Waiting is horrible. So don’t do it.

The NY Times has an writeup today on the psychology of waiting – mostly, waiting in line.

Here’s the wrap-up at the end:

The dominant cost of waiting is an emotional one: stress, boredom, that nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away. The last thing we want to do with our dwindling leisure time is squander it in stasis. We’ll never eliminate lines altogether, but a better understanding of the psychology of waiting can help make those inevitable delays that inject themselves into our daily lives a touch more bearable. And when all else fails, bring a book.

Understand why it’s unpleasant?  Bring a book?  Meh.
Here’s my counter-offer: waiting is optional; don’t do it.

I’m not talking about finding clever ways to jump the queue or get VIP treatment. This is simpler (and more practicable).

You can do whatever you like in a waiting room, in a supermarket queue, in your car while stuck behind a truck on a winding back road, etc. etc. — anything, as long as you can do it in your head.

If this sounds like a joke, or that it wraps a cruel assumption that you’re some kind of mental Olympian, bear with me for just a moment while I connect some dots.

  • I don’t mean do math problems in your head (though it might come up); I mean taking the time to work through questions like “What don’t I like?  How can I improve it?” and “What do I need to know?  How can I find it out?” and possibly most common “What should I do next?  How will I do it?”
  • Yes, you may strain the limits of how much you can keep in your head at one time.  This gives you motivation to write/type it out to nail down the subtleties — and getting it into written form gets you rolling on getting it done.
  • Straining the limits of your brain is a really good thing, both medium-term (you’ll expand the limits with practice) and long-term (regular cognitive exercise helps keep your brain sharp into old age — google for “brain use it or lose it” to find a ton of articles on the subject).
  • There’s incredible value in stepping back — switching to a high-level view of what you’re doing before diving back into the details.  What are you actually trying to do?  What’s the top priority, then?  What can you do today to advance that, even if just a little?  Almost every time I step back, I change what I’m doing in some way.
  • You certainly don’t need to focus on work; dedicate some brainwaves to rehearsing a difficult conversation you know you should have, or pause your busy life for 5 minutes to think about how your relationship with your best friend or SO is going, and plan any course corrections you should make (“we should talk more.  …I could call right now”).  Or plan an elaborate surprise for someone; or plan a party; or…
  • One important thing — get concrete.  Daydreaming is perfectly fine, but if you want to turn a wait into an opportunity (rather than just getting through it), then you’ll want to dig down to the actual steps of “what do I do next”.

Put away the smartphone

Yes, you can check your email (or facebook, or…) every 2 minutes if you like, or check the time yet again, or pass the time with fluff news, videos, games….  Generally these won’t help much with the feeling that your life is slipping away, though I suppose they might postpone feeling it!

Don’t worry; make decisions instead

The worst waits are when you know if it takes too long, something bad happens.

Worrying doesn’t do anything to help, though — it’ll just give you a stomachache and cloud your thinking.  It certainly won’t speed things up.

So let it go; yes, you might miss the plane.  For your honeymoon.  Drive safely, anyway, and clear your head enough to make the decisions you can, and also share your calm with others involved, like your new spouse who’s currently swearing like a sailor.  Decide what you’ll do next (“let’s call the airline to ask how to change the ticket, if we’re still stuck here at 9”; “we can save 10 minutes by parking in short-term parking and asking your sister to come move the car”; “I’ll bring the bags if you go ahead and join the check-in line”…)

It’s often a huge release to say “yup, X might happen; we can’t go back in time, so the best we can do this time is help each other stay in a good mood, and think ahead.”  You should do the five whys before the next time, but there’s time for that after the crisis has passed.

Postscript: other constraints

You may be obliged to spend an afternoon in the DMV with a small child or two; you may be obliged to sit at a fundraiser dinner next to a bore who finds you incredibly interesting; you may be obliged to do some painfully tedious but very fiddly activity for mind-numbing stretches of time.

The constraints are harsher, and your options may be cut sharply, but if you bring your full attention to bear on the problem (rather than spinning your mental wheels with endless internal complaining), you’ll likely find you have far more traction than you had realized.


  1. Reply
    Ankit 20th August, 2012

    While I agree wholeheartedly (as I’m naturally an introspective and inquisitive individual) I feel both philosophies have their place. I don’t usually exhibit any concerns or worries due to external pressures, such as being late or making a deadline, so it is easy for me to stay in my head and in essence “daydream” in ways where I question and justify my own beliefs and analyze my behavior and those of the people with whom I interact. One may argue the reverse where I don’t exhibit those worries and nervousness because of the mental abilities outlined above. Also I set goals and reminders and motivate myself just through sheer mental thoughts. This thinking occupies most of my day, whether I’m waiting or walking or even in the middle of work, play, or social interaction. This level of insight is such a defining feature of my personality (and from what I can tell yours as well, Rob) that I feel that many people won’t be able to relate to or truly internalize the message.

    What it comes down to is that the people reading this post either already operate at this level or will have to completely rewire their brains and bodies to be at ease during long waits, the latter of which is a very difficult undertaking for such hardened personalities.

  2. Reply
    e1_kaminska 21st February, 2014

    suspected 🙁

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