Haste Makes Waste

Monday, July 30, 2012

Quick! Is procrastination a bad thing?

Maybe you should take some time before you answer that question, as Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, argues in an interview with Smithsonian.com. Noting that the Greeks and Romans valued deliberation, Partnoy sees decision-making as a two-step process, which he illustrates with an amusing vignette from his childhood:

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.
By waiting to make up his mind, he could use his time for more urgent things and, as he later confirmed from his experience and research, he could also make a better choice. He further illustrates the value of letting things simmer with both a negative example and several positive ones.
The executives [at Lehman Brothers] took this class [which, a la Malcolm Gladwell's Blink], extolled quick decisions] 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.
Partnoy shifts from the market to the prowl to provide an example of a different tack:
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. [bold added]
Partnoy presents us with the following rule of thumb as a means of improving descision-making: Determine now long one really has to make a decision, and use as much of that time as one can.

I don't think that one must always use all of that time, but Partnoy makes an worthwhile point about some kinds of procrastination actually being good,

-- CAV


Steve D said...

But that's not really what they usually mean by procrastination is it?

Realist Theorist said...

There's a "Confucius saying" that addresses whether to act boldly or deliberately.

A student tells Confucius about a man in the neighborhood who never acts without giving things a great deal of thought. "He thinks about anything at least three times before he acts", says the student, "is that a good thing?"

Confucius replies: "Twice is enough"

[It reminds me of the notion of the golden mean.]

Gus Van Horn said...


I think enough people are muddled enough about procrastination that it is profitable to highlight deliberately delaying a decision as a thinking tactic. But you have consequently caused me to wonder whether discussions (as in this interview -- and at the end of my own post!) about "good" vs. "bad" procrastination could stand to be re-cast.


If I read you correctly, I agree: The correct answer to the amount of time and effort reaching a decision really requires is, "It depends."


Snedcat said...

Realist Theorist: A student tells Confucius about a man in the neighborhood who never acts without giving things a great deal of thought. Just a persnickety correction: The man in question (Ji Wenzi) was the head of one of the leading clans of Confucius's state (Lu) several generations before. (It's Chapter 5 Saying 20 of the Analects, if you want to track it down.)

There's a "Confucius saying" that addresses whether to act boldly or deliberately.

There were some later Chinese thinkers who saw in it the belief that if you thought about what to do more than twice, you'd start shifting your answer to what would be most to your personal advantage rather than doing what was right. Most simply take it in the sense you have, however, of avoiding dithering yourself into inaction.

Gus Van Horn said...


Your mention of dithering causes me to make an interesting connection. I have had times when I faced what was (or seemed to be) a big decision and did what felt like dithering, but turned out to have saved me from doing something really stupid. In some of those cases, the indecision was due to the fact that I didn't really have a clear idea of what was at stake or what I really needed to accomplish.

Indecision can thus stem from either uncertainty about relevant facts or about ends.