side. “It’s the perfect time for a midlife crisis.”

“I don’t care about birthdays,” she insisted.

“I can tell,” Colby said. “You didn’t put Micah’s birthday on there.”

Jessica turned back to her glorious calendar. The day of Micah’s birthday was riddled with notes describing what she wanted to do, hour by hour. “There’s not enough room to note it,” she said defensively. “And I’m sure Micah can remember his own birthday.”

“That’s not the point,” Micah said. He didn’t elaborate on what he thought the point was.

“Look,” Jessica said. “I got this new watch. It’s fancy, so I can set a hundred different alarms on it. It’ll sync me up perfectly with this calendar, keeping me strictly on schedule.”

The watch made an audible ticking sound, something to keep her constantly aware of the passage of time. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

Her sons were looking at her calendar, shaking their heads as if she’d lost her mind. Well, that was fine. They didn’t need to understand her complex new system. Jessica consulted her calendar. It was time to start cooking dinner.

She had specifically purchased this watch because it sounded like a kitchen timer she had grown up with. When she was young, she’d loved helping her parents with the cooking, trying to get all of the separate dishes finished at the exact same time. You wanted to have the pasta finished cooking as the vegetables came out of the microwave, both at the moment that the chicken came out of the oven.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, ding!

Her sons came to the kitchen table when she called for them. “You’ll notice that dinner is twelve minutes early today,” Jessica told them.

Colby took a bite, chewing his food with a strange look on his face. Micah was less tactful. He was grimacing first at his plate and then at his mother.

“I skipped most of the seasonings,” Jessica explained. “Applying the seasoning to the chicken takes about two minutes, and those bottles of seasoning also aren’t cheap. I likely saved us seven cents by not seasoning the food.”

“Seven cents?” Micah repeated.

“These savings will add up. We’re far from rich.” Jessica kept on boasting. “I also didn’t cook it quite as long as the recipe called for. Don’t worry. It won’t kill you. It’s two degrees warmer than a dangerous temperature, a safe and sufficient amount of time in the oven.”

Colby was still chewing his first bite. Micah had stopped eating.

Jessica had her own first bite. It was not very good. “It has the same nutritional value. This is better, not because of its flavor, but because it was made quickly and cheaply. Efficient.”

Colby asked, “Why’d you plop the applesauce directly onto our plates, instead of putting it in a bowl like you normally do?”

“That’s three fewer bowls to put in the dishwasher,” Jessica replied easily.

“This is great, Mom,” Micah said, dripping with sarcasm.

“I’ve been thinking about how a mindset can affect your entire life,” Jessica told her kids. “Being a single mother is difficult, but it’s only been an excuse for me to not do the things that I want.”

Colby said, “It’s only an excuse, huh?”

“What?” Jessica asked. “What’s the problem?”

“Nothing. Keep talking.”

She did. “I’m not changing my mindset only for myself. I’m doing this for the whole family. Colby, you’ll be turning eighteen in three years. Five for you, Micah. I want us to enjoy our time together while we still have it. I keep thinking about my mother. When she was on her deathbed, she told me about all of her regrets, like not traveling enough, or not pursuing her passions. She ran out of time. I don’t want to run out of time. I want to suck the life out of every second we’ve got on this planet. You know, they say it takes ten thousand hours of practice to master a skill. I could pick up programming. Or I could learn a language. Or I could simply use my time to get back into reading, or catch up on the popular shows.”

Micah asked, “Are you sure you’re not having a midlife crisis?”

“I already told you, Micah, I don’t care about birthdays.”

By cooking dinner more quickly, Jessica had bought herself twelve extra minutes to include in her new exercise routine. She’d hardly exercised in her life, but with her new regimen, she had far more time to get into shape. She would spend these twelve minutes jogging around the neighborhood. Well, nine minutes, actually, because she had to rapidly dig through the back of her closet to find the proper outfit. She didn’t really have clothes for jogging, but it would be inefficient to buy any. Her running shoes were ancient, completely falling apart. If she was being perfectly efficient, she would use them until she physically could not run in them anymore.

Jogging was harder than it looked. As she went through the neighborhood on a precisely nine-minute long route, her watch was ticking on her wrist.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

On a typical evening, she would get ready for bed at nine, lying in bed and scrolling on social media until about ten-thirty. This gave her eight hours of sleep when she got up at six-thirty in the morning. That was inefficient. Social media was a waste of time. Furthermore, eight hours of sleep were not strictly necessary. Jessica continued exercising until ten, trying her hand at pushups and sit-ups. These were difficult, to the point that one pushup was challenging enough, let alone the twenty she’d been planning on doing. She was forced to modify her calendar. On the bright side, the modification gave her an early start on studying French, using a couple of apps that she’d downloaded. She studied at her desk.

Going to bed at eleven-thirty netted her seven hours of sleep instead of eight, because she could surely get by with less.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, ding! Time to make breakfast.

In the car with the kids, she explained how things would change. “We’re switching the order of events. Micah, I’m dropping you off first.”

“That makes no sense,” Colby complained. “School starts later for me.”

Jessica made a risky left turn onto a busy street, accelerating sharply. “I was looking at the map and analyzing traffic. If I drop Micah off first, I avoid the traffic from the other parents. Then I turn left instead of right, toward the high school, so I avoid that awful traffic light. It saves four or five minutes. I did the math.”

Micah argued, “But if I get dropped off first, then I have to wait around for half an hour before classes start.”

“Spend the time studying.”

“I don’t need to study.”

“And what about me?” Colby asked. “If you drop me off second, I’ll be late for first period!”

“You’ll be five minutes late at worst,” Jessica said. “I know your school’s policies. You can be five minutes late for class without getting into trouble.”

“And you’ve timed it so I’ll be exactly five minutes late?”

“That’s right. It’s efficient.”

Micah and Colby were not happy. Jessica dropped Micah off at the middle school, where the parking lot was delightfully clear and easily navigable. She then accelerated toward the high school. She hit the curb three minutes after the bell rang.

“You’d better run!” Jessica told Colby. “Two minutes!”

“Are you kidding me?” Colby threw his seatbelt off and wrestled with the car door. “I’ll have to sprint to make it in time!”

“Not only does this save time, but you get some exercise!”

Colby said something vulgar as the door shut behind him. Jessica pretended not to hear it. He would understand soon. A minute saved now was a minute of free time later down the line. She wasn’t going to be one of those lazy adults who forgot their dreams and clumsily fumbled their way through life.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick—

Back home, she logged onto her work computer twenty-one minutes early. Her plan with the kids had paid off. She delegated fifteen of these extra minutes to answering emails, and spent the remaining six getting her coffee ready, rather than saving coffee until after her first calls.

Jessica’s weekday job was as a remote receptionist for a financial institution. She received between forty and sixty calls per day. Calls could last anywhere between twenty seconds and half an hour.

Her goal today was to keep those calls as short as possible.

She had a meeting with her boss around lunchtime. Using her cordless headset, she took the call in the kitchen while she prepared a meal. Multitasking.

“Jessica, something has been going wrong today,” Big Tom said to her. “I’d like to run it by you.”

Jessica only heard half of this, clattering through her cupboard for a plate. “What’s the issue?”

Instead of answering, Big Tom asked, “Why aren’t you on video?”

“Sorry, I’m in the kitchen.”

“I see.” He didn’t sound pleased. “Your calls today have been very brief.”

“That’s right,” Jessica replied. “I’m working on my efficiency.”

“I’ve had multiple customers complaining about your reception work today, and it’s not even noon. They say that you’re talking at a million miles per hour. They can barely understand what you’re saying. All of them said that you were rushing them.”

She couldn’t believe this. “I’m only trying to streamline the process and increase our call volume.”

Big Tom told her, “Stop it now. We don’t want receptionists who talk so fast that they sound like chipmunks.”

Once he saw her stats at the end of the day, he would see the light. “I understand,” she lied.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, ding! Time for more exercise.

Jessica used to spend every lunch break goofing off. This time she would work on her pushups. She was improving already. She’d discovered that pushups were much easier if she did them faster, and didn’t lower her body entirely to the ground. If she only went halfway down, she could do nearly two pushups per second. It really worked up a sweat.

At the end of the workday, she did not hear from Big Tom again. Good. Optimal.

Her weekend job was a different matter, a different calculation. She worked her own hours as an auditor for an accounting firm. She and four other auditors would pick documents out of an endless stack, check them for accuracy, and then sign them off as audited. Jessica had, historically, been able to fully audit two documents per hour, pitifully slow.

The math was straightforward. If an error got past her by mistake, it would be logged in her employee accuracy. Her accuracy was currently an admirable 96%. However, she had seen auditors with accuracy as low as 85% before they got fired. Only about ten percent of documents had errors, in her experience, which meant that by auditing literally nothing, her accuracy should only drop to 90%.

The best part was that errors often weren’t discovered until a month after the filing date. Her accuracy wouldn’t decrease for weeks with this new plan. 


Her calendar painted on the living room wall had already undergone massive revisions. Every day, Jessica was coming up with new ways to optimize her schedule, new ways to shave off minutes.

“When are you going to stop this?” Micah asked her.

“Why would I?” Jessica said. “I’ve been exercising more than ever in my life. I’ve used my newfound free time to learn French.”

Colby wondered, “What’s the point of learning French?”

“I’ve always wanted to learn a second language. It’s fulfilling.”

“Is it?” Micah said doubtfully. “Are you even having fun? You’re tired all the time.”

Jessica explained, “I’m trying to see how few hours I can sleep. If I only truly need six hours, that’s two bonus hours in my evening that I can spend improving myself.”

Micah and Colby were both unconvinced.

“This isn’t just about me,” she said. “I’m living efficiently so I can be here for the whole family, so we have more time together.”

Colby joked, “If you really want to be efficient, you should spend your free time getting on the dating scene. If you bring a step-dad into the family, he could drive us to school instead of you.”

“No, no, don’t be ridiculous,” Jessica said, studying the wall. She had to pee quite badly, but she wasn’t scheduled to go to the bathroom for another forty-five minutes. “You two should be efficient with me. Micah, how much have you been practicing your soccer?”

Micah responded reluctantly. “The team practices three times a week. And that’s plenty for me.”

“What about the other two school days?”

“I couldn’t practice then. I’m in other clubs.”

“What other clubs?”

“Robotics and juggling.”

“Juggling!” Jessica exclaimed. “That isn’t fulfilling. Drop that one, and spend the afternoon practicing soccer.”

“But I don’t want to practice soccer more,” Micah said.

“If you aren’t passionate about it, then drop soccer and put the time into robotics. That’s what’s important in life. Identifying your true passions, and giving them your all. Not wasting time with things you hate.”

“I didn’t say that I hated soccer.”

“You could be studying extra, improving your grades to ensure that you get into a good college.”

Micah argued, “What college cares about your grades from middle school?”

Jessica rounded on her other son. “Colby, what about you? You’re in band. You take it seriously.”

“Yes, I take it seriously,” Colby said lightly. “I am perfectly content with the amount that I practice.”

“But you could, theoretically, take practice even more seriously.”

“Mom,” he said. “I’m not having this conversation with you. Maybe you should see a doctor. I think you’re having some kind of manic episode.”

“I don’t have time to go to the doctor for something as trivial as a manic episode,” Jessica told him sharply. “When I see the people around me, I see people who don’t have energy. People who are boring. I’m not going to be like them. I’m going to have a happy, healthy life.”

“Sure, Mom,” said Micah. “You look real happy and healthy right now.”


Her pushups were improving. She was even faster at them now. Yesterday, Jessica had done ninety-four pushups in one minute. Today, she got this close to a hundred. Doing push ups so quickly was beginning to make her joints hurt, but she would get stronger over time. She wanted to find a way to do these pushups even faster somehow.

When she studied French, there were some odd grammar structures that she was struggling to understand. She brute-forced every question that her app gave her. Eventually it would click in her brain, naturally, so she didn’t need to worry about it.

When Jessica went to bed, she was exhausted, yet she couldn’t fall asleep. That was unusual, given how little she’d slept the night before. She was trying to find the exact amount of sleep so she would reach her bed on fumes and fall asleep instantly. Obviously she wasn’t tired enough.

Even though she wasn’t wearing her watch, she could’ve sworn she could hear the ticking in her head.


“This is becoming a problem,” Big Tom told her.

Jessica tried to answer with half of her lunch in her mouth. “I disagree.”

“Jessica, you’re not going to win the world record for shortest phone call. I’ve noticed your calls getting shorter and shorter in your stats.”

“That sounds good. That’s efficient.”

Big Tom was irritated. “Customers are not happy with your conduct.”

“My job isn’t about whether or not they’re happy,” Jessica reminded him. “It’s about getting their call to the right place in an efficient manner.”

“Stop using the word efficient so much,” he griped. “Our callers have rarely taken issue with out hold times. Our call volume simply isn’t that high. I don’t know why you’re obsessed with speed all of the sudden.”

“Shorter calls leave me more time to work on other things. I’ve been quicker at responding to emails, you may have noticed. Look at my stats. My call volume is as high now as two receptionists. You should be paying me double.”

This only got a chuckle out of Big Tom. He clicked his tongue. “I don’t get it. Did you pick up a second remote job with overlapping hours, or something? Why are you so frazzled?”

“I’m not frazzled,” Jessica said. “I’m doing great.”

That wasn’t a bad idea. Picking up a third job at the same time as her receptionist work? She could find a position where she was typing on the keyboard for one job while answering calls for the other.


When she logged on for her weekend auditing job, Jessica checked her stats.

Her accuracy had plummeted to 71%.

She had a message in her inbox marked urgent. It was her manager’s manager. It was a request for a call.

Luckily, her receptionist job had made her very, very good at talking down angry people quickly. She was going to be given another chance. She just had to find a way to audit faster, audit better.

The thought of picking up a third job was sticking to her. And she was considering another idea, one she’d never thought about before. What about using cocaine? If she used a powerful stimulant, her brain could function significantly faster. She would form a dependency on it, but who cared? She already had a dependency on coffee.

Now, cocaine was an expense, but if she picked up a third job at the same time, the cost-benefit analysis worked out in her favor. Yes, this was a good idea. She just had to figure out where people got cocaine from…


Her ambitions led to an argument, with the family standing there underneath her enormous calendar.

“You’re being stupid,” Colby said. “You can’t handle a third job. You’re barely handling the two that you have, by the sound of it.”

“It’s simple,” Jessica said. “I’ll cut back on practicing French. That’s not as important as a higher income.” With her hands on her hips, she was rearranging bullet points in her mind. She would have to redo the entire calendar, yet again. She’d already massively revised it four times in the span of a month.

Micah told her, “If you pick up a third job, we’ll never see you.”

“You’re teenagers,” Jessica retorted. “You’re not supposed to want to spend time with you mother in the first place.”

“No? Then why do you keep saying that you’re doing this to give us more quality time together?”

“I’m working hard now so I don’t have to work hard later,” she insisted. “If I make money at three separate jobs, I could retire early! I’ll get to properly relax!”

Colby said, “When are we going to see this relaxation? In twenty years? I’ll be in my thirties by then. I might live on the other side of the country. Tell me again how your obsession with efficiency is making us a happier family.”

Jessica argued, “I will not grow old and have regrets! If I work three jobs, we’ll be the wealthiest family on the block. If I keep up my exercise routine, I am going to be the healthiest person possible. If I use my spare time studying and learning, I’ll be more knowledgeable than anybody you know. I will not be one of those people who settles into their sluggish routine, wasting away in front of the TV while time escapes from them, like an ice cube in the sun. I will not. I only have one life. It’s going to be fulfilling.”

“What’s the point?” Micah asked. “What if you die in a car accident, driving the way you’ve been driving lately?”

Colby agreed. “You can’t control every second of your life. Can we have our mom back? I’m really tired of this midlife crisis.”

“It is not a midlife crisis!” Jessica barked. “I’ve told you a million times, I don’t care about birthdays!”

“Sure,” Micah said lightly. “I know you don’t care about my birthday.”

“I’m not going to miss your birthday,” she told him.

“Mom, I’m not saying that you will miss my birthday. I’m saying that you did miss my birthday.”


“My birthday was yesterday,” Micah said angrily.

Jessica turned around to look at her wall. “That’s not possible,” she said. “It wasn’t on my calendar.”

Joseph Evergreen is a novelist primarily writing science fiction and speculative fiction for both children and adults. He grew up in the Pacific Northwest and works in data analytics. He enjoys rock climbing, board games, and going up staircases on all fours.

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