Why do we grow impatient? What purpose does it serve? How should we manage it?
Posted November 4, 2014 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
“It’s been two days, Grok. I think it might be time to stop hunting and start gathering.” —Thag, 65,000 BC
Do you know when to be patient, and when to give in to your impatience? It's good to know such things, because the stakes can be quite high at times.
If you're too impatient, you can make rash decisions with terrible consequences. If you're too patient, you can waste vast stretches of your life pursuing the wrong goals.
On one side are rocks, and on the other is a vast vortex. And you must guide your ship between the two.
This essay is a lighthouse.
The Grocery Store
I was at the grocery store with a sandwich and a pint of milk in my hands, barely on time to pick up my daughter from school, and I had picked the wrong line.
The clerk in my line had abandoned it to talk with her manager, and I watched as a man got in the other line, moved steadily forward, checked out, and left with his groceries, while I stood still.
I was growing impatient.
I considered switching lines, but the other line had grown longer than when I had arrived. So I left. I walked to the front of my line, plopped down my sandwich and milk and walked out of the store. I got in my car and drove to another grocery store a mile down the road and bought lunch there.
My decision was irrational. It almost certainly took more time to drive to the second store and get lunch than it would have taken to get through the line at the first store. My impatience cost me (and my daughter, as I was 5 minutes late picking her up).
This isn’t the first time impatience has cost me. Nor is it potentially the most costly example. While impatient in traffic I’ve made unnecessary, and sometimes risky, lane changes. While impatient building my business, I’ve been drawn in by promising-looking shortcuts that cost me weeks of work that should have been spent working on my original plan. And so forth.
But the incident at the grocery store was special, because it made me finally want to understand impatience better. Maybe if I understood it better I could recognize when I was about to make an irrational choice and head it off before it happens.
What Is Impatience?
This is Merriam-Webster’s definition of ‘impatient’:
- not willing to wait for something or someone: not patient
- wanting or eager to do something without waiting
- showing that you do not want to wait: showing a lack of patience
That definition captures some of what I was feeling in the line at the grocery store. But it doesn’t help us understand why we become impatient, what triggers the impatience, or what actions we’re likely to take while impatient. So let’s move beyond this dictionary definition and try for a deeper understanding.
Emotions As Adaptive Syndromes
The philosopher Allan Gibbard, in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, suggests the following approach to understanding emotions: Treat them as “adaptive syndromes.”
In addition to describing how an emotion feels, an adaptive syndrome account provides answers to the following three questions:
1. In what conditions does it arise?
2. What triggers it?
3. What actions does it motivate?
And it’s nice if it also provides at least a semi-plausible answer to a fourth question:
4. Why do creatures like us have this emotion in the first place? (i.e., what evolutionary fitness benefit does it provide)
Gibbard gives adaptive syndrome accounts for the emotions of guilt, anger, disdain, and shame. And that allows him to explain how guilt differs from shame and how guilt and anger work together to coordinate human attitudes.
Let’s see if an adaptive syndrome approach can also help us understand impatience.
Impatience As An Adaptive Syndrome
Which conditions set the stage for my impatience when I stood waiting in line at the grocery store? These seem relevant: I had a goal (I wanted to get my lunch so I could eat it), I had a vague estimate of how long it would take to reach that goal, and I had something else to do with my time (driving to the school to pick up my daughter).
What about triggers? What triggered my impatience? I started getting impatient when I realized the line wasn’t moving, and began to suspect it was going to take longer to reach my goal than I had planned.
I also felt some indignation over the fact that other customers, who got in line after I did, were leaving the store while I was still in line. But indignation is a separate factor, and we’ll try to keep it separate.
What about actions? What did my impatience motivate me to do? Well, I started looking for a shortcut that would get me to my goal more quickly (switching lines). And I eventually switched to an entirely different plan—getting my lunch at a different store.
And with those observations we have enough for a first try. Here’s a rough adaptive syndrome account of impatience:
Adaptive Syndrome Account of Impatience (Version 1.0)
- We have a goal.
- We have estimated how long it will take to reach the goal.
- We have other things we could be doing if we weren’t pursuing the goal.
- We learn that it’s going to take longer than expected to reach our goal.
- We look for shortcuts (and are motivated to take them if we find them).
- We consider switching goals (and sometimes do).
This characterization fits the example of waiting in line. But we should test it against more than one example. And doing so will lead us to an account that’s not only more accurate, but also simpler.
Toward a Better Account of Impatience
Consider a little girl waiting for Christmas. She grows impatient as she waits. But never does she come to realize that it’s going to take longer to get to Christmas than she thought. She’s been watching the calendar. She knows exactly how long it’s going to take, and it doesn’t change.
So what’s going on here? The key is that she can’t stop thinking about Christmas, and her thoughts of Christmas prevent her from fully enjoying other activities in the meantime. Her realization is not that it’s going to take more time to get to her goal than she thought, but that it’s going to cost her more in terms of distraction.
Or consider a man climbing a hill. He knows how long the hill is, and how fast he’s moving. So he has a good estimate of how long it will take. And, at first, he’s eager for the challenge of climbing the hill. But the longer he climbs the more impatient he gets.
Why? It’s likely he didn’t know how much it would hurt to climb the hill. As that becomes clear, he realizes that the climb is going to cost him more than he thought in terms of pain.
These examples suggest the following adjustment to our account of impatience. Instead of talking only about time, we’ll talk more generally about costs. We have an idea about what it’s going to cost us to reach a goal, and we come to realize it’s going to cost us more than we thought.
Finally, consider someone who is self-employed, and is three months into a six-month project that should yield a new stream of income when he’s done. What happens if, in the meantime, he learns of a new opportunity to make money? This new opportunity should take only two weeks and is expected to pay well if all goes according to plan.
Before learning of the side project, he was content to work on the original project at the original pace. Now he grows impatient. Why? None of the costs of completing the original project went up. What went up are his opportunity costs. There is now one more thing he could be doing with his time, and this new thing might be better than what he’s currently doing.
So we must include opportunity costs in the equation.
And, with those additional observations, we come to our final version of impatience:
Adaptive Syndrome Account of Impatience (Final Version)
- We have a goal.
- We have accepted certain costs (including opportunity costs) for reaching the goal.
- We learn that it’s going to cost us more than we thought to reach our goal.
- We start looking for ways to avoid the extra costs.
That makes things simple. It turns out we can pack a pretty good functional definition of impatience into a single sentence.
Impatience as an Adaptive Syndrome: We suffer impatience when 1) we have a goal, 2) we have accepted certain costs (including opportunity costs) for reaching the goal, 3) we learn that it’s going to cost us more than we thought to reach the goal, and 4) we start looking for ways to avoid having to pay those extra costs.
Now, why? Why do we have impatience in our repertoire of emotions—especially when it can cost us dearly at times? We’ll begin to answer this question by asking a couple of related questions.
When Is Impatience Good? When Is It Bad?
So, when does impatience serve us well? And when does it serve us poorly?
Impatience is good when:
- it motivates us to learn the full costs of reaching our goal.
- it motivates us to find ways to reduce the costs of working toward our goal.
- it motivates us to switch to a better goal (this is sometimes good).
- it motivates us to understand our options better.
- there’s a deadline and our current plan is going to take too long.
Impatience is bad when:
- our original goal is worth sticking to, and we switch goals instead.
- we stick to our original goal but our constant search for alternatives distracts us from our work.
- we become impatient too often, and our lives are filled with a lot of unnecessary agitation, second-guessing, and bad decisions.
Impatience can serve us well at times. And that helps us understand why the emotion is part of our standard emotional repertoire.
But sometimes it costs us. And that helps us narrow our question down to this: Why does impatience sometimes cause us to make irrational decisions?
The Many Faces of Impatience
Not everyone is impatient to the same degree. Some people are consistently more impatient than they should be. They are visibly more agitated than others in the face of unexpected delays. And they’re more likely than others to abandon an existing course of action for a new plan.
In contrast, some people are overly patient, sticking with existing courses of action long after it makes sense to do so.
And some people will have a mixed experience, too impatient at times, and too patient at others.
When a trait varies, and the environment varies, one expression of that trait will fit a given situation better than others. And in a different situation the roles might be reversed.
It could be that in some environments, full of chaos, full of change, where long term planning doesn’t pay off very well, those who are impatient will do better than those who are patient. And, in some environments, when there’s widespread stability, when long term planning pays off, then those who are patient will do better than those who are impatient.
And it might be that those who fall somewhere in between will do reasonably well in both environments.
But what does that mean for our experience in the modern world? Are there reasons to think impatience costs all of us, or at least most of us, more than it used to?
Does Impatience Cost Us More Than It Used to?
There are reasons to think that impatience is more costly today than it used to be. On the ancestral savannah, we had to decide whether or not to persist in a hunt. When it took longer than expected to find game it was time to consider alternative strategies for obtaining food. Impatience was often good. If it took more than two days to reach a goal, perhaps it was time to switch strategies or switch goals.
But today we have goals that require much more persistence. Our projects can take months. And if we get impatient after two days, we might never finish a project that adds up to anything.
With that said, there are also reasons to think impatience is rewarded more today than it was 50 years ago. Fifty years ago companies had five-year plans. Now five-year plans are mostly a joke. CEOs and entrepreneurs today must pay much more attention to the new, and they must be willing to consider changing course much more frequently than they used to. Sticking to a five-year plan is a good way to bring a hopelessly outdated product to market.
And the faster technology changes, the less patience will pay.
On balance, impatience is probably rewarded more today than it was 50 years ago, but still much less than it was on the savannah.
This much is clear: We have more opportunities to be impatient today. Our world is much more complicated than it used to be. Our technology is more complicated. Our social lives are more complicated. Our personal schedules are more complicated. And the more complicated things become, the more the various parts of our lives will collide with one another. Many of those collisions will bring unexpected costs. And those unexpected costs will lead to impatience.
We also have a greater number of attractive ways to spend our time. We have video games, leisure sports, movies, books, parties, smartphones, and Facebook. These all serve as “better things to do” whenever we find ourselves in the midst of an unexpected delay.
All this means that, on average, we spend a lot more time reconsidering the value of our current activity than did our ancient ancestors. We’re ready to switch horses in a heartbeat because our horse has trouble maintaining a steady gait, and there are so many other amazing horses to choose from.
On average we are almost certainly more impatient than we used to be. And that means our lives are filled with second-guessing, agitation, and, at times, irrational choices.
So, what can we do about it?
Reducing the Cost of Impatience
Let’s be clear. Patience is not always a virtue. Sometimes we should pay close attention as we grow impatient. We should consider whether there might be ways to speed things up. And we should consider whether there are better uses of our time, attention, and energy. Knee-jerk patience is for sheep.
But we also know impatience can prove counterproductive. So let's consider how we might manage our impatience better. That way we can make fewer irrational choices, and avoid much of the inner agitation that comes with modern life.
Ideally, we would heed our impatience when it makes sense to heed it, and otherwise ignore or prevent it. The rub is that we can’t usually tell ahead of time which strategy is best. And it often takes time, attention, and energy to make those decisions on the fly. But there are things we can do, and our account of impatience will show the way.
Our account tells us when we are likely to be triggered, it tells us what those triggers are, and it tells us what we are likely to do when we get triggered. And that gives us a measure of control. Specifically, we can change our environment so we get triggered less often, and we can re-program our responses when we do get triggered, so we make better choices. Let’s look at how we might do each of these things.
Reducing Exposure to Triggers
Impatience is triggered when we become aware of increased costs for pursuing our current goal. So if we can shield ourselves from learning about increased costs, we can shield ourselves from becoming impatient.
When we’re trying to focus on a project that requires our full attention, it’s a bad idea, at least in the short term, to leave ourselves open to receiving too much outside information. If we’re constantly receiving information that causes us to consider whether there are “better” uses for our time, our minds will become cluttered while we’re working. And, if we’re particularly impulsive that day, we might even stop working altogether.
For example, if you’re in the middle of an hour-long block of writing, and you get notified about a wrongheaded reply some “numbskull” made to a brilliant comment you made on a social media site, you will be tempted to stop your writing so you can go set the numbskull straight. And, even if you resist the temptation, your attention will be divided. Your mind will spend energy and time figuring out which is the better use of your time. Your opportunity costs will have gone up, and, because of that, you will become impatient while you write. And the impatience itself will add attentional costs on top of that.
So, if we’re trying to write for an hour or two, it’s a good idea to turn off the phone, turn off social media notifications, close the email account, and remove games from our work computer. We should make a rule for ourselves that we won’t check any of those things until we’ve first completed a good chunk of our creative work.
And we should also shield ourselves on larger time scales. For instance, if we’re writing a chapter for a book, and we think it might take a week or two, we should try to avoid learning about other projects that might compete for our attention. We don’t want to be second-guessing our decision to write the chapter while we’re writing it.
With that said, we don’t want to shut ourselves off completely from new opportunities either. Sometimes there are better uses for our time. And we should leave ourselves a way to learn about these opportunities while there’s still time to act.
So how do we strike the balance? It’s pretty simple, really. We can alternate between periods of openness to new information and periods of shielding ourselves from new information. For instance, we could make a habit of starting every workday working on our core creative projects for two hours, completely shielded from the outside world. Then we can allow ourselves to check our email, our phone messages, and our social media accounts. And we can repeat that pattern until we reach the end of our workday.
On the larger scale we can divide our larger projects into one-week chunks. We can make up our minds that we will complete each one-week chunk no matter what, while refusing to think about alternative uses of our work time. Then, between chunks, maybe every Friday afternoon, or Monday morning, we can allow ourselves to consider whether there are more important or more promising projects to work on. That way we can work with undivided attention, and create substantial value every single week. And the risk of missing out if something better does come along will be kept minimal.
We can reduce the costs of impatience by embracing cycles of patience and impatience. We are patient, and shield ourselves from new information while we work, and open ourselves up to learning of new opportunities and second-guessing only after we’ve gotten something done.
Re-Programming Our Response to Impatience
Despite our best efforts to schedule our impatience, we will find ourselves triggered out of the blue at times. And we want to make sure, in those cases, that we make good decisions.
What should we do when we find ourselves in traffic surrounded by clueless drivers? What should we do at the grocery store when the customer in line ahead of us pulls out a fistful of coupons, fumbles with small change, and questions every other price as the clerk rings it up? What should we do while getting through an excruciating event we’re obliged to attend?
Here’s a list of things to try:
- Take a deep breath.
- Identify which goal is being frustrated.
- Identify how the perceived costs of reaching that goal have risen.
- Decide, calmly and rationally, whether you should 1) try to find a shortcut, 2) switch goals, or 3) settle in and come to peace with the situation.
- If you have decided to settle in and come to peace with the situation, then accept the increased costs, and change your mindset. Maybe even find a way to play a game within the game to keep your mind occupied while you wait.
And, with that, we’re (finally) at the end of the essay. Now go get on with the rest of your life!