The Art and Science of Delay

By Frank Partnoy

PublicAffairs. 290 pp. $26.99

We live in a fast-paced world, and it’s unlikely we will slow down soon. Technology continues to strip away delays and pauses, giving us the ability to do, find and share things in a time frame that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. Whatever we want, we want instantly; whatever is expected of us, it’s expected just as quickly. This impulsiveness infects and infuses countless aspects of our lives.

Frank Partnoy’s fascinating, engaging new book offers a wonderful counterargument, summed up in his title: “Wait.” The key part of making a good decision, he believes, is to wait as long as you can before acting. “The longer we can wait, the better,” Partnoy writes.

This isn’t about distrusting one’s gut, nor should one procrastinate merely to avoid making a decision. Rather, Partnoy advocates taking time to deliberate, to consider all angles, on the way to making a decision. There are obviously different kinds of decisions, ones that have to be made right away and ones that can wait awhile, but Partnoy urges the reader not to rush things any more than necessary.

‘Wait: The Art and Science of Delay’ by Frank Partnoy (PublicAffairs)

His book is wide-ranging and expansive, pulling in examples from fields such as journalism, politics and investing, and referring to a wide range of studies and research. He skillfully knits together these findings and anecdotes and shows us the importance of knowing just how long to delay. We learn, for example, about the stock trading firm UNX, which moved to New York to cut milliseconds off transactions and wound up needing to add that time back on because, oddly enough, being first didn’t help the firm be any better. Warren Buffett and Jon Stewart are cited for knowing just how long to wait before acting (either on an investment or a punch line). The book begins on a small scale, examining nearly instantaneous decisions (a tennis player reacting to a serve) before looking at longer periods of time (a first date). Partnoy even examines the proper timing of an apology, which requires letting some time pass so that the wronged party can feel that his or her complaint has been fully heard.

This isn’t a book of platitudes, but one built on one simple imperative. Partnoy just wants us to think before we act or speak. “Wait” serves as excellent reminder that, when humanly possible, it’s best not to hurry.