One of the life lessons I learned from 26 years in law enforcement was the power of slowing down. During times of stress and urgency, we have a tendency to rush and speed up. This often leads to mistakes and poor outcomes.
I remember an incident last year. Sheriff’s deputies in my county responded to a 9–1–1 call regarding a distraught, mentally ill woman screaming in her house.
Deputies knocked on the front door to check on her welfare. She greeted them by waving a knife in her hand.
Sometimes, cops have only a split second to react to potential threats. A person with a knife, even from fifteen feet away, can quickly close the distance and attack. Police are trained to immediately grab their sidearms and defend themselves.
Officers try to employ multiple force options (tasers, bean bag shotgun, pepper spray, etc.) when confronting violent, unstable people. But some incidents unfold unexpectedly, leaving little time to react.
The deranged woman was screaming and waving her knife at the deputies. Despite the danger, the deputies did something counterintuitive. They slowed down.
Wait to the last millisecond
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.
Beginners tend to rush their return of serve. Professionals, however, wait until the last second to hit back. Actually, less than a second. 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 Portnoy used the tennis example in his book “Wait- The Useful Art of Procrastination.” An Amazon reviewer had this to say about Portnoy’s book:
“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 noted that waiting is what the 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.”
Hunch power versus tactical procrastination
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 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 Portnoy’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. Sort of a tactical procrastination.
Who’s right? Gladwell or Portnoy? 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 in a discipline can accelerate our ability to make related decisions. We access all that buried wisdom and it informs our “hunch power” (as columnist David Brooks calls it). But when it comes to everyday decisions, taking all the time we can is probably the best way to go.
It’s just lunch
Frank Portnoy’s book 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, Portnoy 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 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
We’ve all heard 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.
One of the things outdoor painters sometimes experience, especially at paint outs and plein air competitions, is a sort of performance anxiety. The clock is ticking and so we feel rushed to get going.
When we rush, we often make mistakes. Sure, there’s a thrill in quick, alla prima painting. But I’ve learned that many of my outdoor pieces can be improved back in the studio.
Yes, sometimes I overwork and ruin a piece. But often I’m able to spruce up my field studies. By slowing down. Taking my time. Evaluating.
For artists, there’s nothing wrong with timed gesture classes and “painting a day” challenges. Such efforts help artists to simplify and be less fussy with their work. But so will slowing down and spending more concentrated time and effort on their pieces.
If you want to be that second mouse and get the cheese, make time for deeper work. It will teach you to slow down and think. The extra time, thought and effort you pour into your work and passions will pay off.
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 Office. The negotiator came out to the scene and spoke to the woman from a distance.
The woman went back in her house. Deputies kept an eye on the house and the mental health negotiator telephoned the woman over the next few days. Everyone simply slowed down.
By the end of the week, 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 work is less stressful, but the principle still applies. Discipline yourself to slow down. Take a little more time to evaluate, study and adjust.
You may not be saving lives, but adopting some tactical procrastination can enhance your problem solving and improve your life.