This month I read Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, by Frank Partnoy, who is a professor of law and finance at San Diego University. Wait is a fascinating examination of the topic of delay through a variety of prisms including, but by no means limited to, science, behavioral economics, professional sports, first dates, comedy, and animal behavior. (Arguably those last three categories could all be related, but I am not going to go there.)

It is impossible for this brief newsletter to do justice to all the concepts in Professor Partnoy’s book. So I am going to focus on two areas: wait to make decisions; and procrastinating can be okay.

Delay Your Decision Making

As the book’s title makes clear, there is an art to delaying. For example, comics are funny because they know how to delay their punch lines. Professional tennis players can hit seemingly impossible shots because they delay swinging until the last millisecond, enabling themselves to absorb more information about the ball’s trajectory.

However, much of the current thinking and literature, from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, to books by management consultants that encourage people to get things done immediately, go against Professor Partnoy’s thesis. (Blink’s hypothesis is that we make decisions, and often correct ones at that, almost instantaneously. Although as Professor Partnoy notes, the last third of Blink discusses some of the dangers of snap decision making.) In addition, our external world — that world where email now seems slow and dated and twitter is ascendant, if not king, encourages us to go faster and faster.

Professor Partnoy’s conclusion, however, is that slowing down is key to better decision-making, in both our personal and professional lives.

What Might This Mean for You?

The idea that slowing down is useful seems particularly timely, given that we are heading into the holiday season when everything accelerates. If you wish to avoid some of the pitfalls of the holiday season, such as overextending yourself, overeating, and overspending, the trick may be to delay before accepting an invitation, heading back to the buffet, or rushing to the cash register with an overpriced gift that someone will only use a couple of times. That may give you time to decide that you do not actually want to do any of those things.

In the workplace, it would be wonderful if this concept could take hold and encourage people to stop and think before firing off an email. While this is particularly problematic when people are angry and vent feelings that shouldn’t be vented, it is also a problem when people need more time to digest an idea, but feel they must respond instantly to a question. Many of you are in professions where you are valued for your ability to analyze complex situations. Good analysis takes time. If you don’t allow yourself that time, you are not going to be able to do your best work.

Procrastinating is Okay

While Americans claim to loathe procrastination (in spite of the fact that the percentage of people saying they procrastinate has increased sixfold in the past 35 years or so), apparently the ancient Egyptians and Romans thought that procrastination was useful and wise. Professor Partnoy analyzed several definitions of procrastination, but I particularly enjoyed his discussion of Paul Graham’s 2005 essay, “Good and Bad Procrastination.” Mr. Graham posits that procrastination cannot be cured. By definition, when we procrastinate, we don’t work on something. However, we are always not working on something, because if we are doing one thing, then we are not doing everything else. The way to deal with this is to trade off what you are doing now versus what you will do later.

What Might This Mean for You?

Know yourself. You can’t do everything. If you didn’t procrastinate on some things, you wouldn’t get to the important things. Just try to make sure that you leave yourself enough time to do what you need to do. For example, I know that my life would be easier if I chose a newsletter topic at the beginning of the month and worked on it throughout the month so that I didn’t have to scramble at the end of the month. However, I work better under pressure so I am not going to do that. What I need to know about myself, though, is that I can write a newsletter in a few hours. Thus as long as I have a few hours free at the end of the month, I can procrastinate up to that point.

With that, happy holidays, and I will be back to you in January.



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