Friday, April 19, 2024

TGIF How not to be bored when you have to wait

Nicholas Janni. Offering alternative view on how a leader can live an integrated life of body, mind and spirit and lead others in a whole and holistic way. Nicolas teaches at IMD and the Saïd Business School at Oxford university

 Becoming the Leader As Healer season 1 Episodes 1-4

How not to be bored when you have to wait

A writer went on a quest to wait less. Then he discovered how to care less about waiting.

Like many, I travel a lot for work. Unlike many, I never get tired of it. On the open road are always interesting people and new places. Phoenix in July or Fairbanks in the winter? Bring it on. There is one thing about travel that bugs me, though, and has ever since my tender years: the constant waiting. When I travel, I wait in the TSA [Transportation Safety Administration] line, wait to board the plane, wait in restaurants, wait to check into hotels, and on and on.
This pet peeve about waiting is shared by most Americans, 64 per cent of whom have to wait in line at a business at least a few times a week, and two-thirds of whom say that their predominant emotion while doing so is negative (according to a survey by Waitwhile, a company whose business is, literally, queuing management). Small wonder that scholars find that waiting for products and services strongly lowers satisfaction and loyalty to a service provider; according to the Waitwhile survey, 82 per cent of customers actively avoid going to a business with a line.
Instead of engineering the outside world to make waiting better work on yourself, to learn how to live in a world of waiting. Getty
For years, I have tried to design my life in such a way to lower how much time I have to spend waiting, and it has worked: I ask for the bill as soon as the server brings me my lunch; I have all the subscriptions that help to streamline one’s passage through the airport; I patronise hotels that have self-service check-in kiosks. No doubt my waiting time is a fraction of what it used to be. But recently, I have realised that despite these improvements, I’m not any less aggravated by the waiting I still have to endure.
This mystery has led me to conclude that I have gone about the whole problem in the wrong way. I have been trying to engineer the outside world to make it better for me. I should instead have been working on myself, to live better in a world of waiting.


The problem with waiting for something we want – even when the waiting is not anxiety-provoking (as it can be for a medical result) – is that it produces two conditions that humans hate: boredom and lack of autonomy.
One way of understanding boredom is that it’s a state in which you fail to find meaning. Standing in line, knowing that you’re doing so to get or do something but are being forced to spend the time unproductively, is what feels meaningless. That can lead to frustration.
People resist the frustration of boredom so much that they will literally choose pain to pass the time: in one famous 2016 study, researchers ran an experiment in which they assigned participants to watch movies that were sad, neutral, or boring, during which they could self-administer painful electric shocks. Those watching the boring film shocked themselves more frequently and at higher intensity than the people watching the other films.
Waiting also lowers your sense of autonomy – or, to use the psychological parlance, creates an external locus of control, which means that your behaviour can’t change the situation at hand. This is extremely uncomfortable. Think of the last time you waited in an airport for a long-delayed flight, and the vexation that came from not being able to do anything about it except wait. For people who feel this a lot in their life – not just waiting in the occasional line but feeling as if they generally don’t have control over their circumstances, for economic, health, or social and family reasons – such a lack of autonomy is associated with depression.
You have probably noticed that to compound these problems, time seems to slow down when you’re waiting for something. As a rule, time perception is highly contextual and subjective, and the perceived duration of an experience may seem to stretch out when we are under stress.
In one experiment from the 1980s showing this, researchers asked people with arachnophobia to look at spiders – of which they were intensely afraid – for two stretches of 45 seconds apiece. They found that the phobic subjects systematically overestimated the amount of spider-watching time endured, especially after the second viewing of the spiders, which was likely related to the subjects’ already heightened stress levels.


Your annoyance in a bank line probably isn’t as extreme as that, but the frustration likely still makes the time drag. All of this leads to a vicious circle of waiting and frustration: The discomfort from waiting makes the waiting seem to go on longer, and this perceived extended waiting time increases your frustration.
Two obvious solutions to the waiting problem suggest themselves.
The first is what I have always done, which is to try to engineer the external environment to eliminate as much waiting as possible. This means scheduling activities meticulously to avoid traffic when possible, subscribing to services that allow you to jump lines, and eating at weird hours when restaurants aren’t crowded.
Phones are a common pastime while waiting. AFR 
That strategy helps a little, for a while, but as psychologists have long found – and as I’ve discovered for myself – the psychic gains from repeatedly attaining such gratification don’t usually last. That is because of a psychological phenomenon known as affective habituation: the process by which the positive feeling falls when we get something again and again.
Although the expense and inconvenience of these things are permanent, studies have shown that the benefits wear off quickly and become a new normal that is very nearly as frustrating as the old one.
Another waiting strategy most people have turned to of late is distraction by device. When a line forms, nearly everyone pulls out their phone to fritter away the time, playing games, checking email, and, especially, scrolling social media. You might think that this solution must work, the way everyone does it, but in fact it might not work at all.
In one study published in 2021, researchers monitored the level of boredom (and fatigue) that people reported over the course of their workday. As their boredom increased, the more likely they were to use their phone. This did not provide relief, however.
On the contrary, they reported more boredom and fatigue after having used the phone. Your phone may attract your attention, but after the first few seconds, it may expose the false promise that it really isn’t much more interesting than staring at the wall; meanwhile, it sucks up your energy.

Two suggestions

If these solutions that try to change the outside world are not helpful, looking within ourselves could be a better bet. I can recommend two ways to transform waiting time from something to endure into an investment in yourself.
The first is the practice of mindfulness. The most common definition of this is a meditation technique in which one persists in focusing on the present moment. People typically find this quite difficult, even frustrating. But mindfulness can be much simpler and easier than the orthodox meditation practice. As my colleague Ellen Langer, whom I regard as a pioneer in mindfulness research, told me, “It’s simply noticing new things.”
Waiting in line at airports is a universally negative experience. Eddie Jim
To do this involves putting down the phone when waiting in line – or for a train, or at the airport, or wherever – and simply paying attention. You may not have done this in a long time – perhaps not since you first got a smartphone. You will find – and the research backs this up – that looking around and deliberately taking note of what you observe will probably lower the discomfort from boredom.
The second personal change you can try is to practice the virtue of patience. Impatience is obviously central to the waiting-frustration cycle, and research has shown that those who have more patience have higher life satisfaction and lower levels of depression.
Of course, the advice “be patient” doesn’t seem especially helpful, does it? On the contrary, when an airline says, “thank you for your patience,” I quietly seethe with rage (that special road warrior’s rage exquisitely honed for airlines).
Fortunately, scholars have found a solution that, like mindfulness, has a strong connection with Eastern wisdom: the loving-kindness meditation. This is a mental exercise of directing warm emotions toward others, including friends, enemies, the whole world – even airlines. Research has found that this practice can increase patience. As a bonus, you can use it anywhere.
The best way to lower the misery of waiting, then, turns out to be not to change the world but to change oneself. That insight can apply not just to waiting but to life itself.
Most of us go about our days feeling dissatisfied with the world, that it is failing in some way to conform to our preferences and convenience. But on a moment’s reflection, we realise how absurd it is to suppose that it might. To do so is like canoeing down a river and railing against the winding course it takes rather than simply following those bends as best we can.
After research and upon reflection, I am trying a new strategy for waiting – and for a good deal else that bugs me – which is this: observing the world without distraction, and wishing others the love and happiness I want for myself.
But if that fails, maybe I’ll just start shocking myself.