There are people who plan vacations months in advance, down to the hotels they will stay in each night and the clothing they will bring. There are people who reserve a table at a restaurant weeks ahead and who book their next hair appointment while at the salon. And many people fill their social, cultural and athletic calendars well into the future.
I am not one of those people.
In late winter, I learned about a spiritual retreat/conference taking place in Colorado at the end of August. The organizers offered an early bird discount so I registered, aware that if I changed my mind or plans in the next few months, I’d only forfeit a small fee. While I wasn’t 100% sure I wanted to go, I knew that if I waited until I was sure, either the fee would have gone up or it would sell out. As I learned more about the event, I became more enthusiastic. But, I still hadn’t booked accommodations, which were additional. The organizers had reserved dormitory-style rooms on site which, while affordable, meant sharing space with 2-4 other people. They even created an online forum for finding roommates. If you’re gregarious, you might love the idea of a multi-night pajama party with strangers. The few times I tried that, even in cushier hotel settings, I ended up overstimulated and sleep deprived to the point where I couldn’t enjoy myself. I put off making a decision. Eventually, enough time passed that my hand was forced.
Was I going or not?
I looked into booking a dorm room for myself. The only ones left slept four and were more than I wanted to spend. I peeked at the roommate forum: by then, the planners had paired up so, even if I had been willing to share with one person, they might not have materialized. And, it being tourist season, it dawned on me that many of the surrounding hotels would likely be occupied. And, when I realized I could no longer get a refund, I slid down the slippery slope of scarcity thinking and landed in a mud puddle of misery
I took a deep breath and remembered that I’d been in this situation before. More often than not, solutions have materialized, despite the conventional wisdom that it’s “too late”, or all the “good” stuff is taken/reserved. I put on my possibility cap and searched on Craigslist for vacation rentals nearby. There was one room for rent in a private home, brokered by AirBnb, a short-term lodging service I used before. It was less than the cost of a bunk bed and available for the dates I needed. I Googled the location and discovered it’s within cycling distance of the venue. When it occurred to me I could get the outdoor exercise that often eludes me when I’m at a conference, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. As a bonus, I would not be hostage to the group meal plan; I could eat à la carte, either on site or elsewhere. In hindsight, this was the perfect arrangement for me yet I realized that I would not have come up with such an idea months before. At that time, I was thinking too dualistically: either I “should” immerse myself in the event and lodge there, or not go at all. Perhaps the pressure of a deadline helped me break out of the black-and-white box.
It turns out that what I call Last-minute-itis, and what others might refer to as procrastination, might be good for you. Such is the thesis of Frank Partnoy, author of “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay”. While I haven’t read the book yet, I was relieved to discover this interview with him on Smithsonian.com, and loved this line in particular:
“Historically, for human beings, procrastination has not been regarded as a bad thing. The Greeks and Romans generally regarded procrastination very highly. The wisest leaders embraced procrastination and would basically sit around and think and not do anything unless they absolutely had to.”
Alas, the Puritans wrecked that for Americans. But Partnoy says that the key to success is waiting until the last possible minute to make a decision. This means, if you have to make a decision in a year, do it on day 364. If you have a week to decide, wait until the last hour, etc. Have an hour to decide? Do so in minute 59. He argues that delaying itself is not bad, it’s how we manage it; in other words, he’s talking about active, rather than passive, procrastination. He even offers a suggestion for blind dating: wait until the very end of the lunch (or coffee) to ask yourself if you want to see the person again.
His thesis is the opposite of Malcolm Gladwell’s; in Blink, he advocates following your gut and making decisions quickly. In the dating world, that might mean rejecting a potential partner before you’ve even opened the menu. Apparently, in 2005, Mr. Gladwell was invited to address Lehman Brothers’ executives, who, after their president took to the Blink philosophy, “then made the worst snap decisions in the history of financial markets.”
The trick to transforming Last-minute-itis from an anxiety-stirring affliction into a productive tool is getting clarity around when the decision has to be made. In a day? A week? A month? In the meantime, don’t fret or agonize. For this conference, I didn’t set a precise date to make a final decision but relied on gut feel. Perhaps it’s time to establish clearer internal deadlines. And remember those uber planners? While I don’t imagine becoming like that, I’ve come to appreciate that they are the same people who cancel appointments and reservations, creating what feels like miraculous synchronicities and surprises for Last-minuters. Sometimes, not only does it pay to procrastinate, it’s also more thrilling.
That book sounds very interesting and like a good antidote to the pressures of modern technology which often seem to mandate rushing over reflection! I’ve been in the position you describe, where simply waiting resulted in an unexpected and better solution. Another thought is that being able to wait is often a sign of privilege – of having the resources (time and money) to be able to wait longer to decide. In high school and college, I remember wealthier classmates casually talking about what fun it was to go shopping with their parents and spontaneously decide to try some new imported cheese or go on a weekend getaway. They were blithely unaware of how that sounded to someone whose mother carefully planned every meal in advance based on what was on sale that week and what coupons she had. I think something similar is at work with some, not all, advance planners… one of my friends with four kids including one who requires 24/7 medical assistance, has to plan every trip with military-like precision well in advance or it simply wouldn’t happen. She has more money than I do, but with my one healthy child, I have other privileges she does not when it comes to flexibility in planning/deciding. Others have to save for years for their first and only overseas vacation, which is why they might plan carefully to be sure they are able to see and do all the things that are most important to them. And I suspect a lot of those Greek philosophers had wives and slaves at home doing all the hard daily work that allowed them to sit around thinking! But it’s certainly a useful tool to consider when, exactly, a decision needs to be made.
Laura, thanks for such a thoughtful comment! I agree, that in some cases being able to wait or acting spontaneously without much consideration, is a sign of privilege, especially when money is involved. And I remember seething with envy in college when friends decided to go shopping on the spur of the moment for clothing and show off their purchases…that was unthinkable for me! But the difference as I see it, based on the excerpt of the book, is that making particular decisions (to take a certain job, enter a relationship, rent an apartment), might be best made at the last possible moment of a decision period rather than using that entire period to agonize or, out of an emotional need to “have an answer”, deciding prematurely. It’s like allowing the decision to hibernate or marinate for a period of time, then…boom. That seems conceptually different than budgeting, meal planning, scheduling appointments, or going on a spontaneous shopping spree. And in today’s economy, with dynamic pricing of flights, hotels, etc., sometimes (not always) it is less expensive to buy at the last minute if one is willing to tolerate some uncertainty, and if one values flexibility and spontaneity over knowing ahead of time. For me, a lot of planning I used to do was fear-based; I tried to anticipate what might go wrong and made plans to avoid negative outcomes, or tried to squeeze in lots of things out of a fear that if I missed any of them I would be upset, but that’s not a very fun kind of planning. Often my fears were overblown, so I had spent time and energy for nothing, when I could have simply trusted more that everything would work out. It’s an issue I still struggle with, which is why I keep writing about it!
Yes, that makes sense (the fear-based planning). I think our culture encourages us to believe that we can avoid disappointment/failure/etc. if we just plan well enough. At some point I realized that when some women talk about how awful birth plans are, they were imagining them as actual scripts for how childbirth *would* go – so they were inevitably let down because something that huge never goes exactly as “planned.” But I believe they’re intended to be akin to end-of-life plans, where you sit down when you have the time and mental energy to ponder and express to your caregivers your general philosophy and wishes as guidance, rather than being forced to make quick decisions when you might be feeling pain, stress and fear. Also, it’s been a while since I read “Blink” and I may be confusing it with similar books, but I think Lehman Bros may have completely misunderstood it. What I took away from it was that after years of deliberate practice in a particular area we can develop expertise that is hard to break down and articulate to non-experts; our knowledge and experience become instinctive to the point where we can know in the blink of an eye whether a painting is authentic, for example. Of course I don’t know anything about the content of his talk, but it’s possible they didn’t heed the bit about years of careful study that lead up to this point!
I have become sceptical of Gladwell since I read “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” by Anders Ericsson. Prof Ericsson did the research that Gladwell popularised as the 10,000 hour rule but Gladwell cut a lot of corners in his exposition, diluting the potential usefulness of the insight.
I am not given to haunting two-year-old blog post comments but saw yours when Ilona mentioned this post in a July 2016 posting to Facebook.