Practicing Patience

Prevention Magazine . April, 2005
Why the richest rewards come to those who wait

April is the cruelest month for a gardener living in the Colorado Rockies. While crocuses and daffodils are lifting their graceful heads down the mountain in Boulder, we’re still shoveling snow up in the hinterlands. But lurking beneath the 3-foot drifts are old friends waiting patiently for the thaw, both the wildflowers that Mother Nature so graciously tends and the perennials that I’ve planted and nurtured over the years. I can hardly wait to see the offspring of last season’s profligate floral marriages.

But wait I must. And that’s practically a lost art in a culture addicted to instant gratification. I’ve seen people nearly go ballistic when the line at my bank is longer than two people. A caricature of our culture might portray us with a Starbucks on every corner and a computer in every house that links us to instant everything—from e-mails to movie tickets. This may seem convenient and harmless, but instant gratification has a serious psychological dark side.

The capacity to wait—trading a temporary delight for a more substantial success later—is a core component of emotional intelligence and maturity. Without it, we’re like infants who want what we want when we want it, even if waiting could get us something much more desirable later on. Research with preschoolers shows that the ability to hold out correlates strongly with future success.

Psychologist Walter Mischel, PhD, of Columbia University, conducted studies where he measured 4-year-olds’ ability to resist candy, then followed up more than a decade later. Kids who could only wait for a few seconds had SAT scores as teens that averaged 60 points lower than those of the kids who’d had the self-control to resist for 5 minutes or longer. And preschoolers who showed good self-control became adolescents who were socially and cognitively more advanced than their once-impulsive, candy-grabbing peers. They also showed superior tolerance for frustration and stress, which is what we adults need to reach our goals in love and work.

I first tasted the magic of waiting in kindergarten when we were given paper cups filled with soil and a lima bean to plant. The sight of fat cotyledons breaking through the dirt, followed by leaves hungry for light, was thrilling—even if I didn’t see the full-grown plant for months or at all.

But whether you learned patience as a child or not, it’s never too late to master the art. The prefrontal cortex of your brain inhibits impulsive actions and helps you make choices that ensure later success. If it’s functioning well, you’ll be able to walk right past that bowl of potato chips and wait until dinner to eat. But even if you’d normally grab the chips, you can retrain your brain. The nervous system has plasticity—it can create fresh neural pathways in response to new behaviors. So as you practice patience, you’ll gradually develop the internal hardware to make it second nature. These suggestions can help you nudge your nervous system into a more patient mode.

Nip procrastination in the bud.

Whenever I have a big project, I procrastinate. Instead of preparing a seminar, I might rearrange the living-room furniture, go shopping, or call a friend. These activities provide instant gratification and seem a whole lot more pleasurable than being locked up with my computer and a desk full of papers. But procrastination exacts its pound of flesh. Not only will the seminar be lousy if I wait too long to prepare it, but I’ll get stressed out, headachy, snippy, and anxious trying to make the deadline. I won’t enjoy my procrastination, either, because I’ll know that I’m neglecting something important. So when the urge to procrastinate strikes, I’ll give myself an hour or two to putter around, but then I know it’s time to get to work.

Make waiting your ally.

When you’re frustrated in traffic or standing in line, shift your frame of reference from doing to being. Instead of wishing that you could move ahead, think of waiting as a chance to relax and bring yourself to a state of balance. It’s weird to admit, but after years of practicing belly breathing while standing in lines, I actually look forward to waiting. I breathe into my belly and then take the breath up through my chest and into my shoulders. When I breathe out, I let my shoulders go and then feel the breath leaving my chest and belly. I know that the alternative to letting go and relaxing is high blood pressure, repressed anger, stress, and nasty snarl lines around my mouth. And honestly, who wants those?

Do something for another person.

Instant gratification is all about you. Yet the deepest gratification we experience is when we are selfless and our actions benefit others. Just this morning a busy friend of mine dropped everything to fly across the country to the funeral of an old friend. Taking 4 days out of her busy schedule to comfort the family through this grief period took precedence over all her other needs. It’s these time-intensive acts of caring that really matter; they make us whole, loving human beings.

You can spread a little kindness and care to strangers as well. In every home where I’ve lived, I’ve planted fruit trees—even when I knew that we wouldn’t be there long enough to see the first harvest. The thought of a child smelling fragrant blossoms in the spring and then picking a ripe peach nourishes my soul. When you look back on life, the patient acts of kindness, which often mean delaying your gratification, are what give life its real savor.

A Native American teaching counsels us to think about how our actions will affect the world for seven generations to come. If we all tried to do that, the world would be a much more beautiful and peaceful place to live.

Tips for Staying Power

  • Focus on the journey, not the destination. When you’re doing a chore, such as washing dishes, concentrate on doing the task rather than finishing. Most tasks become enjoyable through this practice of mindfulness.
  • Wait 24 hours before making a big purchase. Ditto for other impulse decisions. Take the time to think and ask yourself how the decision will affect your life and the lives of others now and in the future.
  • Think of an act of kindness and then do it for a stranger. You could start a six-pack of flowers and leave it anonymously on a co-worker’s desk or at a nursing home or hospital.

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