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3 Ways to Teach Yourself to Wait

There are a few tricks impatient people can learn to relax.

Key points

  • The inability to tolerate uncertainty can be an important risk factor for psychological distress.
  • Research adopting a new behavioral approach shows that distress, not waiting, creates problems for impatient people.
  • Strategies for learning patience include paying attention to one's thoughts while waiting, practicing waiting, and rewarding successful waiting.

Is waiting for answers in a world where the answers can take time the bane of your existence? Do questions pop into your head that you can’t silence until your curiosity is relieved by a Google search? If the search doesn’t turn up any information, can you set the question aside and focus on something else? How about your ability to wait for an ending, whether of a book, a gameshow, or an action or mystery movie? Do you peek ahead, when it's possible, to see how everything ends up?

What about learning that there’s a delay in an online order? Do you constantly check its status to see if, by chance, it will actually arrive on time? With the many delays due to COVID’s impact on the supply chain, not to mention unanticipated changes that disrupt your schedule due to life’s many uncertainties now, the ability to relax while you let situations play out would seem to be an important adaptive skill.

These examples of having to wait for answers or dealing with fluid situations and schedules can be part of a larger phenomenon known as “intolerance of uncertainty,” also known as “IU.” According to University of Cincinnati’s Emily O’Bryan and colleagues (2021), this quality takes the form of a “dispositional incapacity to endure the aversive response triggered by the perceived absence of salient, key, or insufficient information and sustained by the associated perception of uncertainty.”

In other words, the inability to wait and need for answers leads people high in IU to be miserable until they are able to get the answers they want or find out how a suspenseful situation is resolved. Indeed, O’Bryan and all summarize the previous literature showing that IU does have maladaptive consequences, predisposing individuals to be higher in psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression.

A Simple Test Can Measure Your Own Intolerance of Uncertainty

As O’Bryan and her fellow researchers point out, it can be difficult to assess IU using standard questionnaire measures which rely heavily on an individual’s ability to have insight into the degree to which they become distressed at having to wait. This problem occurs with psychological measures in general, but for so many of these, researchers have no alternative other than using these imperfect instruments. In the case of IU, however, O’Bryan et al. note that it’s possible to design a measure in which researchers actually observe individuals while they’re being confronted with an uncertain situation and then see what happens.

A behavioral measure of IU would be of great value if you think you’re the type of person who can’t stand not knowing an outcome and can’t think about anything until you do. One such approach that researchers have relied on is the laboratory-based “Beads Task,” in which the examiner shows you a series of beads taken from jars and you have to decide which jars they came from. You have to wait to see enough beads to make a decision but if you’re in a hurry to have an answer, you’ll make a premature choice that is likely to be wrong. Researchers can up the ante by putting pressure on participants and they can also take advantage of the lab setting to measure your physiological responses to uncertainty under stress.

Given the constraints on this approach, and seeking a measure that could be used to gather online data, the researchers developed what they believed would be a comparable IU measure. In this approach, called the “PACT Anagram Task” (PAT), you see an anagram flash on the screen for a mere quarter of a second. Then you have five options to select the word that was a correct anagram of the letters you saw; these are displayed for one second. After that, you have four seconds to provide your response. Then, you answer two questions indicating how sure you were about your response and whether you’d want to have another try at solving the anagram.

If this seems like a very difficult task, you’re right. The key measure from the PAT isn’t how well you do, but how much uncertainty you express, how many anagrams you’d like to repeat, and then, how distressed you reported feeling during the task. Sample questions included: “How anxious do you feel? (using a scale of 0-100)” and “To what extent do you need to know the correct items on this test in order to be satisfied?” As you can see, these questions tap situation-specific behavior and feelings rather than general tendencies toward IU as would be assessed on a personality test.

To determine whether the PAT provided a valid measure of IU, O’Bryan and her colleagues next compared the scores of their 221 undergraduates in their test sample to other published (self-report) measures of IU as well as instruments designed to assess perfectionism, obsessional beliefs, and the related quality of tolerance of ambiguity. The authors also tested out measures that they proposed would not relate to the PAT scores, such as compassion and empathy, to rule out these competing tendencies. Finally, to examine whether PAT scores would relate to anxiety and depression, the authors administered tests of worry, health anxiety, anxiety about social interaction, and depressive symptoms.

How the Anagram Test Can Help You Become Better at Waiting

Turning now to the findings, the authors reported that the PAT performed as they expected. Not only did the distress scores relate in predicted ways to other measures of IU, but the PAT measures didn’t relate to scores on compassion or empathy, also consistent with prediction. Two components of PAT scores, degree of uncertainty and desire to retry, didn’t perform as hypothesized, and some findings with the PAT were no longer significant after controlling for the self-report IU measure.

Given this pattern of results, the authors concluded that “subjective distress immediately following completion of the PAT may be considered an indicator of the distress component of IU.” This means that it’s how upset you are when you can’t get to an answer that seems to be at the heart of this quality. It follows that it’s not the wait, but the amount of unhappiness about the wait, that can make life difficult for the impatient.

The practical significance of the O’Bryan study, then, seems to lie in the distress component of IU. With this in mind, here are the three strategies you can use to get that distress under control:

  1. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings when you’re forced to wait. A key to cognitive behavioral approaches to stress, a theory consistent with the O’Bryan et al. study, is that your thoughts play a major role in creating your feelings. If you think you need an answer right away, you’ll naturally feel upset when you can’t get one. Tell yourself that the answer will come eventually, and even if it doesn’t, you can live without knowing it.
  2. Practice waiting. You may not be able to create your own version of the PAT, but you can put yourself in situations when the answer eludes you, at least for the moment. The next time you’re tempted to rush ahead to find out how a movie or novel turns out, slow yourself down and force yourself to focus on the situation as it unfolds. Maybe you’ll find a newfound appreciation for a style of writing or directing that otherwise you wouldn’t have noticed.
  3. Reward yourself when you’re able to wait successfully. The behavioral approach underlying the PAT is one that you can use to your advantage when you’re trying to build up your own ability to withstand uncertainty. Aside from giving yourself a mental pat on the back, you could also build in concrete outcomes such as having a favorite treat or spending a few minutes doing something you enjoy when you’ve successfully let the clock run down rather than making a hasty decision. Returning to the Beads Task, you can give yourself similar challenges and see how much better you do when you don’t rush to a hastily-conceived judgment.

To sum up, rather than assume that waiting is a state to be avoided at all costs, recognize that perhaps there are benefits to practicing patience. Fulfillment doesn’t always occur in an instant, and rather than fight uncertainty, embrace the joys of letting time take its course.

References

O’Bryan, E. M., Beadel, J. R., McLeish, A. C., & Teachman, B. A. (2021). Assessment of intolerance of uncertainty: Validation of a modified anagram task. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 73. https://doi-org /10.1016/j.jbtep.2021.101671

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