NeuroNation \ Mind and Brain

Is Patience a Forgotten Virtue?

If you’re too impatient, you might make quick decisions with huge consequences. If you’re too patient, you might pursue the wrong options for too long, wasting vast stretches of your time. The question is, where can you find the right balance in this fast-paced life?

“What good has impatience ever brought? It has only served as the mother of mistakes and the father of irritation.”

Both patience and impatience have their flaws, but our society seems to push for the latter while telling us to be the former. Have hustle, but not too much. What is one to do?

Impatience is defined as wanting to, or being eager, to do something without waiting.

In the past, our ancestors were rewarded for their impatience, because when they couldn’t find food, it was time to consider alternatives and change strategies; to survive.

Twenty years ago, companies had five-year plans. Nowadays, life is a bit more complicated; a company with a five-year plan would be a joke; delivering an outdated product to the market. CEO’s and entrepreneurs today must pay more attention to the new, and be willing to change course more frequently. They must be impatient to get the results they want from the people they employ or miss out.

And the faster technology changes, the less patience will pay.

What is obvious is that we have many more opportunities to be impatient today. Technology, social lives, personal schedules and work often collide. Many of these collisions bring about unexpected costs. And unexpected costs lead to impatience.

We have many ways to spend our leisure time. We have video games, smartphones, facebook, movies online, books, parties, budget travel, virtual and live sport to play. And there is always something better to do in the midst of an unexpected delay.

Has Technology Made Us Lazy?

We don’t have to leave the house to have entertainment.

Paper maps have become obsolete, replaced by GPS and Google maps which audibly detail each turn on the road. We don’t need spatial orientation skills anymore; we have technology.

Saturday mornings were once consumed by errands; grocery shopping, laundry, small purchases. Now groceries are delivered to the door, services pick up your washing; shoes and clothes can be bought with a click of the mouse.

Google reports show last month 500, 000 people searched ‘How to tie a tie’, and 1, 000 looked up ‘How to boil water’. The basic life lessons our parents taught us are now being replaced by the internet. Perhaps boiling water is no longer a necessary life skill; many times buying processed food is cheaper than doing it yourself.

Laziness is indeed being rewarded and fueled by capitalism. We have more time than ever before to develop skills we deem useful, yet it can be so difficult to choose what is for ‘us’ with so many options on the table.

Our Need for Instant Gratification

Jonathan Cohen and Samuel McClure of Princeton University, and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University found people tend to act impatiently today, but plan or prefer to be more patient in the future. In their study, people were offered $10 today or $11 tomorrow, and the overwhelming majority chose the lesser amount immediately. But if given the choice between $10 in a year or $11 in one year and a day, the majority favoured the latter [1]. 

The reason why? Our emotional brain has difficulty seeing into the future, even though our logical brains see the clear consequences of our immediate behavior. Our emotional brain wants to order dessert, smoke a cigarette, and book a flight to South America. Our logical brain wants to maintain a healthy weight, quit smoking and save for retirement. It is a battle of the two and our culture is pushing for the former.

Impatience Leads to Stress

We’re all stressed; too much on our plates, deadlines are looming, and people are counting on us. This is life in the modern workplace. The difference between those who are successful and those aren’t is not whether or not you suffer from stress, but how you deal with it when you do.

Reducing the options and relying on routine helps reduce the stress of too much choice which inevitably leads to our impatience. Shopping is exhausting, not because of the cold white floors and children in prams, but because of all the options to choose from. Here is a worthy tip from Barack Obama.

“You need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day… You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia” – President Obama, Vanity Fair.

Patience is not Always the Best

Patience is not always a virtue. We should consider if there’s ways to speed things up, or if there are better uses of our time, attention, and energy.

The balance is not getting flustered when making decisions, but not taking so much time that the competition and opportunities pass you by. 

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[1] McClue, S., Laibson, D., Loewenstein, G. & Cohen, J. (2004) Separate neural systems value immediate and delayed monetary rewards. Science 306(5695): 503-7.

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