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Most of us think procrastinating is a bad habit. And if you're saving for retirement or college, it is.
But there are many times when it’s actually better to push something into the future, says University of San Diego law and finance professor Frank Partnoy, author of “Wait: The Art And Science of Delay.”
In our fast-paced world filled with emails and text messages waiting for replies, experts like Malcolm Gladwell ( “Blink”) encourage us to go with our gut — relying on the “adaptive unconscious” to make snap judgments about new people and new ideas.
But what if we stopped for a moment to consider all the angles?
Partnoy's key to a good decision: wait as long as you can before reacting.
Take professional tennis players, who appear to move towards the ball instantly. The very best players, he says, know how to slow time to their advantage, taking the longest pause possible before returning a serve.
Partnoy spoke with TODAY about how to master what he calls “delay management."
Whether it comes to smaller stuff, like dating, apologizing, and mowing the lawn, or a big financial purchase, always ask yourself two questions.
- How long before I have to act?
- How should I spend the time leading up to the moment I have to respond?
1. The Email Is Not In Charge
“Although an email is there, always demanding a response right away, look at each one as your time enemy,” says Partnoy. “Email is like a pet that wants attention constantly and we need tell it to sit and stay.”
Of course, some messages require a swift reply: Can you meet me for lunch? Do you have the call-in number for our work meeting? Answer those immediately.
But the majority don’t fall into the rapid-response category. Waiting may make you feel a little rude at first.
But assess how important the emails really are, how fast you need to react and what you’d like to say.
Keep in mind, many successful people check their emails only a few times a day.
2. Romeo And Juliet Should Have Had Lunch
People who are dating jump too quickly to conclusions based on first impressions and online photos. Our brains are adept at snap categorization, but if you’re looking for a longer-term relationship, Partnoy says, you need to get a complete picture.
“Lunch is the perfect amount of time to get a more accurate representation of a person. Romeo and Juliet really should have taken an hour to have lunch together.”
The only thing that should go through your mind on a first date, he writes, is, Do I want a second date?
And you should wait until the very end of the date to answer that.
3. Serve Your Apology Warm
Most of us think it’s important to apologize as quickly as possible.
But good apologies aren’t delivered in the heat of the moment when they can seem disingenuous, or so long after an event, that they’ve become “too cold.”
Like Goldilocks, he advises serving your apologies just right, so the aggrieved party knows you grasp what you’ve done wrong and has had time to fully process it themselves.
Sure, when a stranger bumps you, it only takes a split-second to understand it was an accident.
But if your partner admits to cheating, you will want to think and vent — for a while.
“We often make the mistake of saying we’re sorry before we’ve given the other person a chance to fully get the who, what, where and when details of what we’ve done,” says Partnoy. “You want to give them a chance to yell at you and be angry, and after all of that is out, it’s the right time to apologize.”
4. Cleaning and taxes
Household chores have to get done, but optimizing delay is the secret to timing them appropriately.
“We beat ourselves up about doing things at the last minute, but often that’s the best time to do it,” says Partnoy.
After all, there’s no real upside to mowing the lawn or cleaning the house too far in advance before company arrives — especially if you have young children or pets.
The trick is timing the lawn or the laundry at the ideal point so the house looks neat and orderly, but not so far in advance that you have to re-clean and re-organize.
The same principle applies to doing your taxes. Unless it makes you happier to know tax season is behind you (or you think you’ll get your refund sooner), there’s no reason to rush and do them months before the deadline.
Pushing a task into the future so you can do something else that either brings you more joy, or is a better use of your time, isn’t procrastinating.
It’s a smart, efficient way of managing delay to your advantage.
Jacoba Urist is a culture and health journalist. Follow her on Twitter @JacobaUrist.