How to Be More Patient Every Day

In a world of instant gratification, patience is a lost art. But can you develop a muscle for it? We asked experts.

In This Article
View All
In This Article
Photo: Olemedia/Getty Images

Remember when we had to actually talk to someone or consult a map to get directions? And how about when new shoes required a trip to the mall instead of a click of a mouse with free two-day shipping? Sure, tasks and errands were more time-consuming back then, but they also carried a silver lining: They helped to cultivate patience. These days, patience is practically on the endangered species list as far as virtues go.

We clearly live in an era of hyperconnectivity when entire TV series are available at once on streaming services, and burning questions are resolved in seconds via a search engine. According to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, hyperconnectivity's negative effects include "a need for instant gratification and a loss of patience." Another 2012 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that roughly a quarter of Internet users abandon an online video if it takes more than five seconds to load, and half jump ship after 10 seconds. And that was a decade ago.

Our tolerance for waiting isn't much better in other areas of our lives. Just sit in traffic for a few minutes and count how many honking horns you hear. A survey conducted by One Poll on 2000 British adults in 2019 found that the average respondent gets irritated if traffic lights don't change after 25 seconds.

Having patience benefits your life and health

Mastering patience—and demonstrating self-control, a quality in its immediate family—makes you a more engaged, confident, and even healthier member of society. A 2004 study published in The Journal of Personality found that the capacity to exercise self-control correlates with high self-esteem, better grades, and better interpersonal skills.

Consider the oft-cited Stanford "marshmallow experiment," which psychologist Walter Mischel first conducted about 40 years ago. In this experiment, 4-year-olds were offered one marshmallow (or another similarly alluring treat) immediately, or two if they could wait about 25 minutes for the researchers to come back into the room. When the original participants were revisited recently, scientists discovered that those who had been able to put off gratification in favor of a superior reward as 4-year-olds grew up to be more patient adults.

"They also had higher SAT scores, lower body-mass indexes, and a slightly lower divorce rate," says BJ Casey, PhD, director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, and one of the authors of the experiment's follow-up study.

What's more, people who are patient are, to put it bluntly, more likable. They're better at waiting their turn, not interrupting while others are talking, and not making a scene at the DMV. In short, "They're easier to be with," says Rona Renner, RN, registered nurse and the author of the parenting book Is That Me Yelling? "Patience enables you to work collaboratively, have good relationships with others, and move toward goals."

Are we born with patience or is it learned?

The answer is "Yes." For adults and children, the development of patience involves both nature and nurture.

The biological roots of impatience include an overcharged fight-or-flight reflex that kicks in as a survival mechanism during stressful situations (like when you're running 10 minutes late), anxiety or depression, and feelings of superiority or entitlement. "This is the sense that you should be able to go ahead of someone or that your needs should be put first in any situation," says Judith Orloff, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of The Power of Surrender. "You get pushy and think you have more rights than others."

For children, the least-patient species on the planet, brain development also plays a role. "The prefrontal circuitry of the brain, which is involved in self-regulation, is still developing into our 20s," adds Casey, and that contributes to children and teenagers acting more impulsively.

The nurture component is key, too. For example, an overflow of obligations leaves many adults "overwhelmed and overcommitted and feeling as if they don't have enough time to do everything," Dr. Orloff says, making them less likely to handle delays with a smile.

As for children, they "learn by what they see rather than by what you say," Renner says, so if you have a short fuse, your kids might, too. One of the best ways to raise a kid who waits for that second marshmallow is to become good at waiting yourself. "Some children are more naturally patient, but patience is something that you absolutely can cultivate," Renner adds. In fact, with a little know-how and effort, everyone can learn to wait out delays, big and small.

You can cultivate patience

"Many people speak about patience as if it were some sort of commodity," says Allan Lokos, founder of the Community Meditation Center in New York City, and author of Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living. "We say, 'I'm running out of patience' or 'I'm losing my patience.' But that's not really accurate. Patience and impatience are feelings." In other words, you don't start the day with a full tank that's steadily depleted until you're running on patience fumes. Instead, the trait is a mixture of "persistence, acceptance, and calmness," explains M.J. Ryan, an executive coach and author of The Power of Patience. "When people with these three qualities find that something isn't going their way, they can keep on keeping on."

How do you get that magic mix if you weren't born with it? By adjusting your wiring. "The brain is constantly being refined by our experiences," Casey says. "If you train yourself to regulate your behavior and work on cooling off before responding, you can actually alter your brain circuitry."

Here are some strategies to help you cultivate patience:

Set up cues

The human psyche functions much the way a computer does: It's fastest at retrieving the information used recently. To access patience more easily, Lokos recommends choosing an activity you perform frequently throughout the day (taking a sip of water, touching a door handle, turning a page) and thinking of the word "patience" every time you do it. (If you find yourself forgetting about this as the day wears on, simply resume the practice as soon as you remember.) Continue every day for a week, says Lokos, "and you'll start to notice that you're handling situations differently than you would have before.

Visualize success

There's no need to wait until you're in a situation (say, in a long grocery checkout line with a trainee on the register) to test yourself. "Visualize a situation that would normally challenge you," suggests Lori Lite, a parenting expert and the author of Stress Free Kids. "See yourself smiling and breathing as you wait for the line to move, and add some positive statements." For example: "I will enjoy this magazine while I wait." Doesn't sound like you? Don't despair. Your mind will start to process the pretend scenario as a real experience in which you did the right thing, helping to set you up for future successes. Hey, an imaginary win is still a win!

Meditate

"People who meditate say that they feel more peaceful, accepting, and content," Lite says. A 2011 brain-imaging study conducted at Yale University found that people who meditate regularly can switch off parts of the brain associated with anxiety. Lite offers an easy technique you can try anywhere: Close your eyes and imagine filling your mind with your favorite color, and then let the color drown out the voice that is thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. Alternatively, try our handy guide to meditation for beginners.

Children can benefit from centering time-outs, too. For them, Dr. Orloff recommends three-minute meditation intervals. "Ask them to take a few deep breaths, relax their bodies, and picture an image that makes them happy, such as playing with their friends or riding a skateboard," she says. "This will teach them to calm down and focus on something positive, which in turn helps them learn to center themselves quickly throughout the day," including when they're waiting for that pasta to heat up or their brother to give up the iPad.

Slow down

When racing around seems like the only way to get where you need to be on time, it becomes your default setting. "We get so caught up in hurrying that we get stuck in that mode," Lite says. "But most adults do not feel happy when they're rushing, and children are even less capable of doing it with a good attitude." Instead of sweating through your routine, turn on some background music you like and move at a normal pace.

If you're legitimately running late all the time, rethink your schedule. Allot a few more minutes for each errand, consider what you can drop from your to-do list, or wake up just 15 minutes earlier. You'd be amazed at how big a difference it can make.

Learn to distract yourself

The ability to let your mind wander, whether daydreaming or actively applying your imagination, is a skill that improves patience. For example, in the marshmallow experiment, many of the subjects who held out for two marshmallows had followed instructions to imagine the sweets as something else, like floating clouds, which took their minds off the waiting. Encourage your kids to make up stories or to imagine the place they're in as somehow different, and eventually, they'll get into the habit of doing this on their own. As for you, Ryan suggests that something as simple as moving a pebble from one pocket to the other may be enough to wrest your mind from aggravation.

Calm yourself down when you get impatient.

You can't turn into a different person overnight, or even over a year. But while you're working on things, employ these strategies to avoid blowing your top:

Breathe deeply

It's the oldest trick in the book because it works. If you feel tension mounting, drop your shoulders (eyes closed, if you want) and take a series of deep, gentle breaths. "The stress response and the relaxation response are opposite, so they can't be on at the same time," Ryan says.

Next time your impatience starts mounting, try one of our easy mindful breathing exercises.

Use calming self-talk

You have an important meeting starting soon and the guy making your lunch at the deli counter is the slowest sandwich crafter on the planet. Panic ensues. "Typically there's a triggering thought, like 'I'm going to get in trouble,' that sets you off," says Ryan. Before you go down an emotional rabbit hole, hit pause and take yourself through a series of questions, such as "What's the worst that can happen? Can I survive the worst?" Then Ryan advises to figure out if there's anything you can do to help the scenario, like sending a text that you'll be a few minutes late or cutting your losses and leaving the deli.

Suggest a game

For parents dealing with impatient youngsters who haven't yet mastered the art of distracting themselves, give them a prompt. On the checkout line, try a game, like "How many hats do you see?" suggests Deborah Gilboa, MD, family physician, behavioral development expert, and keynote speaker. With older kids, ask, "Can you list all the jobs that people have to do where we are now?" (Restocking, slicing meat, carting fruit…)

Write yourself a note

Paste a note by the phone that says something like: "Am I about to speak as the person I want to be?" According to Lokos, it's a question that often goes by the wayside in the thick of our daily interactions. Every time you get on the phone with customer service (the cable company, your health insurance), read the note as a reminder. It might stop you from taking out your frustration on the agent who answers the call.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles