8 Reasons Why Waiting in Line Drives Us Crazy.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day, or Quiz Day.
This Wednesday: 8 reasons why waiting in line drives us crazy.

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?

* Speaking of things that many people don’t enjoy doing, Whitney Johnson has a very interesting piece in HarvardBusinessReview.org about how to network more effectively: Building a network that works takes work.

* Mother’s Day! If you want a free, personalized bookplate for a copy of The Happiness Project that you’re giving for a gift (or for yourself), please drop me a note soon! I want to make sure that my letter with the bookplate reaches you in time. Yes, I’ll mail them anywhere in the world, and feel free to ask for as many as you like.

  • I always keep a slim book in my purse for when I have waits. The time goes by much more quickly when I have something to occupy my mind.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes! always good to have an emergency read.

  • I used to hate waiting in a line. I used to watch everybody else and I got really angry if someone tried to sneak in somewhere. I quit all that. It’s no good. It only drives me crazy. As soon as I realized that, I didn’t feel as stressed out as I used to.

  • ccr in MA

    I find knitting is my best way to channel patience. I keep a small project in my purse for those inevitable waits. Sometimes, someone else who is waiting will ask about my knitting, and the conversation helps pass the time too, which ties in to #8 in your list.

    • Damselflydreams

      Me, too. Byt I’m not so good at knitting while standing in line so it helps more a tthe doctor’s office and places like that.

  • How true, these are some great points – I’m sure I’ll be slightly more patient next time I’m waiting in line.
    I strongly dislike waiting in line, almost as much as I dislike going shopping, but find listening to music while I wait helpful as it keeps my mind occupied enough with something pleasant (I looove music) rather than just standing there with nothing to do.

  • Lauraldawn

    This was an interesting post and it made some great points.
    I have 2 kids (3 and 7) and i work full time. I have come to look at waiting in line as a positive thing. Maybe that sounds ridiculous (and it isn’t always the case), but i often pick the long line at the grocery store so I can flip through a magazine. I bring my book to the doctor and actually enjoy the quiet read. And as someone who takes public transit I’ve actually hit the point where I kind of zone out with my music and book and chill a bit.
    I don’t mean to sound zen. I’m so not.
    But, for me the turning point came a few months ago when I was waiting for my train. It was a few minutes late and the man next to me was completely freaking out – for no specific reason. (I actually asked if he was okay or needed to use my phone). He spent the entire delay swearing at the company and commuting and how ridiculous it all was.
    Not to judge. We all have rough days, but I just decided that this was not something to stress so much about.
    So, I’m embracing it.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m astonished how often I can decide change my mind from “I don’t like
      doing this” to “I like doing this.” “I like making the bed.” “I like taking
      books back to the library.” By deciding “I kinda like waiting,” you change
      the experience.

      • Diane A. Ross

        Love the reframe from negative to postive. Something to work on. Thanks Gretchin

  • I like to do breath counting exercises while waiting in line. It is like meditation (except you don’t have to look odd with your eyes closed).

  • Peninith1

    I would think that physical discomfort would also make any wait seem longer. If you anticipate waiting in line, like at an airport, or for tickets, or to vote or any of those queueing up things, I’d bet that wearing something comfortable to stand around in would be a very good help. I’m learning to carry my Kindle in my purse too–a whole library of time beguiling stuff to read.

    • gretchenrubin

      very good point!

  • Roxainaboxa

    I usually pull out my phone and read Twitter and Facebook updates, check my e-mail, or read books on my Kindle for Android app. If it’s a place with magazines, I’ll flip through them. Those things keep my mind occupied, and usually I end up disappointed when it’s my turn in line, because I’m in the middle of reading something interesting!

  • ponikaagirl

    Thanks! That explains a lot! I will try to be more patient next time I’m waiting in line!

  • DavidW

    “people giving customer service by phone shouldn’t be in the same room as people giving service in person.” — I agree but think the rule should also include the following: “a person giving customer service by phone shouldn’t be THE SAME PERSON as someone giving service in person.” It doesn’t get much more annoying than to go to a place of business, patiently wait to speak with the service rep, only to be trumped by a random caller who gets serviced while you wait for that call to be completed. I wonder if customer service reps realize how rude that is to the person who is waiting in person….

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, that’s exactly the kind of situation he was describing.

  • C In DC

    I’m much more patient when there’s one line and everyone gets served in order, particular in retail locations, than when you have to pick your own line and take your chances. I wish more grocery stores would provide lanes and queue people.

    I try to keep a book or cross stitch project in my bag at all times. Then if I have to wait, I can entertain myself.

  • Nadine

    I always ask myself what getting bent out of shape will accomplish except get me irritated and crabby. If I get annoyed and standing in line makes me late I’ll be late and in addition annoyed. I also always say to myself this is a moment in my life as special as the next. If I find a person in front of me is irritating me (Are those the only stamps you have? No blue ones with red colouring to match my envelope? Let me see how they look.) I try to look at it as a learning moment. My hot spot is discourteous drivers you know the ones that grab your parking spot, honk their horns at you when you don’t launch from a light the millisecond it turns green. So I am working on that one. Actually discourteous behaviour in general bugs me. You are also right on about changing your mind about how you think about something though (for many things it works). I just really need to figure out a strategy for rude people and I truly think the only way is to ignore it. I just can’t convince myself I like rudeness or that it doesn’t bug me.

    • Mary from CA

      I try to feel sorry for the rude person. As in, “omg, that person has to live with how rude they’re being.” Or “geez, their life must be unpleasant.” And also to remember that most rudeness I observe is more people being clueless about others, and not purposefully rude. I know that because sometimes I’m the rude one, and it’s not usually because I’m trying to be nasty. Just because I forget about the needs of others. Or because I’m in too much of a hurry and get a bit me-centric.

      • Nadine

        Yes thank you for reminding me that I too am sometimes the rude one! So maybe keeping that in mind as well as trying to think about what it must be like to be that person and maybe thinking I am getting only a snapshot into that person’s day will help. I mean who knows maybe I am catching that person in their one rude moment in a month!

  • Vanessa

    I know this is kinda crabby, but I always have a harder time when I perceive the person at the front of the line as acting discourteously or wasting time. For example a couple weeks ago I was in line at Whole Foods & the person up at the front held up the line (the only one open) to fill out a comment card at how upset she was that they stopped carrying her preferred brand of instant mashed potatoes! Argh it was so infuriating! I’m much more willing to be patient if the other people in line are prepared to be efficient when they get to the front of the line than when they just seem oblivious to everyone in line behind them.

  • This might be missing the point, but I try hard to avoid waiting in line at all costs. One of my personal rules is never to stand in line when I can go online. Following this rule, I buy 80% of the things we need (from toothpaste to tennis rackets) online. The UPS man thinks I am a shopaholic — but I keep trying to explain to him that he’s bringing me boxes of boring things like vitamins and socks, not anything particularly fun or fancy!

  • Olivia Scully

    I always take a book with me if I know I might be caught in a “waiting situation.” I don’t always pull it out to read, but just having it there as an option makes me feel less impatient.

    Couldn’t agree more with #4!

  • D. Lane

    I always have my Kindle and my PDA with me, so I can surf the internet or read a book while I wait. It makes the waiting so much less unpleasant.

  • Northwest-rain

    I try to engage and talk to the people waiting with me in line, that way I learn something about other people and it makes the time move faster and it is more enjoyable.

  • I don’t mind waiting in line so much. I do mind folks who make loud, rude comments about the slow pace of the line or the inefficiency of the cashier or serviceperson. =)

  • Kate

    I always carry a book with me but honestly sometimes I enjoy people watching in lines. I sometimes look at someone for a few seconds, turn my head away, and try to describe them in great detail. I’m going to be a GREAT witness if a crime ever happens while I’m in line somewhere!

  • Kate

    p.s. Describe them SILENTLY, ha ha

  • Gretchen- Like you I am an impatient person (must be the lawyer in me). I now use time that I am stuck waiting in line or for my kids to finish a sports activity to catch up on email, twitter and facebook. Sometimes I even do my stretches although I choose my venue carefully as people do think it is a bit odd!

  • The Red Angel

    These are all so true!!! Every single day I have to take the bus to and from my apartment and once the bus doesn’t come even one minute after it is supposed to I start to get antsy and jumpy. I start to get paranoid that maybe the bus has already left, and I missed it or something.



    • berber

      i am the same way… i usually get so worried that i miss my bus…so i always go to the bus stop fifteen minutes earlier and i have my books with me so i read during the wait time on the bus or meditate. when its late i am get anxious.. sometimes i find that reading my book distracts me so much that when the bus stop gets to my stop i have to scramble and get out my bus pass and get it…anyways i do relate to your post.

  • AnotherMom

    My husband loves stressful lines – so much so that I save some shopping items just so he can go stand in line the night before Thanksgiving! He loves to watch people, interact with people, be the cheerful waiter who gives the harried clerk some loving attention… And he also likes to do all that in a silly hat. His enjoyment of these times reminds me to emulate him when I am impatient in line.

    • gretchenrubin

      Boy, that IS an attitude to emulate! talk about re-framing.

  • Sylrayj

    The worst part for me is when the people I’m with are impatient or frustrated. For example, if my daughter is fussy because she’s bored, or had trouble using her ‘listening ears’ and has been confined to the shopping cart, I feel more anxiety and a greater urgency to get us out of that situation. I try to keep some toys or activities in my purse, or to engage her with singing – I am less put out by singing “The Wheels On The Bus” in public than I am with her being near tears with irritability.

    • I can relate! I will gladly make a fool of myself singing in the store with my neice. I know that some percentage of people are annoyed by our singing, but I also know that there are a good number of mothers in the store who totally know what’s up.

  • actuary

    There is a new book coming out about annoying things that bug people.


    Unpredictable, unpleasant and uncertain in duration are three key factors.

    Gretchen, you should comment on this book, in terms of minimizing such annoyances.

  • Florentina

    Hey Gretchen, I love your book and am giving my mom a copy for mother’s day! How can I get the bookplate?

    • gretchenrubin

      Email me her name and your mailing address to gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot
      com. I’ll send it off right away (and one for you too).

  • supalocal.com

    The David Maister article you reference here is often mentioned in queue management circles and I think you’ve summarised the key points well Gretchen.

    Your mention of “Some hotels put mirrors by the elevators, because people like to look at themselves” is a very valid point. It reminds me of another story often retold in the customer service world.

    Back in the 1930s when some of the first skyscrapers were built, engineers found that employees were complaining that the elevators were far too slow. After looking at the problem from many different angles, designers decided that the best way to solve the problem was to install mirrors in the lobby and inside the lifts. People were so distracted by looking at themselves in the mirror, complaints reduced dramatically.

    On the one hand, this shows how most of us are a little vain and will tolerate a longer wait if we can see ourselves in the mirror. On the other hand, it also shows that if you have an effective way of keeping the attention of your waiting customers occupied, they’re less likely to notice they are waiting and much more likely to have a positive customer experience.


    • gretchenrubin

      What a great story. I love examples when the solution to a seemingly huge
      problem is something so simple, taking advantage of human nature.

      Along those lines, I’ve heard that places (like convenience stores) that
      unwillingly become teen hangouts sometimes blast opera or Muzak to chase
      them off. So simple!

  • Hey great post. I manage work and my personal life and some times get bored or frustrated when i have to wait for longer time unnecessarily. While i travel i usually get some book to read so there is no bore some of traveling.

  • At my previous job, one of my responsibilities was facilitating the line during sales. Part of the process was making sure that people were moving to the correct register, but the bigger responsibility was chatting with the folks who were waiting, so they wouldn’t notice how long the wait was. My boss totally understood the concept!

  • It’s fascinating and hugely helpful to read about the psychology of waiting. I tend to be a little bit impatient like you – and most others!

    Here’s an innovative idea: waiting in line can be the perfect opportunity to give your mind some space. Instead of filling the mind up or distracting it, why not just let it be spacious. Space ~ the rare commodity we’ve all but lost in the 21st century.

    • gretchenrubin

      I tell myself I’m doing “waiting in line meditation.”

  • I can also say that I will happily wait longer in line when my husband is home with the kids, than when I have my kids with me. I may be distracted while they are there, but I ENJOY the time alone.

    I keep note cards and a pen in my purse, I have my phone if I need it. I can find things to do for a minute or two.
    I always take a book to the doctors office, even to my kids school. If I have something to do while I am waiting, they seem to rush out the door!
    Very interesting article, though. It’s nice to have different views!

  • Alicen

    I agree that explained waits seem more tolerable than unexplained waits. This is proabbly why restaurants usually overestimate the time it will take to get a table – it keeps people more patient if their 30 minute wait turns out to be 25 than if their 10 minue wait ends up being 25!

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, Maister mentions that strategy!

  • chellie

    Great observations; they correspond w/ my experience & I find the same sorts of things helpful. Being in a line is the only time I read bad magazines, I always have knitting, & planning & mindfulness help most of the rest of the time. The one place I have not been able to put aside my irritation is when waiting to give blood at the Red Cross, which I continue to do, regardless of how consistently annoying it is (#2, 4, 5 & 6). Perhaps it’s worse b/c it’s so regularly, unnecessarily, spectacularly bad. Long, irregular waits, few evening hours, reams of paperwork that has no relevance whatsoever to me, asking me to repeating my name a dozen times, all for the privilege of having a needle stuck in my arm & giving away my blood that they will then sell (so as to overpay their incompetent executives).
    See, even writing about it is bad!
    I will remember this post & see if knowing *why* (rather than *that*) will help!

    • Cece

      Oh dear!! I’m so sorry you have had such bad experiences while volunteering to do one of the kindest things a person can do. My daughter’s life was saved by blood transfusions from strangers, so please accept my personal thanks for your willingness to help save lives. I’m quite sure that the Red Cross does NOT charge the recipient (which means their blood is safer than the blood from bloodbanks where they pay the donor), and all the paper work, name repeating, etc. is necessary to screen out possible disease (or possible recent exposure to disease). Next time you are waiting in line at the Red Cross, please visualize yourself being given a grateful hug from me!

  • Armychic73

    Funny thing that gets to me…I am perfectly okay with patiently standing in line at the grocery; no problem. But it seemed that my luck is such that the line will be going along smoothly without too much delay right up until the time the person directly in front of me got to the register. THEN, they needed a price check, they wanted to contest the use of a coupon or decided that just then is when they needed to sift through their stack of coupons, or (dread!) they pulled out a checkbook and then searched in vain for a pen (which I have found most registers don’t have readily available anymore due to the card swipe machine and stylus signature).

    I can wait patiently until that point, when I am the next person at the register and then it’s all inner frustration and impatient annoyance with the person directly in front ofme holding up the line.

  • Elle

    I agree that reading makes any wait much more tolerable.

  • I don’t know where I first heard of it, but I like doing the ‘waiting in line’ meditation.

  • The iPhone is the best waiting in line tool. Better than reading trashy magazines at the checkout line.

  • My father’s business puts electronic signs on highways which tells drivers, in real-time, how long they’ll be stuck in traffic: “15 minutes to Exit 19.” Studies show that this reduces road-rage and aggressive driving. It goes in line with your point that people wait more patiently if they know how long they’ll be stuck.

    • gretchenrubin


    • Baker

      There are also semaphores that display the seconds remaining.
      Quite useful!

  • Pdlock

    I used to get crazy waiting in lines at the local pharmacy. I couldn’t check my BP while I was there because it would invariable go up by the time I got my prescription and went to the machine! Every person in line had a problem and the pharmacy rarely sent them away happy.
    Then I got my iPhone. Ahhhh. I put books on it and ever since, I’ve hoped the lines are long so I get to read in the middle of the day without guilt. What a change! Though sometimes people do look at me funny when I laugh out loud at what I’m reading.

  • My shrink has been suggesting (for 4.5 years) that I use time in lines to practice mindfulness and focus on my breathing. Maybe someday…

  • Being impatient is one of the reasons I knit. It keeps me occupied when I’m waiting for things!

  • Kirsten

    I’m reading this post while waiting in line to vote. Thanks for the distraction!

  • Amy P

    Maybe a year or so ago, you had posted about adding “meditation” to any task you dislike. I think one of your examples was “standing in line meditation,” and I use this all the time now! Now I can embrace that 10 minutes in the check out line, slow my mind down, and enjoy what’s around me (sneaking a peek at what other people are buying, for example!). My other favorite is “doing the dishes meditation”.

  • KH

    Along the same lines as reframing, I’ve noticed that getting stopped at a red light seems to take forever when I’m waiting for the green light. But, when I don’t mind the stop because of the chance to do something (say, reading something or putting on mascara) it’s frustrating because the stop seems too short.

    Reading email on my phone in line at the grocery store or during rush hour makes it feel like I’m not waiting at all.

  • Baker

    Someone said that what defines a person the most is what they do when they have to wait.

    I find this to be true.
    It is often when one has to wait that one is indirectly or directly besieged by the worst existential doubts and questions – and this is what tends to make waiting so hard.

  • Cooj

    Related to number 6. When I am left waiting in front of someone taking voice mail messages, calmly writing down what is said on the phone while I stand in front of them waiting …. eye contact would be nice to let me know that my presence is acknowledged, then I am “helping” the person by being patient, I’m in on it, not feeling ignored, less than. Failing that, a note for the line to read saying, “I’m required to take these messages periodically and will be with you in less than two minutes” or whatever the interval might be gives acknowledgement, there’s that word again, that my presence is noted and I’m not being ignored.
    Another thought, when I had to have a brain MRI, I was nervous, unsure how I would react to being confined, etc., I knew ahead of time that I would need to entertain myself mentally, no book to read, etc. I thought of a few things I would want to think about to keep myself from becoming too upset…I whipped through those ideas right away. I ended up imagining that a play should be written having to do with baby boomer issues and the MRI sound going on like a heart beat, sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, I felt anyone who had ever had an MRI would recognize that sound and could appreciate it. So much to do with that little bit of time given to us each time we are reluctantly compelled to wait.

  • I didn’t read the paper you attached, so forgive me if this point was made there.

    I wonder if the “speeding up” of our society has had an effect on our trepidations about waiting in line. That is, because we’ve become a culture of “now,” in that we want things instantaneously (and have been trained as such), I wonder if maybe we’re being trained to dislike lines more than we used to.

    I wonder if the “psychology of waiting in line” was different 50 years ago and the incidence of anxiety waiting in line has risen. On that same note, it would be good to see if general incidence of anxiety has risen, too.

    With Love and Gratitude,


  • Sinback5

    Always carry a book with you.

  • Jane

    I help out at my husband’s medical practice sometimes.  He does a great job of staying on schedule and respects his patients’ time.  What we have learned is that it is important to keep the patients informed if  they are having to wait a few minutes before they see the doctor.  The person who greets the patient lets the patient know that the doc is running a few minutes behind and apologizes for any inconvenience.  The nurse who puts the patient in the exam room echoes this as does the doctor .   We all thank the patients for their patience.  Almost without exception, everyone is very pleasant and understanding.  People deserve the courtesy of information and apology.  They want to know that we value them and we do!