How to Build Better Reflexes: Forget Speed and Focus on Information

We love quickness.

We love it when an improv comedian makes a lightning-fast comeback.  Or when a soccer player slices open a tough defense with the perfect pass. Or when an investor spies a great opportunity in a fast-moving market. We love those moments because they contain the essence of talent: instant, uncannily precise reaction to a complex situation. These people succeed, it seems, because their reflexes are quicker.

What’s even more interesting: science is showing us that our instincts about quickness are wrong. The best performers, it turns out, aren’t reacting more quickly (thanks to limits of nerve-conduction speed, human reflexes are pretty consistent). The best performers are using time differently — namely, they’re using it to get more information.

For example, let’s take the classic case of a tennis player returning serve. You would instinctively think that the best returners are the ones who react the quickest. But you’d be wrong. Experiments show that the best players succeed because they wait longer before they make their swing. They use that time to gather information about the ball, the spin, the opponent’s position, and make decisions about it. And in tennis — as in many other areas of life — the better data you have, the better result you tend to get.

In other words, being quick isn’t about speed; it’s about information. It’s about learning how to wait.

This case and many others like it are discussed in a fascinating new book by Frank Partnoy called Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. The basic message is that the most successful performers in many skills (business, military, medical, writing, acting, among others) follow a similar pattern, which has three steps.

  • 1) observe — take in all the relevant information.
  • 2) process — analyze the patterns, and pick a course of action
  • 3) act — deliver the action

The central insight is that the best performers get really fast and proficient at #3 — performing the action — so they can invest time and attention in steps #1 and #2. Time isn’t a handicap for them; it’s more like a lever; a selective advantage.

I love this insight because it sheds light on the sense of stillness you see in a lot of top performers.For example, picture Cristiano Ronaldo or Stevie Ray Vaughn or Stephen Colbert. Their skill comes from a foundation of calm. They look at the world through a the cool, ascertaining gaze. They’re never hurried or frantic; they’re constantly vacuuming their surroundings for good information, and when they decide to make their move, they make it decisively, with full commitment. They’re managing time, not being managed by it.

How to put this insight to use? The best way is to isolate each step of the process, and practice it by itself.

  • Step 1: Immerse yourself in pure observation. Take in the patterns; swim in the information. Watch “game film” of whatever game you happen to be playing.
  • Step 2: X-ray the information. Systematically figure out the underlying patterns; the if/then decisions that lay beneath the surface. If X happens, what’s the best response? If X and Y happen, what’s the best response?
  • Step 3: Isolate the key actions and practice them. The goal is to make the action perfectly automatic and fast, like you’re pressing a button.

Or, as John Wooden put it, “Be quick, but never hurry.”