Inside USD

USD Law’s Partnoy: Key to Success is to ‘Wait’

Thursday, July 19, 2012

In a world with 24-hour news updates and nonstop input from social media, it seems that making snap decisions and reacting quickly is the way to get ahead.

This logic is countered by USD School of Law Professor and author Frank Partnoy in his most recent book, WAIT: The Art and Science of Delay. Partnoy writes about how taking control of time and slowing down responses yields better results in almost every arena of life.

Partnoy spoke at a breakfast program Tuesday, which was sponsored by USD’s Master of Science in Executive Leadership (MSEL) program.

Partnoy, a frequent contributor to national media outlets, including the New York Times and “60 Minutes,” said his fascination with delay began as a child during arguments with his parents about making his bed. When his mom would ask him to make his bed before company came, Partnoy argued that it would only take him one minute to make his bed and that he should be allowed to wait until the guests were in the driveway or actually knocking on the door.

This example illustrates the two-step analytic process that frames the entire book: Ask yourself what is the most amount of time you can wait to make a decision or respond, and then delay or procrastinate until the last possible moment. Hundreds of scientific studies and interviews with experts show that delaying key decisions actually yields more effective results, Partnoy reasons.

Partnoy also addressed his views on procrastination, which generally has a very negative connotation. He said we always have an infinite number of things we could be doing and, therefore, are always procrastinating.

“The question is not whether we’re procrastinating, the question is how are we prioritizing?” he said. “If our closet is a mess and has been for five weeks because we’re putting off cleaning it to spend quality time with our family, or working on a cure for cancer, why should we be made to feel bad for not cleaning our closet?”

Partnoy provided many examples of real-life situations in which performance is greatly improved by delay, each backed by scientific studies. His first example involved a tennis player returning a serve.  There is a brief delay between visually processing the serve and the swing itself, and what is done in this period of time is what separates a professional tennis player from an amateur.

“Why are the people who are really experts so good at hitting a tennis ball?” he asked. “We’re taught that professionals are better because they are so fast. Studies of super-fast athletes in tennis, baseball, cricket — sports that require a move in 500 milliseconds or less, or half a second — have shown that the opposite is true.” It’s their ability to wait until the last possible minute that makes them so good. “The difference between a professional and an amateur is their ability to get fast in order to go slow.”

In his book, Partnoy also gives examples ranging from fighting fires and computer stock trading to coaching football and even performing stand-up comedy. The theme in each of these is the importance of delay, and the danger of making instant decisions without considering and analyzing every possibility. Delivering the punchline of a joke instantaneously does not achieve the most positive response. Similarly, deciding instantly how to fight a fire without taking the time to determine exactly what kind of fire it is and the best way to handle it can have detrimental results.

Partnoy concluded his talk with advice for future generations.

“If I had just one word of advice I could give to future generations, who will have to confront a world that is unimaginably faster than the one we are in right now, that one word would be: ‘Wait.’”

— Erick Podwill ‘13

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