Delay even works in fields where time might seem to be of the essence. Doctors and pilots can profit from following a checklist, even when doing things they have done many times before. A list slows them down and makes them more methodical, as Atul Gawande describes in “The Checklist Manifesto”. The best sportsmen wait until the last split second before hitting the ball.
Mr Partnoy argues that people need to learn how to manage delay just as they learn how to manage everything else. Sometimes putting things off makes sense: the silliest impositions on our time occasionally have the decency to self-combust. Still, the rules of sensible time-management apply to procrastinators as much as everyone else. Don’t delay tackling problems that will grow worse if ignored, such as your credit-card bill. And create a to-do list to fool yourself into doing your second-most-important job while procrastinating over the most important one.
This sounds too clever by half. But Mr Partnoy is right to warn against business’s growing obsession with speed for its own sake. And he is right to skewer the notion, always popular among managers, that time can be sliced up into segments of equal worth. The secret of modern brain work is that it requires a combination of fast and slow. Brain workers dither for ages but then are struck by a flash of insight or a burst of creativity. Remove all deadlines and you are left with dithering. Become too obsessed with deadlines and you are left with the intellectual equivalent of fast food—and toenails that need cutting.