Illustrations by John P. Weiss
Sheriff’s deputies in my county recently responded to a call of a distraught, mentally ill woman screaming in her house. The woman was known to local law enforcement and lived alone. When the deputies knocked on her front door, she greeted them with a knife in her hands.
Police officers and deputies often have only split seconds to react to potentially deadly threats. They are taught that a person with a knife, even from fifteen feet away, can quickly close the distance and attack.
Accordingly, police are trained to immediately grab their sidearms and defend themselves. Other tools, like less-lethal, bean bag shotguns and tasers may be utilized, but officers must be prepared for a deadly attack.
The deranged woman was screaming and waving her knife at the deputies. Despite the danger, the deputies did something counterintuitive.
They slowed down.
The Useful Art of Procrastination
Professional tennis players can serve at speeds beyond 100 miles per hour. That leaves about 500 milliseconds to return the serve. The human eye needs about 200 milliseconds to “see” the tennis ball approaching, thus leaving 300 milliseconds to return the ball.
Novices tend to rush their return of serve. Professionals, however, wait until the last possible instance to hit back. They compress their return of serve down to the last 50 or 100 milliseconds. This delay allows more time to see, prepare, strategize and respond. The result is often a superior return of serve.
Author Frank Partnoy used the tennis example above in his book “Wait- The Useful Art of Procrastination.” As an Amazon reviewer of Partnoy’s book noted:
“His basic argument is that we think and act too quickly — in business, in our human interactions, and in major and minor life decisions. In general, we should wait as long as possible before making a decision. The author suggests that if we have 10 seconds, we wait until the last second. If we have an hour, we wait until the 59th minute. If we have a year, we ought to wait 364 days. If we have only a second, we ought to act or make our decision in the last few milliseconds.”
The reviewer commented that waiting is what top experts in various fields do, adding:
“It may seem that they all make split-second decisions — but even then, they are stretching the available fractions of a second as far as possible, to give the most time for both their rational and intuitive minds to do their best work.”
Snap judgments vs managed delay
Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s best selling book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” looks at the value of snap judgments. How we can divine a great deal of information from the first two seconds of looking at something. He examines how studying “thin slices” of behavior can guide us, and how we rely on our “adaptive unconscious” to make decisions.
In contrast, Author Frank Partnoy’s book, “Wait- The Useful Art of Procrastination,” encourages us to determine how long we have to make a decision. Then, we should use all of that time to evaluate our decision and only decide at the last possible moment.
Who’s right? Gladwell or Partnoy? As with many approaches in life, it depends.
There’s no question that people with special expertise can quickly tap their knowledge and experience to make a quick decision or judgment.
Gladwell opened his book “Blink” with the story of an ancient Greek statue (kouros) that the Getty Museum was going to purchase. The price was 10 million and Getty staff painstakingly researched the statue’s authenticity, determining it was real. But then they brought in an art historian to view the statue. The historian instantly knew it was a fake. Sure enough, they later learned the piece had been sculpted by forgers in Rome.
Expertise and experience can accelerate our ability to make sound decisions, especially when time is of the essence. We access all our buried wisdom, which informs our “hunch power” (as columnist David Brooks defines it).
However, when it comes to everyday decisions, taking all the time we can is probably the best way to go.
I love you, I love you not
Frank Partnoy’s book “Wait- The Useful Art of Procrastination” shares a section on why speed dating is not ideal. Singles who participate in speed dating have little time to engage with potential suitors. They are left with quick impressions and snap judgments that are not likely to identify an ideal partner.
In contrast, Partnoy examines the dating company “It’s Just Lunch.” Their approach is to survey clients and arrange a lunch date with someone compatible with your profile. Clients do not receive a picture or photo of their lunch date, as this can create incorrect, snap reactions.
The “It’s Just Lunch” company found that, unlike speed dating, an entire lunch allows for a more in-depth conversation. Participants are then given the rest of the day to think about the experience before agreeing to a future lunch. Having plenty of time to evaluate your experience and feelings makes a lot of sense, especially when choosing a future partner.
The second mouse gets the cheese
You might be familiar with the adage, “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” We rush in today’s fast-paced world, sometimes to our disadvantage.
“Rushing around can be a pointless diversion from actually living your life.” — Claire Messud
For example, one of the things outdoor “Plein-air” painters sometimes experience, especially at “quick draw” painting competitions, is a sort of performance anxiety. The clock is ticking, the sunlight keeps changing, and there’s a sense of pressure to rush and paint a terrific picture.
Unfortunately, when we rush, we often make mistakes. While it’s true that haste sometimes forces us to prioritize and get the core of a task done, the downside is that important details may be overlooked or lost.
If you want to be that second mouse and get the cheese, make time for deeper work. The extra time thought and effort you pour into your professional or creative work will pay off with a better result.
Thinking fast and slow
Author Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” discusses two systems of thinking. One system operates quickly and almost effortlessly. The second system demands attention, concentration, and more complex thought.
The first system might be faster and easier but is susceptible to mistakes, biases, and faulty conclusions. The second system incorporates more information and deeper cognition, but the results tend to be more accurate.
Most of us vacillate between fast and slow thinking. Every day decisions are usually fast, while more complex and important decisions are slow. It’s when we race through important decisions that we get into trouble.
“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.” — Daniel Kahneman
The art of making better decisions, particularly about important stuff, includes the following three strategies. Embrace them, and you’ll minimize making mistakes.
Marketers and salespersons have all kinds of tricks to get you to make bad decisions. Time limits, countdowns, and limited supplies are all gimmicks to create a sense of urgency. People fear missing out on a deal, so they take the bait.
The better way to make a decision is to slow down and do your homework. Turn to reputable sources, trusted friends and unbiased reviews to guide your decision.
We all have our biases. Little beliefs we’ve acquired over time that aren’t always accurate. People also suffer from confirmation bias, which is looking for data to support your conclusions.
When making any decision, be sure to check your biases at the door. Educating yourself and slowing down to consider the counter-points to your beliefs can help you avoid making a bad decision.
When we don’t get enough sleep, we make mistakes. When we overwork ourselves and don’t take vacations or downtime to re-charge, we are less immune to making bad decisions.
Sleep, exercise, and downtime contribute to good health and clear our minds, which enables us to make better decisions.
Slow down and save a life
Remember those two deputies confronting the disturbed woman with a knife? Instead of forcing a confrontation, they decided to slowly retreat back to their squad cars. They de-escalated. The woman remained at her front door, yelling.
The deputies called for a specially trained mental health negotiator on contract with the Sheriff’s Departmentlif. The negotiator came out to the scene and, from a distance, spoke to the woman.
The woman went back in her house. Deputies kept an eye on the house and the mental health negotiator telephoned the woman in the house. Everyone simply slowed down.
After several hours, the woman agreed to come out of the house and meet with the mental health negotiator, who was then able to get her the help she needed.
It could have ended badly, but the deputies slowed down and let the situation play out. They saved the woman’s life.
Hopefully, your job is less stressful than what the deputies faced, but the lesson of slowing down can help you too.
Slow down. Take more time to evaluate, study and adjust. Check your biases at the door. Get plenty of rest. This is how we master the art of making better decisions, which often leads to a happier, more fulfilling life.
(Adapted from and originally published at https://fineartviews.com)
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint and write about life. Get my free, weekly newsletter here.