Sunday 24 September 2017

Why it's good to wait. . .

Procrastination can make all the difference

Andy Murray in action at Wimbledon
Andy Murray in action at Wimbledon

Lisa Jewell

As the new year beckons, so many of us think back on all the things we planned in the year gone by. And we resolve to stop procrastinating -- we'll definitely get things done quicker in 2014.

But that's not necessarily a good thing, says Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: the Useful Art of Procrastination. He says our lives will noticeably improve by training our brains to wait.

Partnoy, who is based in San Diego, is a lawyer, an academic and one of the world's leading experts on market regulation.

He is also a self-proclaimed procrastinator. "I've been a procrastinator my entire life and it's hurt me some but not too much," he says. "I've always bristled at the idea that procrastination is a bad thing and it's been a topic at the front of my mind for 20 years."

Partnoy gets the irony that being a procrastinator meant that a book about procrastination took many years to come to fruition. It was the financial crisis in 2008 that really prompted him to get to work on it.

"I'd heard this story that Lehman Brothers had designed a course to try to understand the literature on delay and they'd brought in all the top researchers.

"The story goes that the executives had this seminar all about thinking through decisions and then they left the office, marched quickly back to their headquarters in New York's Times Square and made the worst financial decisions in the history of markets."

Interestingly, procrastination wasn't always seen as such a bad thing.

In ancient Greece and Rome, taking time to deliberate was seen as a positive thing and philosophers spent many weeks and months thinking through a situation.

But then came the 1970s and suddenly things sped up.

"First there was this shift in the culture, particularly in the US but also in parts of Europe, that was driven by new business books that told us to get things done right away and to manage every minute of our time," says Partnoy.

"And then with the advent of the Internet Age, we got all the technological temptations. The 24-hour news cycle, the bleating of Twitter and Facebook and the constant email drip. All of these things are there like pieces of chocolate cake or alcoholic beverages that are constantly tempting us to use them straight away."

The central message of 'wait' is that we can master the art of delay, using it to our advantage.

"When I'm asked to do something, my first instinct is almost always to try to understand how long I can take to do it -- what is the maximum amount of time that I have -- and then not do it immediately.

"There are a whole cluster of downsides in making a decision too quickly, one of the biggest ones is that you will make the wrong one.

"I found this from interviewing leaders in lots of fields. In lots of sports such as tennis, baseball and cricket, the top performers don't distinguish themselves by reacting instantly. If they reacted instantly, they would be amateurs.

"What distinguishes them and, in fact, high-speed photographic studies of their behaviour show this, is their ability to delay, to not instantly swing for the ball. To delay even a few milliseconds can make a huge difference. The same kind of delay is true of actors and comedians too -- it's all about delaying to get the right reaction.

"What we're talking about is a very slight delay. You can't take forever -- if you're a professional tennis player and you decide that instead of taking 500 milliseconds, you're going to take 700 milliseconds, the ball could be gone past you. There's a bit of a science to figuring out the sweet spot of delay."

Waiting can pay off across the board -- for instance, not rushing to a judgment straight away on a first date but waiting to make a simple decision at the end of the date, namely do you want to see this person again.

"There's this idea of love at first sight and that can work out sometimes long-term. But people generally can benefit from waiting a little while longer from making a judgment about someone."

Partnoy says that it's impossible to give hard and fast rules about when people should wait or not wait -- it depends on the situation.

But he definitely thinks that everyone can learn to be better at waiting.

"It's all about practice. For each email you get, ask yourself how long you can go without replying and then leave it until that very last moment. If it can wait a day, then wait a day."

'WAIT: THE USEFUL ACT OF PROCRASTINATION' IS PUBLISHED BY PROFILE BOOKS

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