June 29, 2012 8:06 pm

The power of later

The central idea is as the name suggests – when making a decision, it is best to delay until the last possible moment
Delay: Jimmy Connors in the semifinals of the US Open in 1981©Getty

Delay: Jimmy Connors in the semifinals of the US Open in 1981

Wait: The Useful Art of Procrastination, by Frank Partnoy, Profile, RRP£12.99, 304 pages / Published in the US as ‘Wait: The Art and Science of Delay’ (Public Affairs, RRP$26.99)

 

Here is how to write a bestselling book about decision-making. First, think of a title that is a one-syllable verb in the imperative mood, such as Blink or Nudge. Then establish a broad yet simple theory, assembling research from psychology, economics and finance to support it. Tie it together with good, simple prose, throw in the odd joke, and Bob’s your uncle. Or, in this case, Frank’s your uncle.

Frank Partnoy’s Wait is a superior example of the genre. It is a departure from his earlier books about financial crises, but written with the same easy elegance. The central idea is as the name suggests – when making a decision, it is best to delay until the last possible moment. This thesis is simple and, if right, extremely important.

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Lucy Kellaway

The problem is that it isn’t right; indeed, it’s so wrong that Partnoy doesn’t try very hard to peddle it. What he pushes instead is the more modest idea that we need to manage delay. Sometimes it is good to be slower, he tells us, but sometimes it isn’t. Such a theory is spot on. The trouble is, there can’t be many people smart enough to buy books on decision-making who don’t know this already.

Luckily, if one drops any expectation that Wait will change one’s life and focuses on the detail instead, there is a huge amount to admire. For a start, there’s the cover, which shows a picture of a golden retriever sitting patiently with a biscuit balanced on his nose. Alas, even this promises a bit more than it delivers: the dog turns out not to be Partnoy’s own dog, Fletch, to whom the book is dedicated, but some interloper.

Wait starts with decisions that take a tiny fraction of a second. It shows how Jimmy Connors won 148 tennis titles partly because he waited infinitesimally longer before deciding where to station himself on the court to return his opponent’s serve. From here it proceeds to decisions that take whole seconds, minutes, hours, days and years before bringing on Warren Buffett as evidence of how great investment is never done in a hurry.

Along the way is much interesting – and disturbing – research. One study showed that racism was buried in the subconscious minds of doctors who consciously had no bias at all. Another showed the odd effects that fast food logos have on us. If you flash subliminal McDonald’s arches at people, it speeds them up and makes them able to read more quickly, but also makes them less likely to want to sit down with a book.

Partnoy makes mincemeat of the idea of “thin slicing” – the art of making snap decisions based on very little information – that was made so popular by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. He gives the delightful example of the international dating network It’s Just Lunch, which became successful by forcing its clients not to make bad snap decisions. Thus, it refuses to let them see photographs of possible partners and instead makes them eat lunch, a meal taking just the right amount of time for two people to work out if they want to see each other again.

A further chapter deals with something that everyone thinks is best done quickly: apologising. Partnoy shows how the bigger the transgression, the longer we should wait before saying sorry. If, say, you’ve cheated on your wife, it is better to dally while the hugeness of the wrong sinks in before preparing to eat a great deal of crow.

Partnoy is equally deft at overturning the popular idea that innovations happen in one thrilling eureka moment. He retells the famous story of the invention of Post-it notes, which turns out to have taken many years and involved a long and tedious process of trial, error, accident and hard slog.

Only the chapter called “At last, procrastination” is hardly worth the wait. But that may be because Partnoy trots through the research only to sit on the fence and say there is good procrastination and bad procrastination. However, this section does contain a delightful story about George Akerlof, who as a young postgraduate spent a year in India, where he was visited by his friend and fellow economist, Joseph Stiglitz. The latter bought too many souvenirs to take home and so Akerlof promised to post them to him. Only every day for eight months he failed to do so – and so puzzled was Akerlof by his failure that he used it in his 1991 lecture on procrastination and irrationality.

Partnoy, quite rightly, doesn’t find it irrational at all. He points out that the box contained a Nepalese wedding costume, which Stiglitz didn’t need soon – or ever. Akerlof’s extreme reluctance to spend a whole day in an Indian post office made every sense: his friend didn’t get the wedding outfit, but the world got research that went on to win a Nobel prize.

As a collection of fascinating case studies, Wait is a gem. As an invitation for people to dither more over decisions, it is a menace.

Nowhere in Wait is there anything as useful or liberating as something my economics tutor at university once told me: the more difficult a decision is to make – ie the more equally the pros and cons are stacked – the less it matters what you decide. Therefore we should not wait. We should cut the dithering and get on with it.

Lucy Kellaway is the FT’s management columnist

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