'Don't just do something, stand there': Frank Partnoy on the benefits of procrastination

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First aired on Q (2/8/12)


If you check out the self-help or business sections of any bookstore, there's no shortage of authors offering advice on how to stop procrastinating and get things done. After all, we're constantly told that "the early bird gets the worm" and "he who hesitates is lost." But Frank Partnoy disagrees. The former investment banker believes that putting off until tomorrow what you could today isn't such a bad idea. In fact, Partnoy argues that it might even be worth waiting until the day after tomorrow. He explains why in his new book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay.

Partnoy believes procrastination has gotten a bad reputation over the years. "I like to say 'managing delay' instead of procrastination," he told Q guest host Terry O'Reilly. The key term there, it should be noted, is "managing." There are two kinds of procrastination: passive procrastination and active procrastination. Passive procrastination is akin to "just lying around on your sofa not doing anything," Partnoy explained. It's "not a particularly productive thing to do" and "no one defends it." Active procrastination, on the other hand, is willfully taking a step back, analyzing the situation and prioritizing what needs to be done.

"Active procrastination means deciding what it is you're going to put off and recognizing as human beings our condition is that we'll always be putting things off," Partnoy said. "There's always more things we can do but simply won't have time to do. That's just living as a human being."


Humans are hardwired to react immediately, thanks to the biological "flight or fight" reaction. Fight or flight "leads us to make all kinds of judgments that will lead us to respond quickly." The most successful individuals aren't those who react the quickest, it's those who are most successful at managing delay. Partnoy researched this in dozens of fields — photography, professional tennis, business and government among them — and it proved to be true regardless of what one did or how long the delay was. In tennis, the delay may be mere milliseconds. In business, it may be weeks. But in both cases, the person who actively chose to procrastination often came out on top.

Delaying also build up the pressure, which teaches you to perform in stressful situations. Partnoy says those times you delayed studying or writing a term paper in college was exactly the kind of life training you need to succeed. "Part of the point of waiting is becoming comfortable with pressure," he said. And the best athletes, best politicians and best business people thrive — and succeed — in pressure-filled situations.

Delaying also lets you better assess and understand the situation, making your reaction to it more comprehensive and more thoughtful. This is true for something as simple as apologizing. "If we wait, the other person can process information about exactly what we did: the who, the why, the how, the details of what happened," Partnoy said. "If we apologize too quickly they don't have time to figure all that out and our apology doesn't mean as much." Waiting also gives the wronged party an opportunity to air their feelings and sort through their emotions. Maybe they need to yell at you or vent or repair the situation, and by delaying the apology, they will have the space to do this. "If we apologize too early it will be an emptier act."

So, if you're not one who naturally procrastinates, what should you do? Partnoy said it's as simple as building time into your day to do nothing. Don't take phone calls. Don't check your email. Stare off into space. Go for a walk. Go to the gym. Take the time to not do what you need to get done. It will make your performance better and give you the space to more accurately access the task in front of you.

"This meditative moment will help us...make better decisions when we're confronted with an email or a crisis or a decision we're told we have to make. Instead of snap reacting, wait."

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