The idea that procrastination is bad really started in the Puritanical era with Jonathan Edwards’s sermon against procrastination and then the American embrace of “a stitch in time saves nine,” and this sort of work ethic that required immediate and diligent action.
But if you look at recent studies, managing delay is an important tool for human beings. People are more successful and happier when they manage delay. Procrastination is just a universal state of being for humans. We will always have more things to do than we can possibly do, so we will always be imposing some sort of unwarranted delay on some tasks. The question is not whether we are procrastinating, it is whether we are procrastinating well.
When does it cross from good to bad?
Some scientists have argued that there are two kinds of procrastination: active procrastination and passive procrastination. Active procrastination means you realize that you are unduly delaying mowing the lawn or cleaning your closet, but you are doing something that is more valuable instead. Passive procrastination is just sitting around on your sofa not doing anything. That clearly is a problem.
What made you want to take a closer look at the timing of decisions?
I interviewed a number of former senior executives at Lehman Brothers and discovered a remarkable story. Lehman Brothers had arranged for a decision-making class in the fall of 2005 for its senior executives. It brought four dozen executives to the Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue and brought in leading decision researchers, including Max Bazerman from Harvard and Mahzarin Banaji, a well-known psychologist. For the capstone lecture, they brought in Malcolm Gladwell, who had just published Blink, a book that speaks to the benefits of making instantaneous decisions and that Gladwell sums up as “a book about those first two seconds.” Lehman’s president Joe Gregory embraced this notion of going with your gut and deciding quickly, and he passed copies of Blink out on the trading floor.
The executives took this class and then hurriedly marched back to their headquarters and proceeded to make the worst snap decisions in the history of financial markets. I wanted to explore what was wrong with that lesson and to create something that would be the course that Wall Street should have taken and hopefully will take.
You looked beyond business to decision-making in sports, comedy, medicine, military strategy, even dating. What did you find?
I was so surprised to find that this two-step process that I learned from arguing with my mother about making my bed is actually a process that is used by successful decision makers in all aspects of life and in all sorts of time frames. It is used by professional athletes at the level of milliseconds. It is used by the military at the level of minutes. It is used by professional dating services at the level of about an hour.
Question one is: what is the longest amount of time I can take before doing this? What time world am I living in? Step two is, delay the response or the decision until the very last possible moment. If it is a year, wait 364 days. If it’s an hour, wait 59 minutes.