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Why Waiting Is Torture (nytimes.com)
163 points by sew on Aug 19, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments

My smartphone has changed the way I feel about waiting. Instead of dismay I now can look forward to a lengthy pause. It never really feels like waiting for me anymore.

Unless it's in my car and I can't use my smartphone. Another exception is when I am with people and it is socially unacceptable for me to focus on my phone. If we have nothing interesting to talk about, the wait is as painful as ever, perhaps even worse if I am jonesing for my phone.

Standing up a long time can cause physical pain, so that part doesn't go away even if I have a phone.

Also I wonder if smartphones have decreased impulse buys of candy and that other stuff in supermarket lines.

Personally, to the contrary. With a smart device you'll end up going and doing something all the time, and you get used to that keeping you going and going through the day. And this means you never stop doing and start being.

I don't have a smartphone and I probably won't get one until I need some of its functions desperately enough. I like waiting and doing nothing: it's the time to be, it's time for myself. I never run for the bus or tram or train, instead I walk as if it was waiting for me forever. If it leaves before I hop in, I just consider it some time for not-doing.

Actually, this removes the meaning of "waiting" and "pause". If the "pause" doesn't actually break anything in your day then you're not "waiting" either. It's just your day, sometimes going forward, something stalling, sometimes going backwards, like a little toy boat whirling along in a stream. There's nothing to pause from and nothing to wait because everything just is.

> "it's the time to be, it's time for myself"

This seems like a weird and arbitrary use of the word be that is not defined in the dictionary that I have. So I do not understand what it is you are saying.

When it's time for myself I like to use my smartphone. Because it's interesting to me. I can read interesting articles, I can distract myself with books, catch up on emails and online discussions. I like these things. I can also choose to not use my smartphone if I'm not interested in what my phone has to offer. Owning a smartphone does not mean I am required to use it, but not owning a smartphone makes it impossible to use one if you wanted to.

This seems like a weird and arbitrary use of the word be that is not defined in the dictionary that I have. So I do not understand what it is you are saying.

Thanks for pointing it out! I meant "being" as opposed to "doing". Some people use "not-doing" instead but that sounds even weirder.

Being means... well, just that. You just are, you don't have anything to work on or focus on. You just be and see later what came out (if anything). It might sound like zen stuff but most people do that naturally if only they occasionally stop themselves from doing something.

If I'm sitting in a bus I'm likely to just be: I don't think anything in particular, I just watch and observe without analyzing, I might think about something but then I gleefully forget about it. An internet connection or a smartphone in general would just distract me. The moments of just being are worth a lot of gold in my life and I'm enough aware of them that I actively try not prevent them. Thus my smartphone policy.

Your not doing it just being state is very well known in the East, you might want to check the Zhuangzi. But your explanation is not very accurate. You'd go to this state more easily if you do something you don't need to think about, like housework, hiking, or even coding - but when you're in the zone. The main thing ifs to be without intention, without internal mental supervision. Then you are your real self, and you are happy, like fishes in the river.

It is good to you to be able to be yourself in the lines, and shows you will be able to handle the "distractions" of a smartphone easily.

I think I actually achieve this state playing Temple Run, which is an utterly mindless game that involves no thought at all, just doing.

Being yourself is the time where you're thoughtful and analyzing the information that's already in your head, instead of desperately probing the world for something you might have missed from someone else. At least that's how I see it.

If I put you into a refrigerator box with pencils, pens, watercolors, paper, and light, then after a day cut a slot in it, what you passed out to me would be you.

The vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their time lazily consuming the synthesis of others, getting vicarious doses of the feeling of discovery, a pale imitation of actual, original discovery through reflection on what they have already incorporated into themselves.

th-d;dr* information consumption without reflection isn't learning, it's cataloging. Proper consumption/reflection ratio: 1:10, median: 100:1.

*too hippy-dippy; didn't read.

> I don't have a smartphone and I probably won't get one until I need some of its functions desperately enough.

My smartphone has only one essential function. Provide access to the internet. I consider that a necessity. Apparently you do too or I wouldn't be reading your comment.

> I like waiting and doing nothing: it's the time to be, it's time for myself.

I can understand not wanting to be connected all the time. However, for myself, I only want to disconnect when I'm with other people ... when I'm by myself, I want to spend that time on my interests, which are conveniently found on the net.

> I consider that a necessity. Apparently you do too or I wouldn't be reading your comment.

This doesn't follow. Commenting on HN doesn't imply that the commenter requires the internet. It doesn't even imply that the commenter likes the internet or thinks that overall it is a net-gain.

On the latter point, I find it useful to disconnect to read and take notes sometimes. I find that if the internet is available, any resistance/difficulty in thought results in an instinctive impulse towards alt+tab (or the mobile equivalent). Whereas if I'm sitting out in the park with a book and notepad and I run into a stumbling block, I just stare into the distance, or maybe walk around a bit, until something comes to me.

I toggle between reaching for my smartphone and not-doing, but not doing is better. We all have inner wisdom but it's often ignored in favour of reading the latest comment or opinion on HN. We need to switch that priority around.

Where the smartphone gets in the way is when you want peace or when a situation is slightly uncomfortable but we retreat to the smartphone out of mindless habit. We use smartphones to not only connect with people but also to avoid people.

Second that. As long as I've got my trusty electronic device with me, any wait below 2 hours is nothing to me. With the charger and internet connection, make that 2 days ;)

Of course, if you don't have such an electronic device, some people say a thing where entertaining or illuminating texts are permanently fixed to a pieces of processed plants, also known as "book", often helps. I've used that remedy many times too, and can vouch for its effectiveness.

I remember when the swine flu was a big deal, and there was a huge line for public vaccinations in my town. I was waiting in that line for at least an hour, but it didn't feel that way, because I wasn't waiting in a line. I was reading a paperback book that I had brought with me, in a line. It was only a peculiarity of circumstance that there were long lines of people on either side of me during this whole process, and that my reading session concluded with a needle in my arm.

Surprisingly pleasant! I just wish that books tended to be more trivially portable, so I could carry them with me all the time. Cell phones with books on them are nice, but the tiny, backlit screen is less than ideal.


It may be true that smartphones and books can get you through a long queue, it does not solve the problem though, only makes it worse.

Queues can be indicative of a more serious issue - indifference. Government offices have earned their way up to the top of this list. Government queues could very easily be improved by either getting larger offices, hiring more officers, optimizing queue lines, estimating times and allowing you to return after 3 hours instead of making you wait and a hundred other ways any of you could come up with in less than 5 minutes.

The problem is not the queue but the organization.

There's a crucial social aspect of queuing that the article doesn't discuss - it makes you feel like a punter. It puts you in your place. And it's far worse when you're in a tiered situation - such as having to board a flight after business passengers, or being kept waiting outside a nightclub whilst some beautiful people are waived past the velvet rope. Perhaps the thing about walking through the airport isn't so much that it's less boring, it's that your social status is more anonymous. But as soon as you reach the carousel your true caste is revealed. Non-priority baggage. Economy traveller. Punter.

Agreed. Which is why I would never wait outside a nightclub.

I am a customer, and i expect good service.

What most people fail to ever figure out is that this social-status hack (velvet-roped queues) has a lifespan.

In the nightclub industry, people understand this. They create artificial barriers to entry so that, when people get in, they spend loads of money "on the experience" because they feel lucky and perhaps a bit superstitious. It works for a few months and makes an enormous amount of money.

Two years later, some other club is hot and that one is a non-concern, full of "B&T" (bridge and tunnel, i.e. non-New Yorkers) and college kids on spring break. There's actually a lot of truth in the Yogi Berra quote: "That place is so crowded, no one goes there anymore." Once "the crowd" can get in, no one important wants to be there, and the $10,000-per-night people have moved on. A nightclubs has a lifespan. The owners and promoters put it into maintenance mode and start another one. This works extremely well for that industry. If you can sell a $30 bottle of vodka for $700, you've figured something out. Having to start a new club every 18 months isn't a major burden for the owners and promoters. It's the Hollywood model of starting a new project every year.

This works poorly for the airlines, which have infrastructural needs that require them to focus on the long term. The airlines play similar status games. There's economy which is deliberately uncomfortable, and first/business (first in domestic flight, business) which ought to be 1.5x the price (50% more space) but is between 1x and 5x depending on a bunch of weird variables, some of which are deliberately indexed to the person's socioeconomic status. You never get a good sense of what a ticket "should" cost because they deliberately keep it vague.

In the long run, this leads to abandon. Truly high-status people don't use commercial airlines anymore, not even international first. The rest will fly commercial but hate the experience, and would probably ditch the planes in a second if we had decent (250+ mph, 5-8 cents per mile) train service like they have in Europe. Morale in the industry is at an all-time low. As soon as credible alternatives to the mainline commercial airlines exist, they're done for.

There’s actually a large additional benefit to making people walk around before getting their bags. Sitting down for long periods of time (such as on an airplane) causes people’s muscles and joints to settle into weakened forced positions. Afterward needing to lift and carry heavy bags is a frequent cause of back injuries. Even just being forced to walk for 5 or 10 minutes causes those tissues to mostly reset, and radically reduces the injury risk.

To relate this to tech, there was an earlier study done that showed progress bars that updated in smaller increments (~1% steps) felt faster to end users than larger increments (20% steps) even though the time for the smaller increment progress bar to finish the task was the same or longer.

In other words it's reinforcing the primary argument of the article, the perception of waiting is more important than actual wait time.

"Occupied time (walking to baggage claim) feels shorter than unoccupied time (standing at the carousel)".

That is true, since say a 5 minutes traffic jam seems like eternity compared to say 25 minutes of driving. Wonder if we can apply this principle to any situation. For example customer perception of progress in a consulting project is much better when you are hitting all kinds of milestones while developing a feature such as design, prototyping, development, testing, deployment. Ironically if we say we are doing all of those in parallel, it doesn't work very well.

I've long thought that those "take a number" queuing systems (commonly used at fast food places) should be random not linear. When someone with a larger number than you gets called first it feels like such an injustice! However, most people wouldn't be the wiser if the numbers were randomized. I bet it would reduce wait time complaints substantially.

I'd say that goes directly against one of the theses of the article -- that "uncertainty magnifies the stress of waiting".

The most excruciating waits that I've had to deal with in the last many years are at the Ausländerbehörde here in Germany -- the "foreigners' office". It's the place that you have to go to get a work permit if you're not German.

They use a randomized system. You don't have any idea if you're going to be waiting 10 minutes, 3 hours or even if you'll make it through the line at all before they close for the day. Combined with the stress of the possibility of rejection or missing some critical piece of paperwork, the uncertainty adds a huge amount of cognitive load. Need to go to the bathroom after you've been waiting for an hour? What if they call your number while you're away for 5 minutes? I would love for them to switch to a linear system so that I could produce a ballpark estimate of where I am in the queue.

I like the balance between the pain of total uncertainty and the overwhelming knowledge of being stuck

The appearance of fairness is often as important as fairness itself. With randomness, you completely destroy that appearance. I'll even bet that a lot of people will make up their own theories about how the tokens are given out ("Oh, that other machine usually gives smaller numbers"). So, my hunch is complaints will actually rise.

Btw, one strategy the article doesn't mention is making queues seem more asynchronous-- this is what Starbucks does when they employ "expeditors", those employees who walk the line and take orders (but not cash). The (partial) success of having ordered your coffee mitigates the agony of waiting to reach the cash register (it also makes people less likely to abandon the line).

Maybe those restaurants should use people's names instead; on the other hand the article indicates that people like feedback on their wait times. Perhaps people would be happier if they were instead given time estimates that the restaurant could reliably beat.

Nicer ones do: "Dufresne, party of two." (But if no one answers they'll just go right on to the next name...)

Who can eat at a time like this? People are missing!

At least processing them linearly gives a reasonable upper bound on the wait time. With random waits, some customers would be processed instantly ("WHY do THEY get to skip the entire line when I'm still sitting here?") and others would never be processed.

I think what the GP meant was that the numbers on the slip would be randomized, but the queue still ordered like a queue with the numbers in some database.

Same problem. "Why did $PERSON get a number lower than I did? I'm even paying more for the service than he/she is!"

Absence of observed order and provable fairness due to sequential order will inevitably lead to many people suspecting injustice and developing all kinds of theories, from flawed randomness generators (in last 10 numbers only 4 were even, the system is clearly broken!) to conspiracy theories (they hate me so they gave me a special number that gets called an hour later!)

Best medicine for that is a linear observable order, which is easily controlled and obviously hard to subvert - if you see you're number 42 you know you're going after 41 and everybody knows that, and if somebody doubts it you can just show your number and prove it's fair.

That would be torture

I've been to restaurants where you get a random word instead of a number, and it solves that problem nicely.

My instinct is to immediately close paginated articles upon finding their "next page" button.

Might be related to the topic at hand.

> And beating expectations buoys our mood. All else being equal, people who wait less than they anticipated leave happier than those who wait longer than expected.

The same philosophy which underlies the familiar "under promise and over deliver". Guess this also explains the enormous amount of outrage that comes out of schedule slips, even in cases where schedule is of little consequence.

I don't mind waiting in line so far as things in front are progressing efficiently.

In my current culture (MA, USA), there's little punishment available for inefficiency, such as taking a long time to pay, or deciding on an order for food. You can give someone a dirty stare, but that's about it.

Some cultures do punish explicitly. For example, if you hold up a line in NYC mid-day ordering lunch, staff yells at you to hurry up, and may even kick you out. A harsh but effective message. Their other queued customers are being inconvenienced by your inefficiency. They'll walk out and go get lunch next door. Fire one and keep many.

Other cultures are different. In Costa Rica, an extremely laid back environment, customer service takes 2-3 times as long. It might take you 60-90 minutes to pickup a rental car at the airport even if you're the only person in line. People don't mind waiting. Slow is the norm.

Waiting is torture, welcome, whatever, if you let it. Your environment influences your decision, but it still remains your decision to choose.

One point in the article, that "uncertainty magnifies the stress of waiting, while feedback in the form of expected wait times and explanations for delays improves the tenor of the experience", is definitely true for anyone waiting for mass transit. For example, NYC has recently been installing train arrival signs on some of their subway lines (and also some bus routes). I can say from first hand experience that waiting is much more tolerable when I know roughly when the next train will arrive.

Very interesting read. This reminds me back when sometimes loading up a flash video or anything that required a loading sequence sometimes the author would include a quickly loadable little mini-game or activity of sorts to keep the audience occupied as they wait for the full video to finish loading. Seems like a pretty useful concept that can still be applied in today's websites to keep users more engaged.

I wrote a response to this article last night -- not addressing the problems causing the delays in the first place, but ways to free yourself from the stressful feeling that you're wasting your life: http://blog.robwhelan.com/2012/08/20/waiting-is-horrible-so-...

The statements in the article are not universal. In fact they are heavily biased towards the US culture. If you ever think of traveling to Asia or Europe, here are some thoughts -

I remember a cartoon showing the difference between waiting lines in the US vs. China: an orderly serial line here, an amorphic mass of dots all aiming for the one entrance there. Europe is somewhere in between. Queues are like little war zones where everyone aims to achieve their goal the first. I remember when I was in a ski club (in Germany) how we were exchanging techniques on how to get on the lift first: take the outer part of the curve. Even better, pair up so that one can slowly move inwards so that your mate who follows you can overtake you and continue in the same manner (this works only with skis, however, which are used as barriers). I remember queuing at a certain nightclub which didn't have a serial queuing line. The best strategy there was to stand sideways which allowed you to better fill the little gaps that sometimes appear as people move in the bulk. In general, as an American traveling to Europe, I would recommend to do as the Romans do and regard queuing as sport. Don't call out to people who are cutting the line, they will usually not do it either if you try - but be smart enough to appear as it was just by accident.

But there are signs of change. The single-queue system has only appeared about 20 years ago and is called the "American queue". Post offices and airports have switched to this system. It's definitely an improvement.

I was amazed when I first stayed in the US how patient people were standing in line, but even more, how many lines there were. I would say you're waiting about twice as much in lines in the US than in Europe. The queuing experience here is just so unpleasant that people try to avoid them overall. A grocery store chain has big signs for the employees to open up a new cash desk should more than 2 customers wait in line. In most cases machines have taken over jobs for which you would usually stand in line, and then they put up enough machines so that you don't have to wait. I have hardly ever waited to get into a movie theater (seats are bought online and are numbered) or to get train tickets (lots of ticket machines). At Schloss Neuschwanstein (the original "Disney Castle") you order a ticket for a certain time and can spend the waiting time in a restaurant or hiking the surrounding mountains. The list could go on. To me it is quite unbelievable that Disney doesn't do it this way in its parks. And it very odd to me to go skiing in the US where they rather hire workers to organize the queues instead of increasing lift capacity.

These days however after having read a lot about meditation I see queues as a great opportunity to switch off thinking. When was the last time you spend a while listening to your breathing? Marvel at the colors of your surroundings? Watch yourselves as your mind desparetely tries to find something to think about? I'm trying to do this now whenever I have to wait. Unless I'm distracted by my smart phone, of course...

I'm a smoker. I only complain about waiting if I've waited in the place where smoking is not allowed.

maybe all these portable entertainment devices will be the doom of GDP growth.

Lower complaints means longer waits (less efficiency) and everyone's happy because it lets them get that final star on level X.

I think that the fight-or-flight instinct has a lot to do with this. When you wait in line, you're in an architectural non-place so your guard is up, and you have someone right behind you at your back.

One thing almost every office plan gets wrong (unless intimidation is part of the design) is open-back visibility. It makes people stressed and unhappy and less productive than they could otherwise be, but a lot of offices use this style of plan because it's cheapest.

For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

— Matthew 20:1–16, King James Version

...I suppose that's an example of a business owner with unhappy employees because he's technically "correct" but completely ignorant of human psychology?

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