Patience is the ability to wait. If that sounds easy, then you’re fortunate.
When you’re in a hurry, waiting can be especially frustrating. Unexpected wait time can feel as if the universe refuses to cooperate with your schedule, wasting resources you don’t have on hassles you don’t need.
But patience teaches a valuable lesson: When circumstances are beyond your control, it’s time to shift your focus to what you can control. A patient mindset can give you the power to address obstacles and setbacks in the calmest, kindest, and most effective way possible.
If you lack patience, the wait seems even longer and more annoying. You may even say or do things you’ll later regret.
What makes practicing patience such a pain is that we must put our agenda on hold to do so. And when we’re focused on a goal, that’s the last thing we want to do.
According to Dr. Rob Bell, a sports psychology coach and author of several books on cultivating mental toughness, to understand patience you have to put your goals in proper perspective.
A goal is just a motivator, Bell says; it gives you something to aim for, but obsessing over it won’t lead you to success.
“A focus on winning doesn’t lead to winning,” he said. “You have to focus on the process, not the results.”
Often, we have it flipped. We’re so driven by getting what we want when we want it that we become intolerant of anything that gets in our way.
But Bell says that while we may not be able to control the situation for a particular outcome, we can control the process we take to get there.
For athletes, that means focusing on training, practice, and each moment of the game, not the final score or the championship. The same principle applies in life. If we focus on what we need to do to get the job done and keep patience with the progress, it will naturally lead to better performance.
“I take the standpoint that everybody is an athlete, our office is just different,” said Bell. “We are all just trying to be a better version of ourselves than what we were yesterday. ”
In the end, the process is all we have. That’s because achieving the goal we’ve been striving for doesn’t give us lasting satisfaction, it’s the journey we take to get there.
“Even though what we want is the results, it’s not fulfilling. How we go about it, the passion we have for it, that’s what’s fulfilling, because that’s what lasts,” Bell said. “Even with sports, it’s really about the relationships we build along the way. That’s what matters.”
Gaining Patience Through Practice
Some people seem to have boundless patience, while others lose their cool at the slightest inconvenience. Luckily, practice can make patience.
According to Nickia Lowery, a licensed professional counselor and certified anger management specialist, nobody is born with patience. Our base instinct is to get our needs met; the ability to wait is a learned behavior.
“You have to be taught to be considerate of others and delay gratification,” Lowery said. “If you are raised to always get everything you want, you likely will not be as patient as someone who has had to wait on getting their needs and wants met.”
But patience doesn’t just come from going without. You also need to embrace setbacks with the right attitude—calm, relaxed (or at least restrained), and kind. Responding to loss with jealousy and spite won’t lead to patience, but manipulative and coercive means to even the score.
“If you never received what you want, this may lead to feelings of resentment and rebellion, where you learn to take what you want or lash out in order to get what you want,” Lowery said.
Lowery believes it’s best to teach patience to children when they’re young, but she says practicing patience at any age is bound to play a positive role.
“Imagine if you were able to just walk away with no negative feelings when someone does something to slight you,” she said. “Imagine going through life just being happy and accepting of others.”
Age of Instant Gratification
Unfortunately, the opportunities for daily patience practice are getting harder to come by. According to Dr. Russell Thackeray, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in patience, people become “hard-wired for immediate gratification” as a result of our convenience culture.
Thackeray describes how the modern world caters to our needs like never before. In the past, before we could order virtually anything we wanted over the internet on a credit card, every aspect of life took more time. People were used to waiting because they had to. Today, a webpage that takes longer than five seconds to load seems like a small eternity. Even getting up to grab your credit card for an online order can seem like a hassle.
“I think we find it so hard to delay gratification because of the societal norms that are created,” Thackeray said. “It reinforces this idea that we do not need to wait for anything.”
Nobody wants to wait, but there can be value in being forced to do so. Obstacles may impede our plans for the moment, but they can also give us a chance to pause, reconsider, and reassess, leading us down roads we otherwise wouldn’t have taken, and granting us ideas we never would have considered.
“We gain perspective and insight with patience,” Thackeray said. “Building a product line, growing a company, building relationships—all require time to work and mature.”
With enough patience, you can see every unpleasant moment as an opportunity to calmly observe, and consider your next move. In some cases, the best response may be no move at all.
“Sometimes things just need time to play out,” Thackeray said. “However, patience should never be confused with procrastination or idleness—all of which have a lack of action within them but the intention and execution is different.”
Meditation is a tried and true method of developing patience, but any opportunity we take to slow down and focus on the moment can contribute to this strength.
However, if we fail to practice, our patience won’t grow. Whipping out your phone during tedious moments means you never have to wait—you always have a distraction to pass the time. But Bell believes our devices can rob of the lessons we need to cope with life.
“The way we improve our mental health is by learning how to handle adversity,” Bell said. “If I never have to deal with it because I can distract myself all the time, then I’m not getting mentally healthy. I’m actually getting sicker.”
Patience Is Confidence
Patience is often compared to mindfulness. Both concepts ask you to focus on life in the moment rather than the agenda in your head.
But patience shares similarities with another concept: confidence.
According to Bell, people become impatient because they fear things won’t work out.
“They believe that in order to be successful they need everything to go their way,” he said. “But you show me any competent athlete and I’ll show you someone who is patient. Because they are confident that success is still going to be there, they just don’t know when it’s going to happen.”
But for many of us, it’s hard to have confidence and trust the process when we don’t see results right away. Trainer and fitness expert Kyle Hoffman says his clients often get upset when his diet and workout programs don’t create changes fast enough.
“When this happens, they’re quick to point fingers at me or give up altogether,” Hoffman said.
If we lack patience, we may even be blind to the progress we’ve made, because it’s not the dramatic change we envision. But according to Hoffman, the quickest way to help a frustrated client develop patience is to show them some evidence, no matter how small, that they are indeed on the right track.
“By giving them a small win that they can experience or see, it reminds them that every step of the process is necessary and better times are just around the corner,” he said.
When you realize that a little outside encouragement can help with your own confidence, be sure to share this gift with others as they learn new skills.
According to Donna Cameron, author of “A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You,” we often get impatient when someone does something slowly or awkwardly. It’s especially frustrating when they’re doing something that seems ridiculously easy to us. Think of trying to teach your grandmother how to use the internet.
“It’s human nature that once we learn something, we often forget how hard it was to learn,” Cameron said. “Once something becomes routine (driving a stick-shift or using new technology), we forget that it wasn’t always ingrained in our brains or muscle memory, and we lose patience for those who are struggling to learn.”
Sometimes, we reason that it’s easier to do things ourselves than to wait for a newbie to get it right. While that may be true, Cameron says the kind and helpful reaction is to stand by patiently, offer help if asked, and encourage the learning process.
She says that instead of getting impatient with a beginner, we should hold a space for them to grow. A few moments of our patience could soon reward us with more free time.
“If our work colleague, spouse, or child masters a new skill, they may be able to lighten our own load at some time in the future,” Cameron said. “There are gifts in patience if we take the time to look for them.”
Patience is the ability to wait, but it doesn’t take much waiting to harness this power. Cameron’s tip to bolster our patience is to learn to pause. Giving yourself a little moment to consider your actions when you feel irritated can help you make better, more patient decisions.
“Think about what expressing impatience will gain you,” she said. “Think about whether you are likely to regret uttering sharp words, and think about who you want to be and how you’d like this interaction to advance.”