Wait: The Art and Science of Delay

I recently Read the audiobook edition of Frank Partnoy's Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. It is definitely worth your time.

Law professor Frank Portnoy wrote the book after the vast popularity of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink led to a spate of “go with your gut” decision manuals and protocols, often with disastrous results. Solidly grounded in scientific studies and filled with captivating examples, it is good in its own right, and — in conjunction with Blink — makes it clear that no one-word approach to decision-making exists.

Wait is organized on a time continuum, from milliseconds through long-term decisions. Beginning with the split-second timing of return-of-serve in tennis, he builds a case that the good decisions arise from making maximal use of the time available for deciding. Increasing the time frame through seconds, minutes, hours, and days, he finds the same dynamic.

“Delay” is not the same as procrastination. People delaying decisions work actively to gather, sort, analyze, and ponder data and options. If they have time to go beyond first impressions in making a decision, they use it. A second look often reveals missed details that can confirm or invalidate the first impression. A persuasive argument that sweeps the listener off her feet may, on second view, hold fatal flaws. Partnoy draws on examples from recent widely-publicized events, including the demise of Lehman Borthers.

Another Gladwell book, Outliers, provides a connecting clue. Studying the elite practitioners in a variety of fields, Gladwell found that they had logged thousands of hours of practice to achieve their “effortless” performances. The experts whose split-second decisions anchor many of the thin-slicing stories in Blink are exactly that: experts, people who have logged countless hours of close observation and experience. Their gut reactions are informed by that experience.

Wait points to the essence of decision- making as both art and science. Awareness of split-second observations and reactions is important — but knowing when to act on them and when to investigate their sources further takes its own type of wisdom, experience, and artful practice. It counters the idea, sometimes promoted by Gladwell, that we possess some innate wisdom that “knows better” if only we could access it. The solid cognitive science in Wait verifies both the validity of informed split-second choices by experts and the futility of confused pressured choices by amateurs.

“Delay” does not contradict the reality of procrastination, the pattern of avoiding action for so long that performance is affected or decision-points missed. Other authors have ably explored the sources of that ineffective pattern. Partnoy's research — and his enjoyable writing-style — argue that there is no particular virtue in deciding or acting at the first possible moment, and much wisdom in taking as much time as available before acting.

Some author must be writing Right-Timing, the book that will help readers with that even- more elusive skill of knowing when to wait and when to act. I am looking forward to it already.

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