The patience of our readers is being taxed. But some nevertheless took the time to voice opinions about whether we are, in general, becoming more impatient. The general conclusion is that we are. And they lament the phenomenon.
As one reader put it, "We don't know what to do with our spare time so we kill it." I assume he means that we engineer our lives so that we are always busy, thereby avoiding spare time. Aurin Bhattacharjee admonishes us to "moderate our ways and appreciate the passage of time for its own sake." Renee Dupras cautions that this may be a generational thing, that as our Internet generation ages into mid-life, "we will slow down." Will we? For example, will we be able to suppress annoyance when someone writes us a letter, to which one must reply in kind, rather than sending us an email?
But it is much more complex than that. In other words, according to our readers, our level of patience depends—on the nature of the task; on whether we are focused completely on just one task; on personal circumstances such as anxiety, fatigue, or available time; and on our knowledge of what is possible and how that influences our expectations.
Matt Lynch observes that seconds can drag by on some tasks, namely those associated with high tech applications, while "an hour can pass by barely noticed" on other tasks. In order to cope, we multi-task or engage in time-consuming activities that provide multiple benefits, thereby increasing their value. Denise Rickman grabs a magazine from the rack while in the supermarket checkout lane. Imran Jafar rides his scooter to work, enjoying the benefits of close-to-the-road transportation, exercise, and what sounds a lot like a kind of meditation. Others save certain activities for times when they are less fatigued or have available time. And all respondents seem to compartmentalize expectations of how long various tasks should take, clearly differentiating the wait for a computer response from that of filling a gas tank. In other words, we cope.
But why must we, as users, meet product and service providers more than halfway on this issue? One respondent is convinced that "patience is a frontier of competition." If this is true, there may be a real competitive advantage awaiting the Internet-based service provider who provides us with diversions other than advertising as well as other opportunities for multi-tasking while we await responses to our last click.
We are witnessing a race to reduce the time required to fill the tank of a car with gasoline. Why, when Mobil introduced its Speedpass, allowing customers to wave a credit card in front of the pump instead of paying in slower, more conventional ways, did 2.7 million people sign up for the program and increase their loyalty to Mobil by one extra visit to the pump per month? The explanation was the saving of one to several minutes per visit.
The concept was successful enough to encourage Shell Oil to test Smart-Pump, an automated device providing a two-minute fill while allowing the driver to remain in the car. It appears that we are well on our way to "drive through" refueling without stopping, a concept the Air Force has employed for years.
Disney is a master at managing waiting, having long since concluded that guests to its theme parks spend far more time waiting than participating in various activities. Guests are willing to wait longer when they are diverted or entertained, when they know what the length of wait is going to be, and when they can't see all of the people waiting ahead of them in line. So Disney entertains its waiting guests, tells guests what to expect (almost always exceeding such expectation to create the impression of great service), and artfully conceals its lines.
Recent research suggests that there is a clock ticking in our brain that records time. Further, it measures the time associated with a task and sets our expectations in subsequently performing similar tasks. That's why we become so impatient when it takes a couple of extra seconds to access our e-mail in the morning. In fact, some claim that high-speed technology is quietly resetting our internal clocks to more and more exacting tolerances.
This raises a number of questions. Are we able to compartmentalize our patience? For example, does the clock tick at different rates for various tasks? Does it tick slower, for example, at a Disney theme park than in a gas station? If that is the case, why does it tick so rapidly when we use our PC? And what does this say about the future quality of work employing information technology? Or the patience of people engaged in such work? Or the impact that rising expectations concerning speed of response may have on product designers, service providers, and the rest of society?