WAIT: THE USEFUL ART OF PROCRASTINATION
By Frank Partnoy
IN ENGLAND recently, a bus passenger saw a fellow traveller ''of Asian appearance'' pouring liquid into a bag, releasing fumes. Fearing the worst, the passenger called police and the motorway was shut for four hours as firefighters, armed officers and bomb-disposal units dealt with the threat: a British citizen legally smoking an electronic cigarette.
With the London Olympics on, many are already worried about terrorism. The official advice is clear: ''Remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity.'' But might the caller have saved hours, money and anxiety by calmly observing the ''suspicious activity'' for a little longer?
It is difficult to say, even with the luxury of hindsight. But as Frank Partnoy notes in his sharp manifesto, Wait: The Useful Art of Procrastination, we commonly make false judgments about strangers. Many doctors in the US, for example, have a bias against black patients. Like a disease, it is neither conscious nor deliberate but ''you can catch it in a few seconds, just by glancing at a face'', Partnoy writes. The result: black Americans are systematically under-treated.
Taking aim at Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, Partnoy argues that these mistakes are often caused by haste. While we are capable, as Gladwell argues, of making broad judgments from brief snapshots, we regularly flub it.
When we do get it right, this is usually because of expertise developed over many years. As with what Aristotle called phronesis, or prudence, this kind of knowledge cannot be reduced to standard rules and regulations to be applied quickly and without consideration. Expertise involves a ''feel for the game''. But if the game changes, even experts become novices - unless they can stop, breathe and take stock.
One of Partnoy's persuasive arguments is that timing is vital for mastery. What distinguishes the elite from amateurs is not only technique but also understanding when to use it. Tennis players such as Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert, for example, were masters of returning serve, not because their perception was quicker or clearer than average but because they took the milliseconds required to properly examine the ball's approach. Their fast returns, honed over years of practice, gave them precious extra fractions of a second. ''They got fast first in order to go slow later,'' as Partnoy puts it.
This logic applies to many time scales: from the milliseconds of sports to the years required to invent Post-it notes. What's common, Partnoy argues, is a refusal to be rushed.
Haste is particularly dangerous during stress. Many of our higher brain functions shut down and we default to reflexes or habits. Partnoy details the consequences: from bungled comedy (a premature punchline) to a bad romance (a feverish first date) to military disaster (firing blind at civilians).
Experts can overcome panic with training: they learn to put aside hyperventilating clumsiness or paralysis and often enter a ''flow'' state. This happens, as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes, with surgeons, rock climbers, artists and chess players. But Partnoy argues that even masters need reminders: slow down, size up the situation. In a trial of eight hospitals, for example, simple checklists in surgery reportedly cut deaths by almost half.
However, many professional mistakes are due not to fright but to what might be called institutionalised panic. Rapid deadlines, constant intrusions and an obsession with the clock can scuttle good work. Forget visions of corporate geniuses guzzling double-shot espressos as they invent cold fusion: the ''real-time'' office is often myopic, distracted and depressed. ''Innovation seems like it should be fast but it almost never is,'' Partnoy writes.
Despite his cheeky subtitle, Partnoy's remedy is not procrastination but the mindful management of time. The best workplaces, he argues, give employees hours to themselves and the authority to use them in a variety of innovative ways.
In this straightforward and simply written study, Partnoy doesn't have many ''big-picture'' answers. This is partly because the problems are often wicked: physiological, psychological and social, all intertwined.
It is also because his final existential question - are we just animals, or ''something more''? - is largely unanswered and unanswerable within the framework that Partnoy provides. But the chief message of Wait is wise, timely and well argued: wait.
■Damon Young is a philosopher and author of Distraction. His next book, Philosophy in the Garden, will be published by MUP in December.