Why is waiting so frustrating?

Loss of control and our perception of time

Photo by Wim van ‘t Einde on Unsplash

If you’ve ever been to Disney you’ll have experienced their queue management process. Signs warn you of the likely wait time from any given point: ‘60 minutes’, or alarmingly ‘300 minutes’. They give you the information so you know whether you want to wait or not: you are in control of the decision and know what you’re letting yourself in for. Secondly, the times they post are the worst case scenario. They deliberately overestimate, so when you get to the ride in 50 minutes you think ‘that wasn’t so bad, quicker than we expected’. Finally, they keep you entertained while you wait with video screens showing trailers of the ride or event along the way. They understand how to manage the waiting in a positive way.

This highlights two elements that lead to our frustration while waiting: our lack of control and our perception of time. So, how can we use this to help manage our mood when we are waiting for something?

Distraction techniques: If you know you will have a long wait, plan for it. Line up other things you can do while waiting so you focus on those rather than the time it is taking. How can I constructively use this hour/two weeks/month? Do your emails while on hold to the call centre, listen to a podcast while waiting for the bus. Start another project while you wait for a response from the builder. Or in the case of an author, start writing the next novel while waiting weeks for the edits on the previous book!

Diarise: If you are waiting for a response from a person or organisation, you can feel out of control of the situation. It may also be nagging at the back of your mind as you can’t close the loop and move on, but dwelling and fretting doesn’t help. In these circumstances we typically overestimate how long we’ve waited. To regain a feeling of control, keep a note of the dates: when was the issue first raised? Don’t automatically assume you are being ignored, there may be other factors, so consider how long could (rather than should) a response take? When is appropriate to chase it up and how best should you raise your needs or concerns? Diarise what you plan to do and when, then set it on one side and focus on something else.

I ponder this now as a writer’s life is full of waiting. Currently I’m waiting to hear back on no less that six different writing-related things, (including the sales figures which I only receive twice a year and then three months in arrears). It’s taken me a while, but I’ve now learnt to manage my expectations, plan for the worst case timescales, diarise so I know when to follow up – and meanwhile crack on with the next book ideas!

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