Does Waiting in a Line Drive You Crazy? Here’s Why.

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. 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 the orthodontist put my daughter in the examination room twenty-five minutes before her exam actually begins.

3. Anxiety makes waits seem longer. If you think you’ve chosen the slowest line at the drugstore, 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.

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. During my book signings, I’ve been very gratified to have people tell me, “I had so much fun talking to the people in line!”

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!  Also, it may not always be good for us to be able to distract ourselves with our cell phones, but it sure makes the DMV easier.

Have you found any good ways to make waiting in line more pleasant?

  • Veronique

    Probably not the right place to say this but I just started reading Happier at Home and absolutely love it. You are an excellent writer and your thoughtful and intelligent insight into the many theories on happiness that you have read are such a pleasure. I love how you can take a seemingly elusive topic like happiness and with insightful analysis explain why it is not so very difficult to find. Thank you for sharing your valuable thoughts.

  • Bailey

    Thanks – this should definitely make some of us a bit happier!

  • Grandm Honey

    Restaurants give you a menu while waiting? I have never heard of this! Must be a New York thing because I’ve never seen it done here in Calif. We aren’t given one until we are seated and water has been served. I like your way better.


    Nice list. No I haven’t found a successful way to make waiting in line easy. I try to plan – too distracted. Try to meditate – too pre-occupied. I’m making a little progress, but not as much a I’d like. Maybe your list will help.


    Dan Garner

  • Maiasaura

    Yes. Kegels are a wonderful way to spend time in line. Useful, too. Oh, and grounding. Tiny meditation. Practicing mindful breathing. All useful and helpful!

  • peninith1

    Love when the place where I am waiting is obviously doing its best to manage the inevitable wait properly. I loved when my crowded and very frustrating DMV in Northern Virginia had a person assigned to speak to customers entering the door. The ‘greeter’ actually took the trouble to find out if people had arrived with the correct documentation so that they wouldn’t wait endlessly only to be told they had to go home for something else.
    Well-managed expectations (as on an airplane waiting for take off) help as well. “Underpromise and overdeliver” is the key here.
    In Atlanta, the metro stations actually have signs that quite accurately flash the expected arrival time for the next train. All this helps to minimize the misery.

    I sometimes amuse myself by figuring out WHY there’s a long wait in some situations. I have a particular doctor — a busy and highly reputable specialist. When I first started seeing him, I was annoyed to arrive on time or early, be ‘sorted’ into a consulting room with about six other patients being taken to their consulting rooms at about the same time, and then to wait what seemed like too long a time. I eventually learned that this doctor, who treats many people with more serious illnesses than mine, simply takes as long as he needs to take to do the rounds and really speak in all the necessary detail with his patients. When I found that my time with him was always as long as it needed to be, and afforded the opportunity for some depth and detail, I started planning on the wait and ceased to be annoyed by it.

    I guess you could also think of these situations as ‘patience training.’ If a person ahead of me in a line appears to be taking an exceptionally long time, I remind myself that person ‘is where they need to be’ perhaps getting attention that they badly need for reasons I may not understand. “Finding an explanation in charity” helps at such times. I also try to remember that it’s important to cultivate the ability to ‘do nothing’ in a state of mental peace. That’s hardest to remember in creeping traffic jams, especially those not owing to anything but sheer congestion.

    • UpbeatMom

      You’re comments about why you’re being kept late, were right on target for me.

      I remember when I was pregnant, and had an unusually long wait to see my mid-wife
      for a routine check-up. I was getting really annoyed! Then she finally came in, and apologized. She said that one of her earlier appointments that day had been a woman who had had a mis-carriage. She wanted to give that patient extra time and attention and that was why she was late to see me.

      That explanation changed everything. Who was I to feel annoyed, with my health and the health of my unborn child in tact. Of course, I would want her to spend the extra time with the previous patient who wasn’t so fortunate.

  • HEHink

    People-watching, and “lightening up.” I have a neat memory of watching a teenager demonstrate his mad yo-yo skills in one grocery line while I was waiting in another. And I always laugh remembering this only-in-rural-Alaska experience: An elder lady with a middle-aged relative had tried to pay her bill with an expired credit card. After some discussion, it was determined that there was also a debit card, but her husband who was elsewhere had it. The cashier (who through previous conversation had determined she was related to these ladies) suggested they use the courtesy phone to call and get the card number. Despite my long wait behind them, watching and listening to the middle-aged lady shout out the debit card number – and the PIN! – to the cashier from about 20 feet away, where everyone in the vicinity could hear, was priceless. In retrospect, I probably should have gone over and gently suggested they write it down, then bring it back to the cashier. At the time, though, my sense of “I can’t believe this is really happening…” was too strong.

  • I had the wonderful experience of waiting in line at Muellers BBQ in Austin. I arrived to a line of about 40 people waiting for some of the best BBQ around. It was a bit restless and folks were grumbling a bit until John Mueller came out and handed out Lone Star Beer to anyone that wanted one. He turned that long line into a party!! It was awesome to see and even more surprising as I arrived at the window andI asked for another beer to go with my brisket I was told “We don’t sell beer. He has to give it away”. He overheard me asking about it and leaned out and put another beer on my tray. I suspect he does this a lot and handles a crowd with grace and great food.

  • Anne

    I live on a small island where no one is in much of a hurry. I’ve actually offered my place in the line at the market to people who only have a couple of things, only to have them refuse politely. They just don’t see the point to getting out faster. I know most of the employees, as do most people, so waiting at the market or the post office is more an opportunity for schmoozing than a problem. People talk to one another in line, even if they haven’t met yet. It’s interesting.

    • HDM

      Agreed. Just because of the nature of the human interaction, it’s still human interaction. At least you’re out in the world!

  • Allen Knutson

    This is why you have to walk soooo far in airports once you get off your plane. They have laid them out so that people don’t get to baggage return, then fume about their slow luggage. No joke.

    I imagine this is changing and has changed immensely with the prevalence of smartphones to occupy people. Personally, I won’t leave the house without a paperback in my backpack.

  • Rachel

    One of the nicest experiences I had was waiting in line to meet two stars of the British TV show, “The Bill”. The lady in front of me offered to take my picture with the guys with my camera and asked if I would take one of her with my camera and send it to her. That was back when film was still used. I had them developed and sent hers to her. She returned the favour 100x with the loan of her book all about The Bill and a Christmas cake a few months later. Most of the time I hate lines – they exacerbate my Anxiety Disorder – but we were all The Bill fans in that line. I imagine it would have been like being at one of your book signings.

  • Lisa Y

    My children are two, three and four years old so I don’t get as much time to read at home as I’d like. Sometimes an hour and a half waiting in line at the DMV or thirty minutes in the doctor’s waiting room (without my children, of course) isn’t a hassle so much as a good excuse to read a book!

  • Anne

    Normally I don’t like waiting in line but once I waited 7 hours to get a spot up front at a Bruce Springsteen concert in Dublin and it was such an amazing experience – I talked with people around me from other countries and learned so many things. I felt like it was this huge accomplishment to get so close to the stage. I also love waiting in line for rides at DisneyWorld with my husband – it is like forced quality time together that we usually don’t have because we are always so busy or trying to get things done.

  • Shirley Creed

    One bank I used to go to had an electronic sign showing the time it would take to reach the front of the queue. Don’t know how they did that! Nowadays I whip out my Kindle and read until I get there.

  • Nicole

    One way to make waiting more tolerable is music. Particularly in traffic jams! Crank it up, sing along and bear in mind that these really are “first world problems”.

  • When it’s busy I always try and work out which queue I think will be quickest based on factors on such how high the groceries are stacked on the conveyor belt, how efficient the checkout person looks, etc and then when in queue try and see if I’m right by comparing progress with the other queues. It’s also a easy opportunity to marvel at what others have bought!

    The queues I really hate are the phone ones with the message “Your call is important to us.”

  • Barbara

    Talk with people, read, and knit!

  • Doro

    I start making up stories about the people waiting with my so that I don’t get bored or worried 🙂

  • Amy

    Gretchen, I use the trick you wrote about in another post: add on “meditation” to any boring task. If I think of it as “standing in line meditation,” suddenly my wait becomes much more peaceful. I focus on being lucky to have found a moment to be forced to stand still and do nothing!

  • I only mind waiting in line when I worry that it will make me miss my bus. Otherwise, I love waiting in line. It gives me time to read. I never go anywhere without a book.

  • Rose

    Acceptance of the wait is key for me. Once you accept that ‘it is what it is’, you lose any anxiety (#3) and uncertainty and explanation of the wait becomes null and void (#4, 5). And acceptance is even more key when you have a choice to wait or return later because then the decision is yours.

  • Daphne Gray-Grant

    I keep my Kindle in my purse. I can read ANYWHERE.

  • Guest

    First, you HAVE TO catch this hilarious, accurate gif!
    Great “mental ninja” advice so far, but don’t you HATE waiting in line to give people your money?! I stopped going to Walmart; my sanity wasn’t worth the cost of saving a little bit of money.

  • Nicole

    First, you have to check out this hilarious, accurate gif:

    Also,There’s some great “mental ninja” advice here, but don’t you hate waiting in line to give people your money?! I stopped going to Walmart because my sanity is worth more than saving a few dollars.

  • Michele

    I look forward to sitting in waiting rooms because it gives me valuable time to just be. I especially love waiting rooms with interior design magazines which I could cruise for hours and hardly ever do. The eight prinicples made me think of the kind of wiating I hate: waiting in line for food. Generally, due to poor eating habits, by the time I get to food, I’m starving and impatient. But the worst “waiting in line” is on hold to someone’s customer service. I have already had to negotiate through a frustrating menu of options and then I’m on hold waiting for someone whom I assume will not be helpful. In each case of unhappy waiting, I try consciously to do the opposite thing…put someone ahead of me in line for food so I can experience myself as helpful and not impatient, or being so over the top freindly to the person on the phone I can hopefully ditch my unhelpful assumptions. Works for me!

    • Ruth

      I’ve also become a fan of waiting rooms. I did not want to go have my car smogged because I didn’t want to take the time out from other things I wanted to do. I took a book with me, though, and the time spent reading was so peaceful I was almost sorry when they were done and I had to leave!

  • kim zak

    I make sure I bring something along to read. It really helps me stay patient. I love reading the magazines at the grocery check out also! Another thing I do is delete my old cell phone messages and clean up my contact list.

  • YOG

    I am happiest as a cynic. The most creative people have been cynics. Dostoyevsky was a cynic, happily engaged to his work, which showed Russian culture at its most depraved.

    Bob Dylan is a cynic. His poetry resounds with irony and bitterness, in many cases. I’m happiest when I listen to Dylan and rejoice in his cynical lyrics.

    My Uncle Bart was a cynic. He sneered perpetually, a big fat old cigar rolling around in the corner of his mouth and a glass of bourbon clutched in his hand, greatly downgrading every optimistic comment he ever heard. He died in his sleep at age ninety-two, a sneer on his face.

    Cynicism, paradoxically, begets happiness, if happiness equates with one keeping comfortably within character, content to be a cynic.

  • NOLALiz

    A celebrated Buddhist monk from a rural Asian country came to San Francisco. He was being interviewed on a PBS radio show. The host asked him how it was to move from a beautiful, tropical quiet paradise to the middle of very busy, noisy and active city. “It must be distracting, all the hustle and bustle – do you find it more difficult to meditate with the chaos of city life?” “O, no,” he declared, “City life is so well suited for many moments of meditation!” Puzzled, the talk show host, asked, “How so?” “Well, you are given many times where you can stop and be here in the moment. You have the bank line, the red light, the grocery line, the DMV waiting room…”
    I heard this maybe 30 years ago and I think of it every day. I love that man for his sweet insight. It is just how you see things that changes them from frustrations to opportunities…

  • Waiting for a train connection at seamer station, I got talking to a young mum and her son. He was restless, she knew he was tired. She started singing twinkle twinkle. I joined in. So did the lady sitting next to me in the perspex rain shelter…he nodded off. How else could three unconnected women end up singing together on a damp Yorkshire platform!

  • mbernier

    I use some of the techniques you mentioned as well. My doctor is the same. He gives each patient the time they need and never rushes or looks at his watch. I did decide to leave his practice though when I found that I didn’t need the amount of attention that was worth the wait anymore…my major issues were resolved.

    “Where they need to be” reminded me of a technique I use…that started after 9/11…there were people that had their dog throw up the morning of 9/11 and never made it to work, people who’s child missed the bus and they never made it to work, people who’s alarm didn’t go off and they never made it to work. So why am I being delayed at this moment right now waiting in line? What is this moment keeping me from? I don’t know and I can’t assume it’s always a disaster or something negative that it is keeping me from, but it is “where I need to be”.

    I have a similar technique that I use when someone is on my butt on the highway and then racing to pass me…I give them the benefit of the doubt…maybe they just found out that their mother was taken to the hospital and they are racing to her side, maybe they just found out their child is sick at school and they are racing to comfort them and bring them home…could they be just a jerk thinking they are more important then everyone else? Sure, but by giving them the benefit of the doubt, I feel more relaxed, calm, destressed because then it isn’t about me and what they are “doing to me” it is about them.

  • Walt

    Strike up a conversation with the person next to you. Often, the topic is interesting enough and others may join in and then it gets interesting.

  • Mj

    I use the time to meditate (eyes open, of course!) and to pray. And to smile.

  • VERY true!

    I use waiting times to get little things done that aren’t “really” important, but make me happy when they’re completed.

    For instance:
    -Deleting old text messages out of my inbox.
    -Clearing extra photos off my camera.
    -Cleaning out my handbag.
    -Thinking about some problem that’s been nagging me.
    -Calling or texting a friend.

    By using the wait time for something that makes me feel fulfilled, I actually feel like I got the gift of time out of the wait.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • annette

    I really hate driving and the reason is that I am inpatient in waiting in lines. During the summer months I bicyle commute and enjoy the river valley I live in on my way to work. In the cold months I listen to books on CD and have found that my patience is so much more especially when I am engaged with what the reader is saying. it no longer really matters how long I am waiting in the care because I am not feeling I am wasting my time. Works wonders!

  • Josee

    @Nicole Love that little clip!
    Somehow I don’t mind waiting in line so much, it’s something we all do and have to do a large proportion of our time and, allthough we often feel we can, we cannot control it. I use my waiting time to do some meditation or mindfullness practice. Focus on my breathing, trying not to think of anything. As you are waiting nothing else needs your attention so you’re not distracted as much as you might be at home or at work.

  • Darlene

    I don’t leave home without my Kindle. This has turned waits into enjoyable moments.

  • Deb

    When I’m becoming inpatient I usually look around to see if others are. If someone else is I seem to snap out if it because their angry or disgusted look has out me off. I don’t want to feel -or look – that way.

  • Paul

    My girlfriend and I recently did some travel with lots and lots of layovers, which we both hate. As we started I said, “Don’t think of it as an entire day of wasted time, think of it as getting to read all day with a few stops at security.” The reframing did wonders.

  • Absolutely true! I don’t remember when I realized this, but when I did…gamechanger.

    There is always something I could be reading these days. I take every “wait time” as a bonus opportunity to learn something fabulous.

    Now that I’m starting my own business, I’ve got a neverending list of helpful podcasts (thanks, Michael Hyatt!) and videos (and you, Marie Forleo!) that I can listen to (hands-free) while in the car.

    I live on an island, so I don’t have a long commute to anywhere, really, but traffic in Honolulu is no joke. There’s always something productive I could be doing, if I’m in the mood for it.

    Thanks for sharing, Gretchen! LOVE what you do.

  • HDM

    Every time people get visibly frustrated waiting in line for something, I always chuckle to myself and think (as if talking to them), “Why are YOU so important? Why are YOU getting frustrated while everyone else is smiling and positive? What makes YOUR time more valuable than mine?” Things only become frustrating if you give in to the frustration. Would you rather be back in your hectic and stressful work environment, or visiting someone you love in the hospital? It’s all about perspective. I go places realizing that things take time sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with a few moments for contemplation.

  • Patty Koguek

    Love this article explaining why I’m ADHD in lines! I try to channel my energy into what I call a “Stream of Gratitude”, thanking God for everything that I see…thanks for these wonderful checkers, thanks for the employees stocking the shelves, my ability to buy what I need… goes on and on without any rhyme or reason. Just gratitude!