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The Art of Waiting in Line

Stuck in line? Here’s how to combat impatience and stress.


Waiting in line is an inescapable fact of modern life, from checking out at your neighborhood supermarket to going through security at an international airport. Often, it's a source of boredom, impatience, and irritation, and those feelings can lead to physiological stress. In fact, research has shown that waiting in line can trigger a rise in blood pressure and heart rate. Multiplied by the number of times you wait every day, it could have a real impact on your health.

Choose Your Queues
A negative reaction to waiting in line can also affect consumer behavior, and that has gotten the attention of marketers and psychologists. Studies have identified several factors that make waiting more tolerable. As a consumer, you can't control how a particular business addresses these factors, but you can choose to patronize businesses that make waiting more pleasant for you. In general, you'll feel less stressed when standing in lines with these characteristics:

  • Short. Enough said.
  • Fair. You're likely to feel less frustrated if a line obviously operates on the first-come, first-served principle. That's why many businesses have adopted a single line leading to multiple cashiers rather than multiple lines, where you always end up feeling as if you picked the wrong one.
  • Respectful. You're apt to feel less aggravated when waiting for help from an employee who is working hard rather than one who seems to be ignoring you or chatting with friends. It's important to feel as if your time is valued.
  • Entertaining. Waiting time passes faster when you have a diversion to keep your mind busy. Amusement parks know this; they often entertain customers waiting for popular attractions with costumed characters or interactive games. On a more mundane level, many businesses have a big-screen TV to watch while you wait.

Wait for It, Wait for It...
You can also manage your own behavior to reduce the stress of waiting in line. Here are some quick tips for queuing up:

  • Allow plenty of time. Reduce pressure by allotting enough time for the longest line you're likely to encounter at a given locale. Then if the line is long, you'll still be okay—and if it's shorter, you'll be running ahead of schedule.
  • Take some deep breaths. The National Institutes of Health suggests inhaling through your nose for a count of four, holding for one beat, and then exhaling for a count of five.
  • Practice mindfulness. Focus your awareness on what you're experiencing from moment to moment, good and bad, without judging it. Anchoring your mind in the present helps keep you from fretting over something that happened earlier or worrying about whatever comes next.
  • Move around a little. For prolonged standing, the American Chiropractic Association recommends shifting your weight and changing your stance every three to five minutes. You can also do some discrete stretching. For example, to stretch your toes, spread them as wide as you can, hold for a few seconds, and then relax.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health and psychology writer who writes frequently about stress management. Follow her on Twitter. Find her on Facebook. Visit her online.