Counter Blink

On the importance of delayed actions and reactions

Written by Dilip Bobb | Published: April 20, 2013 1:06 am

Book: Wait: The Useful Art of Procrastination

Author: Frank Partnoy

Publisher: Profile Books

Price: Rs 399

Pages: 249

The recent verbal kerfuffle over India’s “dual power centres” was that it led to delays in decision making. Here’s a thought. Suppose that the delays actually lead to the right decision being taken? That argument forms the base for Frank Partnoy’s new book with it’s self-explanatory title. Partnoy’s complaint (impossible to resist the pun) is that the pace of modern life is accelerating so fast that it’s forcing us into snap decisions,which usually turn out to be wrong. Partnoy,investment banker turned self-help guru,cites a number of studies and examples to bolster his theory that technology — smartphones,laptops,e-commerce,emails,etc — have put such a strain on our daily lives that we take a call on vital matters without the benefit of thought and deliberation. Incidentally,this goes against what the bestseller Blink,by Malcolm Gladwell,posited. Gladwell used the same context,the information overload,to argue that experts often make better decisions with snap judgements than they do with excessive analysis.

As is the accepted format of books by counter-intuitive self-help gurus,Partnoy marshals an impressive body of evidence from neuroscience,psychology,military strategy,business and even sport,to counter blink,so to speak. He takes the example of top sportsmen,tennis champs Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert,who had the ability to react faster than other players which gave them a split second delay in returning a serve allowing them to process information better and quicker about speed,direction,angle and point of return. He adds that this is true of the world’s top cricketers who seem to be able to have more time to play a fast bowler’s delivery than others do. From business and finance,he cites the reasons for Warren Buffett’s success — to wait till as late as possible before making that investment.

The most convincing episode is the story of how 3M developed the now ubiquitous Post-It Note. The inventors of a new adhesive had no clue what to do with it initially. They tried to create bookmarks that would not leave residue. The management decided that the bookmark market was too small so while the firm delayed a decision,employees started to use the sample “bookmarks” for writing notes which they stuck on the nearest surface,accidentally discovering a valuable purpose for the invention.

In many respects,this book is a mirror to Gladwell’s Blink. They both argue that most of us are hardwired to react instantly,burdened as we are by stress and worry. “Modern society taps into that hardwiring,tempting us to respond instantly to all kinds of information and demands,” says Partnoy. He,however,argues that we are often better off “resisting both biology and technology”. In India,we have innumerable cases of individuals who made statements (Ajit Pawar is the latest) which they regret later,or tweets and posts on social media which prove embarrassing because they acted impulsively without thinking about the consequences.

The body of evidence is all very convincing but there’s the counter argument,contained in Blink which had the subhead ‘The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’ and took the view that rapid cognition is now inherent in our workaday lives and it has programmed us to react faster and process information much quicker,so most times we do take the right decisions. In addition,delaying a decision or a task could mean that someone else,a competitor for instance,gets the advantage or that procrastinating gives you a lot of time to think but also leaves you with so much more information and analysis that it can be confusing. Partnoy,to his credit,does not ignore these issues but uses live examples to support his theory,one being Atul Gawande’s bestseller,The Checklist Manifesto which showed how doctors saved lives by using a checklist before operating,another instance of delay proving advantageous. The key message in this book is not about endless delay or prolonged procrastination. It is,crucially,about how to manage delay till the last possible moment. As he asks in the book,“for how long should we delay?” Delay can be in milliseconds,as in sports like tennis,baseball or cricket,or seconds as in the reaction time for a fighter pilot,or months and even years,in terms of designing the perfect product. It’s a provocative book and one that makes a lot of sense,if you take the time to reflect on his arguments.

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