Lessons In Productive Procrastination

Frank Partnoy wrote a book about optimal delay. Fast Company couldn't wait to talk to him.

Frank Partnoy describes himself as an inveterate procrastinator--and the banker/lawyer/author is not convinced that’s a bad thing. His book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay is an investigation into his own habits of prolonged decision-making and the shortsightedness that pervaded crisis-era finance. Fast Company talked with Partnoy about when to make decisions, how to manage time, and why better-paid people are less happy.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

FAST COMPANY: The question you’re asking in the book, “When do I make a decision?" is one of the most broad. How do you even begin to answer it?

FRANK PARTNOY: It’s going to be an imperfect answer. What I have arrived at is a two step inquiry about when, which is question one: what time-world are you living in, how much time is available, what’s the maximum amount of time that you have for a particular action or decision?

Step two, within that amount of time, to argue that you’re often better off waiting until the last possible moment. If it’s 10 seconds, you wait nine; if it’s a year, you wait 364 days.

How do we know which time world we're living in?

There’s a lesson to be learned from businesses that manage latency, like telecom. If we’re talking to someone on the phone, we can handle 150 millisecond delay, and won’t really notice if the telephone company has paid to speed up the delay from 150 to 140 milliseconds. As a result, telecommunications companies don’t spend a lot of money to speed up the signal--they’ve figured out there’s an optimal amount of delay.

If you’re selling a product, you could send your sales force out the night before, but would you want to pay the extra money for them to stay in a hotel, pay for dinner, when you could have them show up in the morning.

You want to figure out when’s the latest you could send a salesperson and safely know that they’re going to arrive for the call, and then maybe you only have to pay for a latte instead of a hotel.

In the business world there seems to be a bias against taking longer. Where does that bias come from, and what do we gain from overcoming it?

There are two aspects to this. One is the crush of technology, particularly over the last five years, the combination of email, social media, 24-hour news cycle, and companies are starting to manage a much faster time deadline, not just quarterly earnings, but customer preferences that are changing minute by minute.

The other piece is that procrastination has become a very negative word. Starting really in the 1970s, decision researchers told us that you need to get things done right away. That became infused in the business culture: this notion of responding instantly, getting things done, clearing your desk. And procrastination became a dirty word.

One of the interesting things I found from interviewing C-suite officials was that as you get higher up in an organization, they won’t call it procrastination, but they become much, much more comfortable with delaying decisions. Someone comes to them and says we need to do this right now and the calm CEO--who has seen these crises before--will say we don’t need to do anything. Let’s put this off.

It’s sort of like how an ER works, letting a case bubble up to the top, and only acting when it’s so bad, the patient is screaming, you ask them what the pain is, if it’s an 8, you don’t have to do anything, but if it’s a 10, you should.

So if you’re a CEO, you should wait until your customers have a 10 on the pain scale?

One of the challenges with customers is you have to operate on their time schedule--if you want to be a customer-focused business. Within an organization, you might be able to put off your lower-level employees, but that’s because you get to operate on your own timescale as a CEO, but when you’re dealing with customers, as a CEO, you can’t operate on your timescale, you have to operate on your customers’ timescale.

I think there’s a real interesting art between combining short-term analysis that harnesses the power of technology and then the kind of long-term wisdom that involves strategy and longer-term decision making.

So how can leaders structure that for themselves and for their team?

It’s very difficult to have a combination of being attuned to what people lower in the organization are doing at a much faster pace, to show them that you understand the on-the-ground details about their business but still preserve enough strategy time so that you’re able to abstract from what it is they’re doing. They stare off into the distance periodically. What really good leaders are able to do is inspire the rest of the team by their knowledge of the granular but also be able to step back from the granular and put together the tectonic pieces that need to be placed together.

And that’s directly analogous to having a flurry of activity and repose afterward.

I think that’s right. This whole notion of understanding what time-world you’re living in is a flexible concept. It’s not that we always want to wait, it’s that we want to understand what the relative time context is.

Even in companies that are focused on innovation still have much longer timeframes than the granular, day-to-day focus at work. Pixar, Facebook, Apple: these are companies that are developing products and innovating at a surprisingly slow rate. Their relevant timeframes are not Twitter-like; they’re a couple of years, three years, longer even.

Every innovation that’s significant and profitable and interesting is going to take, at the least, years.

One finding you have in the book is that we're not actually working longer hours than a generation ago. So why do we feel like we are?

One of the problems is that people are spending so much time on the 24-hour news cycle (and) social media that we feel like we’re working more, but empirically, the data show that that’s not the case.

I think part of what’s happening is emotional reaction. When you’re dealing with high speed stimulus time stretches. So if I drop you from 150 feet in free fall, it will take three seconds, but if I ask you afterward how long you think it took, you’ll say it took four. I think the same thing is happening at work. As the pace of work has sped up, an eight hour day seems like a ten hour day.

The other thing that’s happened, that people have been doing research on recently, is that as more people are paid by the hour, the hourly wage has a really pernicious effect on how we perceive work and time, and as we make more money, it gets worse.

As we make more money, supply and demand tells us that time is scarcer. This is the paradox of success in the business world: as you make more money, you start to feel more time pressure, and you become less and less happy. It’s really important as a psychological matter to guard against that, for people to be aware of it, so it doesn’t eat them alive.

That reinforces what you said about which time metric fits a given moment.

That’s hopefully that’s the message of the book, that time is a huge aspect of work, and that managing delay, rather than having delay manage you, can help people make better decisions and lead more successful and happier lives.

Follow Drake Baer on Twitter. But think about it first.

For more from Frank, read our excerpt from Wait: The Procrastination-Killing Tactic To Try Now (Or In 10 Minutes).

[Image: Flickr user Daniel Go]

Add New Comment

3 Comments

  • Baulraj

    Interesting to me, but not to my family members.  I postponed my decision to buy a car, and got one with much innovation.  But the utility foregone, how to account for is a question raised by my family members.

  • Ron Houp

    I've never heard this expressed quite like this. Something to think seriously about. I have observed that I often work most efficiently and effectively in the final hours of the project. I choose to focus most intensely when the pressure is greatest. I have always thought of that as a weakness and negative trait, but now I am reconsidering that notion.

  • JamielCotman

    Interesting point. What he said about Facebook and Twitter taking years though seemed inaccurate. How they portray it on T.V. and in movies show that it just popped up organically. Also, the perception of how much time we have becoming scarcer and scarcer as we make more money isn't applicable to a successful entrepreneur. An employee trades his or her time for money [that's all a job is]. With this model, as an employee becomes more and more successful, they have less and less time due to increasing demand. 

    A successful entrepreneur removes himself from the operations of any income producing activity. Economies of scale, leverage, whatever your circle calls it, its a fact in the business community. A sophisticated business owner makes more and more money, with less and less time.