I have transformed in many ways from how I was younger. One thing that hasn't really changed much over the years, though, is my patience. Or rather, lack of it. Not that I'm impatient or anything. I just don't like the waiting part. That said, I'm making a renewed effort now to tackle this persistent problem by learning how to be patient. Why? For my sanity (And I'm sure others will be grateful too.)
He who sows hurry reaps indigestion - Robert Louis Stevenson
If, like me, you have a case of impatience-induced indigestion or know of someone else that does, read this post for some recommended cures.
Doers, not ponderers
As music genres go, one, in particular, is a troubled category, with hardly any hits. It's the genre of "hold music." The music you hear (after you experiment with all possible number combinations on your phone) as you wait on the phone for a customer service representative. As the bars repeat over and over, a separate crescendo starts to build up in your body – your increasing heart rate! Soon you are vigorously tapping your toes or picking at a painful scab.
We are by nature a bunch of doers. We don't do well when forced into passive waiting—be it for the customer service rep on the phone, or standing in line at the grocery store while someone searches their bag for clipped coupons.
We find it hard to stay still without fidgeting or exhibiting other expressions of nervous behaviors. Some of us who identify as Type As struggle more than others. It's like we took a vacation day when the teacher taught lessons on how to be patient.
Self-pain over stillness
In a contentious scientific study, researchers at the University of Virginia found that people generally don't have the patience to be alone with their thoughts. They'd instead administer mild electric shocks to themselves than remain in quiet contemplation. While the study aimed to explain how humans seek out constant external stimuli, the root cause is clear—our lack of patience.
Isn't that telling?
Ready, Fire, Aim
How did we go from "good things take time" to "do first, think later?"
Impatience, as a phenomenon, is easily explained with a simple mathematical formula.
AT is the Actual time to reach a goal; ET is Your Estimated time to reach the goal
AT > ET == Impatience
Impatience results when the Actual time to reach a goal exceeds your estimated time to reach the goal.
As an example, let's say Amy calls her warranty company for a home repair. When they don't answer the call within the first three minutes, she gets impatient. In her mind, three minutes (her ET) is about the most one should have to wait on the phone.
Now, bear in mind that ET is an entirely subjective, arbitrary number. It is about as grounded in fact as saying aliens built the Stonehenge. But our brains believe it because they don't know any better. This can be explained through simple neurochemistry.
When we develop our ETs, we convince ourselves it is the correct number, and we believe it to be the truth. Then, when reality (AT) falls short of expectations (ET), our cortisol/stress hormones fill our brains and shut down executive functions. The amygdala takes over the show and engages in a fight/freeze/flight cycle. The starting emotion of this cycle? You guessed it—impatience!
It's worse when we get into the "need it now" mentality.
Prima facie, it may appear that there are too many stimuli competing for our attention. Scratch the surface, though, and what you'll find is that we are too busy seeking instant (or close to instant) gratification but don't focus on how to be patient.
Wanting the shiny object and wanting it instantly is how we get into problems.
The stock market is a device for transferring the money from the impatient to the patient - Warren Buffet
One of the less desirable consequences of great scientific and psychological discoveries is how it prompts a human frenzy to monetize such knowledge. When the triggers for impatience were understood, marketers immediately saw the potential for gold and decided to exploit our fragile relationship with patience.
Limited-time deals were born. For example, when I checked my email a few minutes ago, I saw eight different promotional emails in my inbox just from within the last hour. Every single one of them, preying on my FOMO and touting a supposed deal of the century. They all require I "Buy NOW," though, because the deal expires soon.
Do first. Think later.
Of course, I don't have to tell you the myriad problems that can result when we don't know how to be patient.
Why patience is a virtue
Ben Franklin famously declared:
Take time for all things: great haste makes great waste.
Patience is essential when speed becomes the primary factor in decision-making at the cost of accuracy.
Speed vs. accuracy
To illustrate this concept, let's use the example of a game show where participants are rewarded based on speed or accuracy. Consider these two scenarios.
Game 1 – Speed matters: This is the version where you need to hit the buzzer first. If you answer incorrectly, you will be docked some points, but you'll never earn any game points if you don't hit the buzzer. Unsurprisingly, participants hit the buzzer first, even if they didn't have the time to think through their answers thoroughly. The downside of not hitting the buzzer is too significant (zero points.)
Game 2 – Accuracy matters: In this version, you are heavily penalized if you hit the buzzer and answer incorrectly. This makes participants weary of hitting the buzzers without thinking through the problem at hand since they risk significant losses.
A study was conducted to analyze how the brain balances the often-conflicting demands of responding quickly versus accurately. Scientists concluded that when forced to make quick decisions, the brain switches into a different mode altogether. The sad part? It creates the potential for seriously incorrect choices.
Cultivating patience can come in handy, especially when making decisions where accuracy matters, i.e., where the downsides of getting it wrong are significant.
Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open and remove all doubt – Mark Twain
Patience has an even more critical role than correct decision-making. It is required for our very survival.
From your bed to the ICU in a couple of hours
In another research study, scientists concluded that for people who are pretty angry (level five on a seven-point scale), the risk of having a heart attack is 8.5 higher than usual, at least for two hours following an outburst.
Lack of patience is typically a key trigger for many such angry outbursts. In short, if you can identify when you start to lose your patience, you could potentially save yourself a trip to the ICU and substantial medical bills (or worse!)
You must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs, and they will then be powerless to vex your mind. – Leonardo DaVinci
So, how do we learn to be patient?
How to be patient?
Do any of these behaviors resonate with you—toe-tapping, clicking your pens off and on repetitively, loudly sighing when things take longer than you expect, speed reading everything, listening to audiotapes on 2x? I'm an expert at most of these.
Here are a few tips on how to be patient.
1. The Yogic Way
Incorporate the Bhagavad Gita's teachings of learning to be a karma yogi—someone who does their duty without insisting on a result.
Our impatience stems from our expectations of a specific outcome. Take away the expectations from the equation, and you automatically remove all triggers for impatience. Just imagine how freeing that can be!
Yes, I know, this sounds great, but I hear you. We're mere mortals, not monks. If you're looking for things less esoteric, read on. But, realize this is the only surefire way to remain patient.
2. Impulse control
Just because something is on sale doesn't mean you have to get it. Just because you see a bag of chips lying around doesn't mean you have to eat it.
Say no to deals of the century. If you really, absolutely want something NOW, just try waiting for 24 hours to get (or consume) it. You have survived all this while without it; what 24 more hours is? If it isn't available a day later, maybe it just wasn't meant to be. (Or, more likely, the deal will simply be back next week!)
3. Repeat a mantra
if you're in a room and have to listen to a boring presentation and feel like your head will explode, try repeating a mantra in your head. Or try counting. Make it interesting. Countdown from hundred in even numbers.
Yes, this is a copout because true patience requires you to focus on the troubled situation unperturbed. But I go back to what I said in Item 1 on this list—we're not monks! It's okay just to distract yourself. Quietly.
4. Find nature
When you feel your patience being tested, if you can get out for a walk or go somewhere in nature, do it. Thank me later. Something about the vast expanse and openness of space will help cool the temperature in your head a little bit.
I'm sure you have your pet peeves. I have many. I don't particularly appreciate having any human conversations before 6.30 a.m., especially small-talk. I avoid situations where I might run into people, even from my own family. They now know to leave me alone. Or they get the hint when they see me approach the coffee-maker in my noise-canceling headphones.
Find out what bugs you and what your triggers are. Plan a way to avoid encountering those situations (at least as much as possible). This is one of the best ways to learn how to be patient.
An ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure!
Of course, gratitude is on this list.
If the hold music is grating, think about how lucky you are to have been exposed to other music that isn't as annoying. There's always room for some gratitude. Always.
7. Don't be Hangry
Hangry is indeed a thing. I'm the resident expert.
One of the quickest ways to blow your fuse is to get into a challenging situation when your blood glucose levels aren't stable. When you don't eat, the lack of adequate blood sugar causes cortisol and adrenal spikes making people prone to aggressive behavior.
Don't walk into contentious arguments or disagreeable circumstances when you're hangry or sleep-deprived. If I had research grants, I'd be able to prove that well-fed and well-rested individuals tend to be much more patient than hangry or sleep-deprived ones. In the meantime, just trust my word on it. I know.
8. Meditate, meditate, meditate
Sit down and close your eyes when you feel impatient. Observe how it feels. How does impatience physically manifest in your body? Are you breathing quicker or holding your breath? Are you moving body parts – toes, knees, circling your fingers, tearing out cushion covers, poking someone or something? Do you feel a rush of blood to your head?
Get curious. By becoming mindful, you start to calm yourself down and, in the process, maybe discover a thing or two about how your mind and body function. All for free. And all while learning how to be patient. What's not to love about that?
9. Control what you can
Ask yourself if you can control the situation in any way? If the wait on the phone is estimated to be twenty minutes, could you just hang up now and call later? If the traffic is hideous, could you take a back road?
As I said, we're essentially doers. If Plan A doesn't work or is causing us agony, sometimes it's okay to try out a Plan B or Plan C.
10. Some levity
This isn't easy to do, but it works wonders when you can pull it off. I've done it. I just acknowledge quietly (to myself) just how much of a freak of nature I am, sometimes.
If you can be attentive enough to spot the "What on earth is her problem?" look on other's faces, you'll know what I mean. Just because my mind is in shriek mode and I'm jumping up and down about something does not mean others in the world share the same problem.
11. The five-year test
Do this thought experiment – ask yourself, "will this (whatever is triggering your impatience) matter five years from now? Most likely, it won't matter 5 hours from now. Use this yardstick to filter out what you should worry about and what you shouldn't. Impatience arises from worrying about things that matter to us. If we don't mind the result, it doesn't matter.
How? By doing something that can inherently be impatience-inducing. For instance, watch online videos of how paint dries. I'm not making that up. It's real. Google it—at your own risk.
Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished - Lao Tzu
We, humans, on the other hand, have made "hurry" a desirable verb!
The average expected load time for a webpage today is under 1.5 seconds. For every second over that, the expected bounce rate (people leaving the page to go elsewhere) is around 40%.
You could potentially share the greatest life secrets of all time on a public web page, but it will go undiscovered if the page is not optimized to load up within a couple of seconds. (If you're old enough to know what a dial-up modem is, you'll appreciate the doubt of this metric.)
But in the quest for speed, our impatience leads us to sacrifice truth. In some cases, that could mean a lifetime of remorse and unhappiness. You just cannot unring a bell!
It's never too late to learn how to be patient. There are enough tools and techniques listed here to get you started.
Ultimately, though, we need to be able to implement these in our daily lives. That takes patience.
In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.