Why waiting is the difference between success and failure

A women in white holding her temples trying to make a decision.

Often times we feel pressure to give an answer quickly or make a decision fast. As a parent, I learned to say I’ll get back to you or let me think about it before giving my decision. Sometimes it was a matter of counting to 10 before speaking. You may have a number of techniques to use that help you slow down your decision making until you can get all the facts. With technology all around us, there is pressure to work quickly. Learn what the best amount of time to spend on making decisions is so your values shine through in your work and life.

This blog is written by Mayo Oshin at MayoOshin.Com. and originally appeared on MayoOshin.Com as “Why waiting is the difference between success and failure ” on October 7, 2019

Shortly after midnight on September 26, 1983, the world nearly came to an end.

A few hours earlier, Stanislav Petrov—a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces—began his shift as the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, a secret command center near Moscow where the Soviet military monitored early-warning satellites over the United States.

Petrov’s job was simple: Monitor the satellites and notify his superiors of any nuclear missile attacks against the Soviet Union.

There was no cause for alarm, up until midnight.

And then suddenly, the red sirens surrounding the command center began to scream and the word “Launch” flashed up in big red letters across the white walls above the computers.

The computers flashed images of one nuclear missile attack from the United States, with the highest possible probability.

Considering the soviet warning computer had to go through 30 levels of security checks before confirming an actual missile launch, there was little doubt that the nuclear attack was legit. 1

Fear and panic filled the command center. And with only 20 minutes to react before impact, Petrov had to make a quick decision.

3 weeks prior, the Soviets shut down a commercial airplane flown across Soviet airspace from New York, killing all 269 passengers.

Since then, tensions hit their highest point since the beginning of the Cold War, and the Soviets were obsessed with fears of an attack from the U.S.

The incidence at the command center appeared to be the confirmation of their fears.

All it took was one phone call reporting the attack to Petrov’s superiors, and the Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, would’ve most likely pulled the trigger on a nuclear missile counterstrike on the U.S.

As Petrov later said: “I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it,” he said. 2

As the sirens screamed louder and louder, Petrov instructed his subordinates to run more tests to check whether the missile attack was real—he decided to wait until all procedures were complete.

But within a few minutes, another alarm went off and the overhead displays flashed in red with a rocket attack sign.

This time the computer system showed five nuclear missiles in quick succession headed toward the Soviet Union.

The tension in the command center was so thick that you could cut it with a knife. As Petrov noted: “The moment the third alarm went off, I started feeling like I was sitting in a hot frying pan. I broke out into a sweat. I couldn’t feel my feet.” 3

Over 200 of Petrov’s subordinates fixed their eyes on him to hear the final decision.

But Petrov didn’t react. Instead, he chose to delay his decision and gather more information.

With only a few minutes left before impact, Petrov finally picked up the phone and called his superiors to inform them that the attack was a false alarm caused by a system malfunction.

He was right. The Soviet satellites had mistaken the sun’s reflection off the clouds for a missile attack from the United States.

Petrov’s delay in taking action prevented a potential nuclear retaliation and Third World War.

Decades later, the mass media of the Western world caught wind of Petrov’s role in the Cold War, and dubbed him “The Man Who Saved the World.” 4

In a Fast World, Think Slow and Act Slower

“We never live; we are always in the expectation of living.”

—Voltaire

Everything around us is moving faster and faster, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

We want it all and we want it now: Instant messages, fast food, same-day grocery deliveries, speed dating, quick riches, rapid business growth, and the list goes on.

Impatience is our new virtue and speed is our motto.

But the constant pressure to get things done faster and make quick decisions often leads to avoidable mistakes that cost significant time and money, stress and burnout.

A series of studies conducted by two professors from Stanford and UCLA, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Sanford E. DeVoe, found that when we think about time as money—as we often do nowadays—we work longer hours and sacrifice our leisure and social time. 5

In particular, the researchers were shocked to discover that higher salaries earned by the participants led to more time pressure to work faster and longer, more stress outside of working hours and greater impatience with results.

As Pfeffer noted: “There’s some evidence that people feel more overworked and pressed for time than ever before, which is inconsistent with most measures to date of how much people are actually working in comparison to their leisure time.” 6

The mass media promotes the idea that faster is better and successful people make quick decisions in the “blink” of an eye.

But what if taking things slow and waiting until the last minute is better for decision-making, up until a certain point?

A graph with one axis called Quality of Decision and the other axis Time until deadline showing Optimal time for delay as a bell curve.

Decisions made too quick or too slow are sub-optimal.

Is it a coincidence that exceptional entrepreneurs, athletes, and investors, like Warren Buffett, have an uncanny ability to wait and then act at the right time within their circle of competence?

Or that the greatest military generals tend to spend a good amount of time observing before taking action, and genius innovators like Albert Einstein, spend years in solitude before they discover ingenious breakthrough ideas?

The common thread amongst top performers isn’t how fast they act. It’s when they act.

And when they act is often at the point of optimal time delay, which helps them to make better decisions than everyone else and stay at the top of their game.

So, how do you figure out your optimal time delay before taking action?

The answer to this question is less of an exact science and more of a subtle art.

It varies based on the nature of the decision, your level of experience in making similar decisions and your gut feeling.

As a rule of thumb, the more deliberate practise you’ve put into making similar decisions, the shorter your optimal time delay. Because your subconscious mind has been trained so well to take action on your behalf without much thinking required.

If you’re constantly stressed out, have a track record of making avoidable mistakes and struggle with instant gratification, then it’s likely you’re too far left of your optimal time delay and need to procrastinate a bit longer before making decisions.

By delaying our actions in our everyday lives—before speaking, replying to emails, saying yes and committing, hiring a new employee, creating a new year’s resolution, and so on—we can regain clarity of what’s truly important, make better decisions and achieve our potential.

Wait

We have a tendency to beat ourselves up for putting things off until the last minute.

But more times than not, it pays to wait before making a decision.

Stanislav Petrov’s decision to delay his final decision until the last minute arguably saved the world from war and destruction.

And in our everyday lives, we can save ourselves from stress, and bad mistakes that waste valuable time and money, if we simply wait a bit longer before making decisions.

In art, it’s the “subtle” changes that make the difference between a breathtaking and uninspiring painting.

In life, however, it’s the “subtle” moments of delay that make the difference between success and failure.

Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.Com, where he shares the best practical ideas based on proven science and the habits of highly successful people for stress-free productivity and improved mental performance. To get these strategies to stop procrastinating, get more things by doing less and improve your focus, join his free weekly newsletter. The internet is noisy. Want to cut through the noise of useless information and feed your brain with well-researched ideas? Join 10,000 curious minds and get your brain food by clicking subscribe

I think this article has covered everything. Are there any ideas that should be added? Let me know in the comments.

A blue and white striped tunnel in the background with Julie Stobbe in the foreground wearing a white blouse.

Julie Stobbe is a Trained Professional Organizer and Lifestyle Organizing Coach who brings happiness to homes and organization to offices, in person and virtually. She has been working with clients since 2006 to provide customized organizing solutions to suit their individual needs and situation. She uses her love of physical activity to reduce clutter, in your home and office. She guides and supports you to manage your time. If you’re in a difficult transition Julie can coach you to break-free of emotional clutter constraining you from living life on your terms. Online courses are available to help instruct, coach and support your organizing projects. Get started by downloading Tips for Reorganizing 9 Rooms.

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10 thoughts on “Why waiting is the difference between success and failure”

  1. There’s so much here. The idea to slow ourselves down in this fast-paced world resonated with me. And truthfully, the “badge of busy” is becoming less of a thing to honor these days. The pandemic had a huge influence on how people are thinking about work, leisure time, and stress, as evident by the “Great Resignation.” Many were forced to work from home during the pandemic. And while it wasn’t easy for some, others found it to be so much better…better quality of life, less stressful, and more and time to relax due to not commuting.

    Like you, I learned to delay responding immediately to some of the kids’ questions, so I could respond in a more thoughtful way. I also take time to think through social or business requests if/when needed. When I slow myself down, I can respond from a place of calm. I can use both the logical and intuitive sides of my brain to come to a better decision.

    Do I delay in making all choices? No. But when it comes to the important things, I agree, that putting a bit of space between the request and the decision, can create better outcomes.

    1. Thank your Linda for your thoughtful response. I have found that slowing down lets me appreciate all the little things involved in the situation that I would have missed. It is like cycling fast to get it done or get somewhere compared to riding a bike to enjoy the experience. Both have their place and deciding how to ride to get what you need out of the trip is important.

  2. Wow, that was a nail biter to read! Reminds me of the movie War Games, which I loved as a kid. I’m glad I don’t have to make decisions about initiating a nuclear attack.

    It is hard to know when to decide and when to wait a bit. I know I tend to make decisions too quickly. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that if I react when I am feeling emotional (e.g. angry, frustrated, sad), I need to delay. Even an hour can make the difference to see a situation more clearly and to be freed from the emotional overwhelm.

    Great to think about this week!

    1. Thank you for your thoughts. I like how you said, “even an hour can make a difference”. The delay doesn’t always have to be long, it needs to be long enough that the decision is not a reaction to something. The decision is based on facts.

    1. I am sure it depends on the situation some decisions can be made quickly. Even in those situations try counting to 10 and see if your decision is different or the same. That will help to confirm if you need to take more time or if your timing is perfect.

  3. As a history buff, I knew the Petrov story, and yet my eyes were glued to the screen; it’s such a compelling story and it proves the point. Finding that sweet spot, in delaying a just the right amount can be difficult. I tend to be a long-delayer; I never want to act out of fear or misplaced urgency, and so I can err on the other side, taking too long. It took me the better part of two years to buy my current car (by which time, my old one was 21-years-old!) but I wanted to be certain about the finances, the make, the details, and while it frustrated the people around me that I was taking so long, once I felt ready, the whole thing was accomplished in a matter of a day.

    Each person has his or her own timeline; each decision may need more or less delay. But I’m delighted to see this post arguing in favor of tactical delays!

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I like the term “sweet spot” for making a decision. That term sounds better than delaying. Delaying almost sounds like procrastinating which is not at all what this article is suggesting. I am a slow decision maker too, looking at the many aspects of a situation and deciding which problems I don’t mind dealing with if they happen. Sometimes I think being an organizer gives me the skill to examine an issue from many sides, see the consequences, assess the outcomes and choose. Sometimes it happens quickly and sometimes it happens slowly.

  4. Julie, this is a wonderful reminder to gather information before acting. I did not know the Petrov story. I agree with the others that it is a nail biter.
    I have long been a thinker before acting. There are some things I can decide very quickly and others that I aim to take just enough time before giving a response. I love the old pros and cons list and thinking about what is the worst thing that can happen if I … (fill in the blank).

    1. I agree thinking about the worst scenario helps to put the decision in perspective. Most of the time the worst thing that can happen falls into the category of a “first world problem” and is not life threatening.

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