Why Procrastination is Good for You

In a new book, University of San Diego professor Frank Partnoy argues that the key to success is waiting for the last possible moment to make a decision

In his new book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, Frank Partnoy claims that when faced with a decision, we should assess how long we have to make it, and then wait until the last possible moment to do so. (Book jacket: Courtesy of Pete Garceau; Portrait: Courtesy of Fergus Greer)

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For example, a professional tennis player has about 500 milliseconds to return a serve. A tennis court is 78 feet baseline-to-baseline, and professional tennis serves come in at well over 100 miles per hour. Most of us would say that a professional tennis player is better than an amateur because they are so fast. But, in fact, what I found and what the studies of superfast athletes show is that they are better because they are slow. They are able to perfect their stroke and response to free up as much time as possible between the actual service of the ball and the last possible millisecond when they have to return it.

The international dating service It’s Just Lunch advocates that clients not look at photos, because photos lead to snap reactions that just take milliseconds. It asks that they consciously not make judgments about a person when they first meet them. Instead, they tell clients to go to lunch, wait until the last possible moment, and then at the end of lunch just answer one question: Would I like to go out on a second date with this person? In the same way it frees up time for a tennis player to wait a few extra milliseconds, someone on a date will make a better decision if they free up extra minutes to observe and process information.

What else surprised you?

Most people are taught that you should apologize right away. But I was surprised to find that, in most cases, delayed apologies are more effective. If you’ve wronged a spouse or partner or colleague in some substantive, intentional way, they will want time to process information about what you’ve done. If you acknowledge what you did, and delay the apology, then the wronged party has a chance to tell you how they feel in response, and your apology is much more meaningful.

Do you have any practical advice for how people can learn to better manage delay?

Just take a breath. Take more pauses. Stare off into the distance. Ask yourself the first question of this two-step process: What is the maximum amount of time I have available to respond? When I get emails now, instead of responding right away, I ask myself this. It might seem rude, and it did feel rude at first. But the reality is if you respond to every email instantaneously you are going to make your life much more difficult. If the email really doesn’t have to be responded to for a week, I simply cut the information out of the email and paste it into my calendar for one week from today. I free up time today that I can spend on something else, and I’ll be unconsciously working on the question asked in the email for a week.

[Editor’s Note: It took him three hours to respond to an email of mine. He wrote, rather tongue-in-cheek, “so sorry for the delay!”]

How do we stand to benefit from your message?

If we are going to resolve long-term issues like climate change and sustainability, and if we are going to preserve the innovative focus of private institutions, I think we need a shift in mindset away from snap reactions toward delay. Innovation goes at a glacial pace and should go at a glacial pace.

Epiphany stories are generally not true. Isaac Newton did not have an apple fall on his head. Thomas Edison didn’t suddenly discover the light bulb. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t suddenly invent the World Wide Web. If we are going to be able to resolve long-term problems, we need to create new structures where groups of people are given long periods of time without time pressure and can think in a think tank like way. We will give them a real deadline so they can’t just dither, but I think we need to press our decision-making framework out of the 24-hour news cycle and out of the election cycle into a longer-term time frame of maybe a decade.


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