8 Reasons Why Waiting In Line Drives Us Crazy

Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

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. Two minutes can pass in a flash, or two minutes can feel interminable. 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 doctors put you in the examination room twenty-five minutes before your examination actually begins.

3. Anxiety makes waits seem longer. If you think you’ve chosen the slowest line, 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. We wait more patiently on the plane when we know that there’s another plane at the gate.

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. I remember waiting in line with my children to buy Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at the midnight release. It was quite a scene.

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! Have you found any good ways to make waiting in line more pleasant? Or, on a different subject, have you found that understanding an experience better has made it more interesting?

Editor’s Note: Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

5 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Ellen Gerst says:

    I used to be so impatient, especially waiting in the line at the grocery store when the person in front of me would take an interminably long time to empty her cart, pay or even forget an item and have the clerk go back and get it. After I experienced the passing of my spouse, I looked at the world differently. I thought to myself, “What happened to this person before she came to the store? Does she have a sick child at home? Is she preoccupied with a stressful situation and her attention is scattered?” You see, I had become a more empathetic person who was willing to put herself in another person’s shoes to give her the benefit of the doubt. I also realized that it was up to me to choose to reflexively react to a situation or reflectively respond. Becoming impatient or getting upset does not make the time go any faster; the only result is that you aggravate yourself and bring more stress to your life. Surrendering to the circumstances of the situation, or going with the flow, allows you to stay calm and accept that everything will happen in due course. And, when you feel impatient and time is being wasted, it is important to remember to take a step back and breathe!!

  2. avatar D C says:

    Several years ago, when we (myself and my doctor) were working on managing blood pressure issues, I had to go to the doctor’s office once a week for 4 weeks.  By the third week, I realized I needed to make my appointments first thing in the morning because there was no way I was going to be seen on time if I tried to do it over lunch or late in the day.  And that’s understandable because when they schedule you for 15 minutes, and it takes 25 or more… the schedule is going to be off the rest of the day.

     So for my final weekly appointment I asked for the first appointment of the day, which was 8:00am.  The doctor saw me at 9:15.  I was livid.  Maybe if there had been an explanation of traffic, or family emergency — something — I would not have been so upset.  But everyone acted like it was just business as usual.  So I went down to the clinic managers office to complain.  As soon as her door opened, I walked right on in and gave her a piece of my mind.  When I came out, I saw that there were about 15 people… waiting… to complain to the clinic manager.  I felt really bad for having cut in the line — but didn’t realize there WAS a line.  Her office was next to a patient waiting area.  Evidently the reason appointments were never kept was because all the doctors just dragged in whenever they pleased regardless of the scheduled appointments of patients.  I don’t care if you did spend half your life in school to become a doctor… when you schedule an appointment at 8:00am, you’d better be ready at 8:00am.  Otherwise start your appointments at 9!  or 10. or whenever you plan to be there.  Just be there when you say you will be there.  My time is important too! 

  3. avatar Lila says:

    One big common theme in all of this is SHARING INFORMATION. Anxiety, uncertain, unexplained, unfair – all it takes in any of these situations is the reassurance of a good logical explanation on what to expect and why.

    As to waiting longer for more valuable services – yes, that seems true, but I don’t accept it as inevitable. I think it’s just bad customer service as a result of the providers feeling a bit too secure in their position. Like DC says, our time is valuable too.

  4. avatar Linda Myers says:

    I work part-time in retail, the other night I was put on the registers. Not my favorite spot to be, though each person is given my full attention rather than looking at the line. They are free to wait, or move on. If they wait, they also receive the same attention given. I do not anguish about the line. A co-worker who is known to be bitter, would step in with her input of cutting the line down without any tact. She did it a couple of times until a customer waiting told her to back off and stop being mean. People do get tense at times, but they are also observing what is happening at the front of the line. Nobody left the line and waited with the only outspoken words were in response to my co-worker. When a line goes bad, it has a lot to do with who is at the front rather than the back. People will wait for respect and decency. A few minutes of being number one makes the difference to a customer.