Waiting is a breeding ground for…

We have all been there; our local Department of Motor Vehicles, the grocery store checkout, traffic jams, airport security and the abyss called the airline boarding process, just to name a few. These are all infamous places well known for testing our collective patience.

We complain about our meetings taking too long, our wifi/satellite signals moving like molasses on a cold winter day, and even stop lights are becoming dreadfully slow.

Recently I read a New York Times article titled, “Why Waiting Is Torture” and reflected on why we have such a difficult time waiting for, well…anything.

Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line. 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.

Photograph: Mark Hillary/Flickr
Photograph: Mark Hillary/Flickr

The research fascinated me. It tells the story of an airport determined to improve the wait time for disgruntled passengers who felt they were waiting too long to receive their luggage at the baggage claim. To solve the problem, the airport added more baggage handlers and waited for the complaints to disappear.

They didn’t.

So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero.

Let that soak in for a moment. The “TTB” (time-to-baggage) metric wasn’t reduced, yet passengers were content. Why? It was the perceived time lost that aggravated travelers, not the actual time.

This got me thinking. Why do we see the act of waiting in such a negative light? Why do we have such a difficult time being patient? Whether we are in lines at the grocery store, or going through a challenging season in our lives, I’d like to provide some thoughts for why we should reconsider our posture when waiting.

• Waiting breeds opportunity. I was watching a football game with my son a few weeks ago, and as one of the quarterback’s hiked the ball, he proceeded to hand it off to the running back. Then something interesting happened. The running back literally stopped. “What is he doing?”, I thought. I was curious to understand why he would step on the brakes, as men twice his size began to bear down on his position. However, as he paused, the blockers in front of him produced a gap. And then he took off. If he had not waited for his teammates to do their job and allow the play to unfold, he would have run into a wall of 300+ pound defenders. But instead, he waited until the window down the field was opened, and then proceeded to grab the opportunity at the perfect moment. How many of us “run” before it’s time? There could be an incredible opportunity waiting to surface.

Photograph: Paul/Flickr
Photograph: Paul/Flickr

• Waiting breeds endurance. Endurance is defined as;

the ability to enduring an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way. (source: Google)

I like this definition. With endurance, two things come with the territory; waiting and hardship. But look at that last portion, “without giving way”. If successful, endurance = strength. Waiting during a challenging circumstance can simply be the method whereby we achieve strength. Three years ago I remember waiting to adopt our two children from Ethiopia. Agonizing could be an accurate word that would describe how we felt. Waiting brought about an opportunity for endurance. And since that time, as we encounter other circumstances in our lives that require waiting, we are able to weather it with determination and the strength to not give way. Which takes us to the last point.

• Waiting breeds hope. What does hope have to do with waiting? More than you might think. How did you feel the last time you had to wait for something? Waiting often brings about what’s described as “annoying stress”. Our brains are reacting to feelings of anxiousness because we are in a situation we don’t want to be in. But what if the outcome of our waiting brought about an incredibly positive result? Would we be so stressed or aggravated? During my career, I’ve worked for different organizations that have weathered difficult financial times. These moments could have induced panic and stress among the workforce, but in one of these organizations, leadership remained calm and hopeful about the future. And eventually, that hope became contagious. Ultimately, the organization remained focused and succeeded. So, if we approach our waiting as an opportunity to bring a positive outcome, we will feel much better about enduring it.

Let’s go back to the airport example. If we feel like we are waiting, it can induce stressors and ultimately bring out the ugly in us. However, if we refocus our attention on the opportunities around us, waiting can be a breeding ground for greatness.

So consider this. Will the act of waiting test us? Absolutely. But let’s not allow it take from us the very thing that it can deliver; strength, opportunity and hope.

Homework: What if we took time to wait with purpose? The next time you are standing in line, look around. What opportunities are lying dormant, waiting to be awakened?