Wait: The Art and Science of Delay

Summary Written by Joel D Canfield
"The essence of my case is this: given the fast pace of our modern life, most of us tend to react too quickly."

- Wait, page xi

The Big Idea

Novices Should Delay Decisions as Much as Possible

"An expert generally won’t need to delay a decision, but a novice generally should delay, as much as possible."- Wait, page 64

The seminal work of Kahneman and Tversky tells us that intuition best serves the master and slow methodical thinking best serves the novice. What’s important is to recognize when our mastery is undermined by circumstances which render us a relative novice, though on familiar ground.

Most of us spend the bulk of our time on the familiar. When our intuition tells us there’s something new here, it’s easy to gloss over the feeling and jump to our old familiar conclusions. Instead, determine the last possible moment we can decide, and use the time between now and then in the type of analysis Chip and Dan Heath recommend in their book Decisive: widen your options, reality-test your assumptions, attain distance before deciding, and prepare to be wrong.

Every decision expands our mastery, but we’ll never completely master everything, even within our own domain. Beware of intuiting answers like a master in situations which render you a novice.

Insight #1

Modern Culture is Making Us Impatient

"[T]ime-saving devices . . . lead us away from the activities we might enjoy during the time we save."- Sanford DeVoe, quoted in Wait, page 58

You probably suspect that fast food is bad for you physically. Most of us don’t realize that it’s bad for us emotionally. Food which is prepared (and eaten) quickly is so embedded in our culture that brief glimpses of fast food company logos caused students to speed up in subsequent tasks. More than that, when exposed to beauty (art, music, etc.) afterward, those students enjoyed it less.

Simple awareness of our unconscious reaction to the ubiquitous advertising of fast fast fast will help us to consciously choose the opposite message. If we’ve been exposed to a quickening message, taking time to pause and consciously slow down can reduce or eliminate its effect.

A busy mind is less affected by the subliminal or unconscious speeding effects. If you’re in wandering-thought mode, be careful about what you might see. Take your thoughtful drive in the country, not where you’ll see fast food ads. If you’re driving through town or watching television, keep your mind actively engaged with some challenge or lively conversation, and you’ll avoid the damaging effects of that advertising.

Thought and spiritual leaders have told us for millennia that a slower pace of life is a happier life. We’re all aware we live in a fast-paced culture. Knowing that research proves that it’s making us less happy, less able to appreciate the very time we think we’re saving, we should take practical steps to break away from living by the clock.

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Insight #2

Live and Work on Event Time, Not Clock Time

"Hourly billing – clock time, not event time – creates perverse incentives to focus on the amount of time spent doing a job instead of the job itself."- Wait, page 203

The advent of accurate timepieces created, not just the ability to measure time, but a shift in our perception of time itself. Only a few generations ago, human life and work were event-based. Do that task after this one is done. The task takes as long as it takes, and the next will still need doing when this one is done.

Now, we’re clock-based: the next task is supposed to begin at X o’clock, so this one must be done before that – whether or not that’s how long it takes.

While it’s well documented that we feel more stress about work and time than past generations did, it’s not because we’re working more. In fact, hours worked have remained almost constant for over 5 decades, and recently, even declined. If you work more hours than your parents, you’re an anomaly.

“People who are paid hourly work longer and care less about nonwork activities.. They suffer from higher stress during downtime, and they worry more about whether they will have enough work.” The more we make per hour, the more intense the time pressure becomes.

Awareness of the time pressure exerted by hourly work goes a long way toward alleviating it. Where we’re in control, eliminating hourly billing and payment is a potent method to remove time pressure from our lives, thereby eliminating its pollution of our enjoyment of nonwork activities.

I’ve long been an advocate of project and task-based billing for client work, and an advocate for freelancing and self-employment instead of having a job. Partnoy’s research supports the belief that, when we choose when to decide, when to act, and when we live and work off the clock, we’re happier.

Where could you reduce or eliminate clock time from your work and life? What decision are you considering right now which might benefit from the art and science of delay?

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Frank Partnoy

Professor Frank Partnoy is the George E. Barrett Professor of Law and Finance and is the director of the Center on Corporate and Securities Law at the University of San Diego. He is one of the world’s leading experts on the complexities of modern finance and financial market regulation. He worked as a derivatives structurer at Morgan Stanley and CS First Boston during the mid-1990s and wrote F.I.A.S.C.O.: Blood in the Water on Wall Street, a best-selling book about his experiences there.

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