Waiting Well

“Are we almost there?”

“Why won’t this page load any faster?”

“Why doesn’t the recruiter call me back?”

“Is our table almost ready?”

Do these phrases sound familiar? We’ve all said them.

Thousands of high school seniors – right now – return home from school anxious to see what the mailman/woman has delivered: When will they finally hear if they have been accepted to their favorite university? If the wait continues, it’s usually mom or dad who has to deal with a grumpy teenager.

Waiting causes anxiety, frustration, anger…even depression.

After returning home from a skiing trip that I took with my daughter back in March, I experienced such hip pain that I could hardly sleep at night, let alone walk around during the day.  A friend gave me the name of a very good orthopedic specialist and I called to get an appointment. I was surprised and frustrated to hear that the first available appointment is not until the end of June. Should I wait and go to the best specialist or shop around for another doctor who – based solely on my perception -won’t be as good as the one who has been recommended to me by a very satisfied patient?

I’m not good at waiting. I returned to the United States in 1995 after spending 20 years in Europe. It took me 8 months to find a job. How frustrated do you think I was?

So… how good are you at waiting?

“Waiting” is a multi-billion dollar issue and there are plenty of researchers that study the subject for companies who are trying to reduce waiting times, or help customers believe they really aren’t waiting as long as they are.  Companies that can get “waiting” right, will have an easier time gaining and retaining customers and creating positive public relations.

Did you know that Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in lines? (1) Richard Larson, an MIT professor who spends his time studying waiting, estimates that people who deal with slower-than-normal traffic on their daily work commute spend 1-2 years of their life waiting. (2)

In the 1940s elevator companies in New York City felt the heat from frustrated workers who had to wait for their ride to arrive. Someone came up with the idea that installing large mirrors next to the elevator doors would be a good distraction as people liked to look at themselves – and others – while waiting.  Visit any doctor’s waiting room and you’ll find a TV broadcasting a fixer-upper program or some cooking challenge. This is all meant to distract the patient from thinking about how long they are waiting to see their doctor.

Today, companies understand that reducing their clients’ waiting time will lead to happier clients and more income. And how do they do that? If you’ve ever been to Disney World you might have jumped to the front of the line using a FastPass. Airlines “allow” their best customers priority boarding and most airlines even make additional money by selling priority-boarding privileges.

Businesses also play waiting mind-games with their customers. Disney, for example, will over-estimate the wait times and then “surprising” their visitors by getting them to the ride in half the expected time.  I was recently at a restaurant that didn’t take reservations and when I asked how long the wait was I was frustrated to hear that a table wouldn’t be available for at least 45 minutes. Never the less I agreed to the wait and was pleasantly surprised when my name was called after only 20 minutes. I now believe that this was done on purpose. My mood went from rotten to very happy within only 20 minutes. I know my waiter was pleased with my positive attitude.

How can you become better at waiting, i.e., less frustrated or angry? Is there a way to reduce the number of hours you waste waiting? Here are a few suggestions that you might want to consider:

  • Plan better: Better planning can be instrumental in reducing the stress that waiting can cause, especially traffic related stress. Let me give you an example of how this might work. During lacrosse season my boys will have away games that start at 7 pm.  If I leave work at 6 pm to get to the game I know that the traffic will cause me to arrive late. This is very stressful.  Instead, I’ll leave at 4 pm, find a Panera Restaurant close to the venue site and get onto their Wi-Fi. I’ll continue working and grab a bite to eat.
  • Move: If your one of those people stuck in traffic every day you might need to consider moving closer to your place of employment. I know people who have actually done this and who attest to an improved quality of life.
  • Ask for flexible hours: Often times, leaving for work a bit later in the morning can reduce your commute. Think about the flexibility you’d need to reduce your waiting hours and discuss this with your boss.  Maybe there are some options to work from home. I’m not saying this will be easy to achieve but you have nothing to lose, so think outside of the box and see what you come up with.
  • Find an alternative location: I’ve learned that it is worth driving a bit further to visit a DMV that is located outside of the city limits. This can save you many hours of waiting. Often times you can even call these remote locations and make an appointment.  You’ll find that the folks who work at these remote locations are usually friendlier.
  • Take a book: If you do have to visit an unpopular DMV location or maybe have your car serviced, I would recommend taking along a good book. You might not have Wi-Fi so taking your laptop might not be an alternative. In addition to the book I’ll also take a set of earplugs!
  • Be friendly: If you are friendly and engage the person who can increase or decrease your waiting time, chances are they will do everything possible to accommodate you as quickly as possible. They are used to dealing all day with grumpy, unfriendly people so having a positive, friendly attitude toward them will differentiate you versus the crowd.  This even works at the DMV!
  • Pay a bit more: The dollar does talk and if you want to reduce your wait, be willing to spend a bit more money. This will be true for every service that you need or want.
  • Listen to God: I have no idea if you are a spiritual person but when I find myself waiting for something really important to happen I try to discern if God is trying to teach me something, maybe change my heart or even say “no” to something I desire.  Garth Brooks released a song in 1990 called Unanswered Prayers in which he sings: “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” Reflect on that statement.  My biggest problem is slowing down and finding quiet time needed to hear His voice.

We all hate to wait but some people deal with this problem better than others. Businesses that can reduce the amount of time their customers need to wait for a product or service, will hold a competitive advantage.  And sometimes the waiting time has nothing to do with reality but rather our perception. We all look for the shortest check-out-aisle at the grocery store and are frustrated that the longer one is moving much faster than the shorter one we’ve chosen.


  1. Alex Stone: “Why Waiting is Torture” – NYT, Sunday Review, Aug. 18, 2012
  2. Ana Swanson:  What really drives you crazy about waiting in line (it actually isn’t the wait at all)– The Washington Post,   Nov. 27, 2015