I’m a very impatient person, and standing in a slow-moving line is one of those very small, maddening aspects of life that drives me crazy. As often happens, however, when I learned more about the experience, it became more interesting to me.

I happened to read a paper by David Maister, The Psychology of Waiting Lines. The piece is aimed at people who operate stores, restaurants, doctors’ offices, and other places where people fuss about being kept waiting. Of course, most of us are the ones standing in line, not the ones controlling the line, but I was fascinated by getting this insight into my own psychology.

Maister’s main point is that the actual time we’re waiting may have little relationship to how long that wait feels. Here are eight factors that make waits seem longer:

1. Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time. When you have something to distract yourself, time passes more quickly. Some hotels put mirrors by the elevators, because people like to look at themselves.

2. People want to get started. This is why restaurants give you a menu while you wait, and why the orthodontist put my daughter in the examination room twenty-five minutes before her exam actually begins.

3. Anxiety makes waits seem longer. If you think you’ve chosen the slowest line at the drugstore, or you’re worried about getting a seat on the plane, the wait will seem longer.

4. Uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits. People wait more calmly when they’re told, “The doctor will see you in thirty minutes” than when they’re told, “The doctor will see you soon.” Maister gives an amusing illustration of a phenomenon that I’d noticed in my own life: if I arrive someplace thirty minutes early, I wait with perfect patience, but three minutes after my appointment time passes, I start to feel annoyed. “Just how long am I going to have to wait?” I think.

5. Unexplained waits are longer than explained waits. We wait more patiently for the pizza guy when there’s a thunderstorm than when the sky is clear.

6. Unfair waits are longer than equitable waits. People want their waits to be fair. I get anxious, for instance, when I’m waiting on a crowded subway platform, when there’s no clear, fair way to determine who gets on the next car. The “FIFO” rule (first in, first out) is a great rule, when it works. But sometimes certain people need attention more urgently, or certain people are more valuable customers. Then it gets trickier. Often, when people are treated out of sequence, it’s helpful to have them be served elsewhere — e.g., people giving customer service by phone shouldn’t be in the same room as people giving service in person.

7. The more valuable the service, the longer the customer will wait. You’ll wait longer to talk to a doctor than to talk to a sales clerk. You’ll stand in line longer to buy an iPad than to buy a toothbrush.

8. Solo waits feel longer than group waits. The more people engage with each other, the less they notice the wait time. In fact, in some situations, waiting in line is part of the experience. During my book signings, I’ve been very gratified to have people tell me, “I had so much fun talking to the people in line!”

Since I’ve read this paper, I’ve been far more patient about standing in line. I’m occupied (see #1) with thoughts analyzing my own experience of waiting in line!  Also, it may not always be good for us to be able to distract ourselves with our cell phones, but it sure makes the DMV easier.

Have you found any good ways to make waiting in line more pleasant?

Also ...

  • If you're thinking, "Hmmm, should I read Happier at Home?" here's some information to help you decide. Short answer:  Of course you do!

    -- read a sample chapter on the subject of "time"

    -- watch the one-minute book trailer, "Ten ways to be happier at home"

    -- request the one-page book club discussion guide

    -- read the Behind-the-Scenes extra (I had a great time writing this)

    -- come to a book event


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