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Smash your clock!

Book Review: Why is it so important to make fast decisions?

Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. By Frank Partnoy. Public Affairs/Perseus Book Group, 292 pp. Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. By Frank Partnoy. Public Affairs/Perseus Book Group, 292 pp.

Maggie, the golden retriever whose patient postponement of the pleasure of eating her biscuit graces the cover of Wait, is a deeper symbol than you might expect.You might pick up Wait on the basis of the whimsical cover, expecting Maggie and her treat to be the promise of a pleasant little read about patience and its virtues and its rewards. Be advised, this book does deliver some rewards, but they represent the payoff for some challenging reading.This is not a self-improvement book, at least not in the usual sense, nor is it a how-to guide. You might call it a philosophical approach to patience, but one where the philosophy follows a good deal of technical discussion. The book's subtitle, The Art and Science of Delay, gives a truer flavor of what's to come. Author Frank Partnoy takes a highly scientific approach to his premise that modern man makes decisions too quickly.The dog and the biscuit come in because scientific evidence described by Partnoy indicates that animals can learn to be "patient" when they discover that waiting to satisfy their appetite is rewarded by extra food. It also happens that he trained his own dog--named Fletch, by the way--to put off devouring his biscuits, with the same incentive. Partnoy would have us change our ways, and holds out various incentives as the reward for doing so.

Why slow down--and the "face" of our enemy

It is no secret to bankers that we live in a very fast-paced world and Partnoy begins with the essence of his case in stating: "Given the fast pace of modern life, most of us tend to react too quickly. We don't, or can't, take enough time to think about the increasingly complex timing challenges we face. Technology surrounds us, speeding us up. We feel its crush every day, both at work and at home. Yet the best time managers are comfortable pausing for as long as necessary before they act, even in the face of the most pressing decisions. Some seem to slow down time. For good decision-makers, time is more flexible than a metronome or atomic clock."  Indeed, Partnoy would have the reader learn to delay decisions, taking advantage of as much time as possible. He's not advocating procrastination--which he deals with in its own chapter—but deliberation."The longer we can wait," he writes, "the better."As a banker, mother, and wife, I'm fully aware of time and deadlines, and how it is imperative to effectively balance and manage a thriving career and a family to accomplish everyday tasks and significant projects alike.Our daily lives impress upon us the need to hurry up and get things done right away, always trying to beat the clock. I don't doubt that you live by the clock as well. Banking is full of deadlines.But Partnoy considers the clock as  "one dangerous piece of technology that leads us, even more than software or smartphones or the internet or email, to focus too much on right now."He continues: "It distorts our ability to make decisions and--tick, tick, tick–interferes with our thinking about these short-term versus long-term trade-offs that imperil not just professionals but all of us."Partnoy draws on stories, scientific and medical research, and often-detailed studies to make his case from chapter to chapter. You never know where the next one will take you. Performance of extreme sports stars is the focus of one chapter, while another deals with the impact on decisionmaking of high-speed communications lines that promise traders the advantage of milliseconds over competitors. You can get the general drift of Partnoy's chapters in a casual read, but the detail level frequently is so deep that to truly get the lessons of each chapter, you must slow down.Which is, in some ways, Partnoy's point, I suspect. At times he gives the reader a bit of relief, dwelling not on detail but on concept, such as when he discusses how timing—waiting—can be the mark of the great comedians."Timing is central to comedy," writes Partnoy, using examples such as Jack Benny to illustrate how a built-in wait can be what makes the joke a joke.

The slow-cooked decision

The fact is that some people—those with long experience and who are considered "seasoned"—can and have made decisions in a short time with great results.However, the majority need to take as much time as allowed to make a final decision. Partnoy frequently cites sports examples, recounting decisions that played out well and those that did not. The main point that is continuously reinforced throughout the book is that waiting in most cases just makes sense. Obeying this philosophy may mean a more favorable result.In a chapter called, "Master Class," Partnoy writes about professionals who frequently  "are able to act quickly, but are willing to go slow." One such player is Warren Buffet, whom he quotes as stating that one of  his investing "secrets" is being willing to delay decisions. Buffet points out that investors, unlike baseball players, don't risk called strikes when stepping up to the plate. The disciplined investor waits for the right pitch, so to speak, and is permitted to wait at the plate all day until the right pitch comes along.While Partnoy argues for the deliberate, often delayed decision, he opposes procrastination when it is bad procrastination. His chapter on procrastination distinguishes between productive and unproductive delays. This section grows pretty murky at times, though the roots of procrastination, as explained by Partnoy, are enlightening.

Stuck on ideas

One particularly interesting chapter that supports Partnoy's central idea very likely has its end result on your desk--the Post-it Note.Partnoy's chapter, "A Lifetime of Innovation," examines the invention of the Post-it note. It's an interesting story about how the Post-it note came to be. The office staple serves as an example of what Partnoy calls a "slow hunch."The onetime office innovation was originally named "Press ‘n' Peel," and was a collaboration between Art Fry and Spencer Silver, both  long-time employees of Minnesota Mining, which later changed its name to 3M. The Post-it originated as a bookmark but throughout the organization employees were using it as a note for just about anything in the workplace.It was no surprise that years later  this "bookmark" became the Post-it note we all use now.  But Partnoy makes the point that while the development of these notes often is told as a "eureka story," that wasn't the case at all. Going to his theme, he believes that the 3M culture of the time, one of patient capitalism, made the Post-it's gradual invention possible.Provocatively, Partnoy asks whether today's 3M could have come up with the product. The company underwent massive personnel cutbacks and Partnoy implies it has lost the long-term view that made developing the Post-it possible, putting pressure on employees to think of the now."Will they have the time and support to find the next Post-it?" Partnoy asks.

Today's innovators began as yesterday's tinkerers

The folks at 3M aren't the only people who benefit from such slow opportunities. The ability to delay making a decision either by choice or by circumstance has contributed to many innovative companies like Apple and Google.  Partnoy says that "behind every innovator is a playful, experimental childhood." When Steve Jobs was five or six years old, for example, his adoptive father gave him a piece of his workbench and some tools and, according to Jobs, "spent a lot of time with me ... teaching me how to build things, how to take things apart, put things back together."Larry Page, co-founder of Google, has a similar childhood story, related in this book, of growing up in a house full of computers and gadgets and having an older brother who showed him how things worked" Apple was established in 1976, and Google in 1996, but they really began long before.The Post-it story and these stories all appear in the "A Lifetime of Innovation" chapter, in my opinion one of the best parts in the book. That's because it reveals many relevant and relatable facts that lead me to believe that innovation takes time, sometimes decades.But when it reveals itself as we see with Apple and Google, it leaves an indelible mark to be appreciated not only presently but for future generations to come."Innovation," Partnoy writes near the end of the chapter, "seems like it should be fast, but it almost never is."

Many thoughts, no road map

As I said early on, this is not a self-improvement or how-to book in the usual sense. The reader won't find a conclusion at the end with a "to do" list or a game plan for adopting slow hunches or shifting one's thinking.Instead, the relatively short concluding chapter, "Go Long," leaves the reader with some distilled philosophy based on the rest of the book. An instructive point to end on:"We are hard-wired to react quickly. Modern society taps into that hardwiring, tempting us to respond instantly to all kinds of information and demands. Yet we are often better off resisting both biology and technology."And Partnoy's final word of advice, not surprisingly, is his title.

Wait.

If you'd like to review books for our online book column, or have recently read a book that you found helpful that we haven't already reviewed, please e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Michelle Rogan

Michelle Rogan is trust & estate services manager at ESSA Bank & Trust, Stroudsburg, Penn. She is a frequent book reviewer for ABABJ.com

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