The Waiting Game: How to Win Your Sanity and Time Back

Maybe as a child I wasn't quite as patient as I remember. And perhaps I've grown accustom, thanks to advances in technology, to getting things at the exact moment when I want or need them.
01/02/2014 11:20 am ET Updated Mar 04, 2014

When I was a child, I spent a lot of time waiting. Sometimes it was just a few minutes waiting to catch the bus or get tucked into bed, and sometimes it was a few hours waiting to get picked up from the library. I never knew exactly how long I would be left waiting, but I endured it with no cell phone, computer, or other smart device to distract me.

Fast forward to today: I spent four hours waiting for my washing machine to get fixed. For four angry hours, I bemoaned the lack of control I had over my schedule and thought about how I could have better utilized that time -- working at the office, playing with my daughter, or simply enjoying planned down time. And rather than appreciate the distractions at my fingertips (social media, email, music, and countless online magazines), I grew irritated by the feeling that I was a prisoner in my own home.

While I would like to be the kind of person -- like my younger self -- who can breathe meaning into any moment or at least make the most of a less than perfect situation, it became obvious to me today that I can't (at least not yet) appreciate times over which I have no control: times like waiting at the airport for a delayed flight, or waiting on the phone for a customer service representative, or even waiting for an in-home service like a washing machine repair.

After a couple of wasted hours at home, I started to wonder about my impatience. I knew I wasn't always addicted to on-demand service, so I wondered what had changed. Was it my fault that I was so frustrated by today's waiting game? Perhaps it was: According to a 1960s study, notoriously called the Marshmallow Study, in which preschooler self-control was tested with marshmallows, some people are more susceptible to the emotions that trigger impulsive actions and that demand instant gratification. Perhaps it never occurred to me that I was one of those people. Maybe as a child I wasn't quite as patient as I remember. And perhaps I've grown accustom, thanks to advances in technology, to getting things at the exact moment when I want or need them.

But even if I am one of those individuals with a low patience threshold, is it so bad that as an adult I've learned to appreciate the value of my time? Was I wrong to feel that precious hours of my life that I could never recoup were being stolen from me? According to a study by TOA Technologies, a company that specializes in solving the "waiting without knowing" problem, the annual cost of waiting for Americans amounts to $37.7 billion dollars. That comes out to the loss of two full workdays per individual for merely waiting on at-home services! Just think of what you could do with two extra days of time off from work! If time is so precious, I wondered why this repair company did not seem to value it -- at least on my end. After all, most companies make customer satisfaction not just a number one priority but the foundation of their very business. They understand the value associated with happy customers. So why was in-home service any different? Why could I get on-demand service, even if at a higher price, for nearly anything else from movies and music to books and groceries?

When the service person finally arrived at my house, just a few minutes before the end of the four-hour window promised to me, he cordially introduced himself, made his way over to the broken washing machine, and then promptly told me he would have to come back another day -- he didn't have the right parts for the job. Perhaps at that point I should have called the company asking them to compensate me for the loss of what would amount to a full day's work... but I worried that I would be left waiting on the line for hours before I would finally have a chance to speak with a customer service representative. Instead, I'm trying to learn to re-appreciate those moments over which I have no control. After all, it seems like waiting will always be a part of life.