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

Wait The Art and Science of Delay Frank Partnoy
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

Sometimes life seems to happen at warp speed. But, decisions, says Frank Partnoy, should not. When the financial market crashed in 2008, the former investment banker and corporate lawyer, now a professor of finance and law and co-director of the Center for Corporate and Securities Law at the University of San Diego, turned his attention to literature on decision-making.

“Much recent research about decisions helps us understand what we should do or how we should do it, but it says little about when,” he says.

In his new book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, 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. Should we take his advice on how to “manage delay,” we will live happier lives.

It is not surprising that the author of a book titled Wait is a self-described procrastinator. In what ways do you procrastinate?

I procrastinate in just about every possible way and always have, since my earliest memories going back to when I first starting going to elementary school and had these arguments with my mother about making my bed.

My mom would ask me to make my bed before going to school. I would say, no, because I didn’t see the point of making my bed if I was just going to sleep in it again that night. She would say, well, we have guests coming over at 6 o’clock, and they might come upstairs and look at your room. I said, I would make my bed when we know they are here. I want to see a car in the driveway. I want to hear a knock on the door. I know it will take me about one minute to make my bed so at 5:59, if they are here, I will make my bed.

I procrastinated all through college and law school. When I went to work at Morgan Stanley, I was delighted to find that although the pace of the trading floor is frenetic and people are very fast, there were lots of incredibly successful mentors of procrastination.

Now, I am an academic. As an academic, procrastination is practically a job requirement. If I were to say I would be submitting an academic paper by September 1, and I submitted it in August, people would question my character.

It has certainly been drilled into us that procrastination is a bad thing. Yet, you argue that we should embrace it. Why?

Historically, for human beings, procrastination has not been regarded as a bad thing. The Greeks and Romans generally regarded procrastination very highly. The wisest leaders embraced procrastination and would basically sit around and think and not do anything unless they absolutely had to.

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.

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.

What is your next big question?

I am intrigued by epistemology and the question of how we know what we know and the limitations on knowledge. There is an idea circling around the back of my brain. But I am going to take the medicine I advise other people to take, and wait. Let it sit and brew.

This interview series focuses on big thinkers. Without knowing whom I will interview next, only that he or she will be a big thinker in their field, what question do you have for my next interview subject?

I would like to know how your subject knows what they know. What is it about their research and experience and background that leads them to a degree of certainty about their views? With what degree of confidence do they hold that idea? Is it 100 percent? Is it 99 percent? Is it 90 percent?

From my last interviewee, evolutionary biologist Sergey Gavrilets: What would you like to have more opportunity to do or more time to do if you had the chance?

I would like to have more time to play golf, actually. I often have my best creative breakthroughs, to the extent I have them at all, on the golf course—when I have a period of five hours to be around grass and trees with a straightforward but maddening task to occupy me.

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