Waiting is the worst. Whether you're sitting in your car in a line of traffic, standing in line at the store or staring at a virtual queue for concert tickets, it's just no fun. Federal Express nailed our feelings about it in an advertising campaign from the 1980s that said, "Waiting is frustrating, demoralizing, agonizing, aggravating, annoying, time consuming and incredibly expensive.”
But it's also an unavoidable part of life, and the average American spends two years waiting in lines, according to Dr. Richard Larson, aka "Dr. Queue," a professor at MIT's Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and author of multiple books and 75 scientific articles who has studied the science of waiting in line for decades. "The behavior of people in a queue is like a microcosm of the broader society," Larson says.
Patience is key, of course, but it can only go so far. No matter how tolerant you are, knowing that you're analyzing the situation and developing a strategy can help make it more fun.
How to combat the anxiety of standing in line
Waiting in lines at the airport is frustrating because it can be difficult to tell just how long the wait will be. Known wait times are easier to stomach than unknown ones. (Photo: 1000 Words/Shutterstock)
1. Distract yourself. While most of us these days will do this with our smartphone, there are other ways, of course. Many people carry books around to pass the time. And companies will attempt to distract you, too. Amusement parks will hang TV screens so patrons can watch programming while they wait in line for roller coaster, for example. Grocery stores stock check-out lines with gossip magazines, candy and other impulse purchases to distract you while you wait your turn with the cashier.
But the distraction can be much more simple. To illustrate this, Larson shares an anecdote about a high-rise apartment building in New York City during the post-World War II building boom. In those days, elevators had an operator to take you up or down. And as people found as they moved into these new buildings, there was a rush hour for the elevator just as there is a rush hour on the roads. Landlords were fielding a lot of complaints about the long waits for elevators, so they hired a researcher to study the problem and find a solution. But rather than building more elevators or trying to shorten wait times, instead the researcher aimed to reduce the number of complaints. Larson says he put floor-to-ceiling mirrors near the elevators, and the complaints dropped to zero, even though wait times were unchanged. Gentlemen straightened their ties and women tidied their hair or makeup. The mirrors offered something to do for the two minutes until the elevator arrived.
2. Know your wait time. Knowing how long your wait will be is better than waiting for an unknown amount of time, according to Lavi Industries, which provides crowd control and queue management systems. We typically perceive waits to be shorter when we know how long we'll be waiting. Have you been to the DMV lately? My local one has drastically improved in recent years. When I arrive, they give me a ticket with an approximate wait time printed on it. And there are digital signs around the waiting room that list the ticket numbers currently being helped, so I can watch a countdown until it's my turn.
Disney earns an A+ when it comes to waiting in line. According to Lavi Industries: "Disney employs about 15 operations researchers who perform queue analysis to optimize the parks for guest interaction. The amusement starts early with interactive media and photos of what’s ahead while visitors are waiting in line — at Disney, waiting in the queue is half the fun and part of the attraction. The park queues are also designed so visitors can never see the entire queue or how long it is, and Disney lines also have a 'warning sign' telling patrons how long they can expect to stand in the queue."
3. Eliminate the element of competition. We're obsessed with being first, whether it's getting served first at a bar or getting to a location first as we merge onto a highway, and we're afraid someone else will beat us to it. To eliminate the competition, try to frequent businesses that favor a single serpentine line rather than multiple lines with multiple servers. The first-come, first-served model with a single-line queue is one of the easiest ways to create a fair and equitable wait, Larson says.
This Discovery News video details why we always feel like we're in the slow lane when a single line-policy isn't in effect:
4. Get started while you wait. Having the opportunity to get started on whatever you’re there for helps pass the waiting time. For example, you may fill out a form at the bank or DMV before you see a teller, or a nurse will bring you into an exam room even before the doctor is ready to see you. These help you feel like you're on your way with the appointment or task at hand.
5. Overestimate your wait time. Play mind games with yourself. If you're expecting a 20-minute wait, tell yourself it'll be more like 30 minutes. You'll be pleasantly surprised if the wait is less than you anticipated. (We could all use more pleasant surprises in our lives.)
6. Employ these strategies at the grocery store. A recent New York Times story detailed how to choose the speediest checkout line. Read the full story for details, but in short: Get behind one person with a full cart rather than four people with just a few items, as the time spent greeting customers and paying for items negates the time saved by only ringing up six or seven grocery items; many people naturally veer to right-hand lanes so go left for shorter ones; pay attention to who's in front of you and what they're buying — customers purchasing multiples of the same item will have their orders rung faster than someone buying 20 different things, and generally speaking, older people will move slower than younger ones.
7. Practice mindfulness. "Focus your awareness on what you're experiencing from moment to moment, good and bad, without judging it. Anchoring your mind in the present helps keep you from fretting over something that happened earlier or worrying about whatever comes next," according to a 2012 Psychology Today story. Studies suggest that practicing mindfulness may help us manage stress, reduce anxiety and depression and develop an increased ability to relax, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The benefits of waiting in line
1. It makes you more patient. A 2013 study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes showed that waiting to make a choice "increases the assumed value of the items for which people are waiting, leading them to become more patient." For example, if someone were to offer you $20 now or $50 in two weeks, you'd most likely choose the larger amount that you'd have to wait for.
2. You'll meet people. Larson gives an adorable story about retirees in Naples, Florida, where every Wednesday is "seniors day" and stores around town provide a 10 percent discount. The lines, apparently, can get fairly long as the 65+ crowd head out to take advantage of deals. Larson says this crowd considers Wednesdays a big deal: They get all dressed up and look forward to waiting in line, as most of the residents are transplants to the area without any real roots. They use the lines as a social event to meet new people and build relationships, Larson says.
3. You just might learn about other cultures. One last story from Larson about how queuing differs from culture to culture. "In Europe, as you get closer to the Mediterranean, it's more of survival of the fittest and lack of attention to first come, first served. And sometimes, this could lead to queue rage when you have this clash of cultures at the same place," Larson told NPR. And in China, he added, the lines are non-existent in many places.
Take this example from Denmark, Larson says: About 20 years ago, an American professor was visiting a Danish professor, and the Dane was driving the American to a ferry that he would take to the airport to go home. But terrible traffic was about to prevent them from getting to the ferry on time. The Dane pulled into the breakdown lane and drove several miles to the ferry unobstructed, which left the American flabbergasted. "The U.S. guy says, 'I don’t understand. No one made gestures, shouted or blocked us. And the Dane replied, 'My friend, this is Denmark. They’re not mad at us. They feel sorry for us because they know I would not have done this if it wasn’t an emergency,'" Larson explains.
Sometimes, you just can't win
In 1985, David Maister wrote a paper called "The Psychology of Waiting Lines," and in it, he points out an amusing behavior pattern: "Clients who arrive early for an appointment will sit contentedly until the scheduled time, even if this is a significant amount of time in an absolute sense (say, 30 minutes). However, once the appointment time is passed, even a short wait of, say, 10 minutes, grows increasingly annoying. The wait until the appointed time is finite; waiting beyond the point has no knowable limit."