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Benefits of taking time, say, rather than taking, umm, you know, action

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The Art and Science of Delay

By Frank Partnoy

Public Affairs, 288 pages, $30


SEASONED procrastinators won’t need a lot of convincing regarding the truth of the claims Frank Partnoy makes in this celebration of delayed gratification and drawn-out decision making.

In Wait, the American academic and author encourages both procrastinators and their purportedly more efficient counterparts to pause and consider the benefits of taking time instead of taking action.

These benefits include, Partnoy argues, reductions in the rates of medical and military errors that result in the loss of life, the opportunity for increased creativity, and the surprising productivity of procrastinators, many of whom get a whole lot done while avoiding the one task they keep putting off.

Partnoy is a professor of law and finance at the University of San Diego and, in recent years, has become a go-to expert for American media outlets eager to explain the complexities of the current financial situation.

He has written three books on the culture of Wall Street, the most recent one being The Match King, about the early 20th-century industrialist Ivar Kreuger.

His latest offering is a skeptical response to Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 bestseller, Blink, which popularized the term "thin slicing" and celebrated the significance of the first two seconds of observation or consideration to the success of a decision-making process.

While Partnoy dedicates a chapter to challenging Gladwell's view on thin slicing, the book as a whole can be read as an attempt to counter, or at least temper, the social impact of Blink.

Celebrating the advantages of drawn-out decision making, Partnoy pairs discussion of topics that he has ample expertise in, such as the stock-buying habits of successful investors, with analysis of topics so diverse that they necessarily lie outside of any one person's comfort zone.

These topics are linked by the common themes of the importance of precise timing and the benefits of deliberate delay.

They include the pause required for a good tennis return shot, the ideal timeline of a first date, and the wisdom of U.S. air force combat training's emphasis on processes of decision making.

In order to cover such extensive ground, Partnoy spends a lot of time synthesizing recent scholarship, providing clear and accessible accounts of work in an impressive range of academic fields.

While the breadth and the depth of his research gives the book's rather straightforward message its complexity and rhetorical power, the book's charm comes from Partnoy's ability to juggle such seemingly disparate topics as, on the one hand, an engaging discussion of recent science on animals and their conceptualization of future time and, on the other hand, an unabashedly doting analysis of the comic timing of Jon Stewart.

Not surprisingly, given his title and his central thesis, Partnoy takes his time, giving many of his case studies very close and leisurely paced analysis.

Memorable among them are a thorough and surprisingly charming history of the development of the Post-It note and a similarly detailed account of an infamous game-losing call made by Bob Gibson, coach of the New York Giants, in 1978.

There are some awkward moments in the book, both in terms of style and argumentation. In one such moment, Partnoy asserts that kindergarten is a good name for the first year of children's schooling because it expresses an admirable disregard for the long-term impact of early childhood education.

As he puts it, "It's called a 'children's garden' for good reason, because that school year is focused on in-the-moment play, tending the garden now, not thinking about the future."

It's a claim that educators, and perhaps also gardeners, are likely to balk at and one that fails, moreover, to demonstrate a solid knowledge of the origin of the term kindergarten.

It's an example of Partnoy's tendency to be, at times, less than cautious in his argumentation, this while being very careful and very thorough in his handling of the work of other academics.

On the whole, this is an unusual and admirable take on the self-help book, one that is more noteworthy for its stimulating and compelling mix of anecdotes and ideas than its readily summarized though useful message to readers to slow down and replace rapid action with careful contemplation.

Vanessa Warne teaches Victorian literature at the University of Manitoba. She is a self-professed expert in procrastination when she finds the time.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 J10

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