It is estimated that the average person will spend about five years of their lifetime waiting in lines. Aside from sleep, work and our daily routines, a good portion of our lives is spent waiting. We wait in lines at the grocery store, at the bank, at the train station, and at the amusement park. We wait on the phone for a customer service agent to return our call. We wait to hear back from a school as to whether we’ve been accepted. We wait at the doctor’s office for our appointment. We wait for the traffic light to turn green. Waiting is an inevitable part of life.
Most people hate waiting. Not many would say that they enjoy sitting in a traffic jam. Researchers Ayelet Fishbach and Xiani Dai have found that given the choice between rewards of $10 immediately versus receiving $15 later, most people chose the former even though one would be financially better off with the latter. The accelerated speed at which data is now processed and the technology of our modern life has contributed to even more impatience. In fact, one study showed that one out of every four people leaves a website if its takes longer than four seconds to load.
When we wait, it can often feel like time has vastly slowed down when in actually, not much time has passed. In regards to waiting in lines in particular, David Maister outlines eight factors that make us think our waits are longer than they actually are:
1. Occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time: When we are distracted, time seems to pass by much more quickly.
2. People have a desire to get started: That’s usually the reason why restaurants give you menus while you wait and doctors put you in the exam room before your actual exam.
3. Anxiety contributes to making the wait seem longer: If you’re stressed or worried about something impending, your mind will augment the wait.
4. Uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits: People will wait more calmly if they are given a specified time to wait (ie, “the doctor will see you in 30 minutes”) than ambiguous wait times.
5. Unexplained waits are longer than explained waits: We wait more patiently for a taxi during a cold and snowy day than on a clear summer day.
6. Unfair waits are longer than equitable waits: The feeling that someone cut you in line causes you to be angry and being agitated makes your wait seem longer.
7. The more valuable the service, the longer the customer will wait: You would stand in line longer for concert tickets to your favorite band than to buy some chips and dip.
8. Waiting by yourself feels a lot longer than waiting with other people: You don’t notice the wait time as much if you have other people to engage you.
While many of us hate waiting and lines can seem especially long given the various circumstances, it is the very act of waiting that offers us a chance to practice patience. Often considered a virtue, patience is defined as the “ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay.” Instead of making us even more impatient, waiting for something offers us a chance to improve our patience. Fishbach and Dai suggested that when we wait, it makes us place a higher value on what we’re waiting for, and so, that higher value makes us more patient. This is due to a process that psychologists refer to as self-perception- we learn about what we truly desire by assessing our own behavior. Thus, when we are waiting in line for something, our self-perceptions unconsciously raise the value of whatever we are waiting for.
To practice patience, try this exercise from Dr. Judith Orloff’s book, Emotional Freedom:
Find a long, slow-moving line to wait in.
Take a deep breath.
Tell yourself, “I’m going to wait peacefully and enjoy the pause.”
Try to empathize with the cashier if you’re at a store or the government employee if you’re at the post office.
Smile and say kind things to the others in line.
Use the time waiting to daydream. Notice how the stress releases feel.
Dr. Orloff suggests that we should practice patience by standing as many long lines as possible. So next time you find yourself waiting, think of it as more of an opportunity than a chore. Then maybe, just maybe, waiting is not so bad after all.