What’s Happening to Our Patience?

by James Heskett

Summing Up

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.

Original Article

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?

    • Denise Rickman
    • Administrative Secretary, University of Alabama

    I think we all need to slow down a bit, catch our breath, and count to ten. What, exactly do people do with all this time they are supposedly saving? For example, when I see someone whiz through a red light, I always wonder "just what are they going to do with that three seconds they just risked their life to save?" I usually welcome "waiting" and try to make the best of it. When I go to the doctor's office, I always carry a paperback. When I'm in the grocery store checkout line, I always grab a magazine to read.

    • Alan Wisniewski
    • Managing Director, Alconsult Ltd

    I think technology and its speed are leading to further rifts between different socio-economic groups. We are effectively producing an underclass of people who cannot cope with and are illiterate in the new zeitgeist. I am one of the privileged ones ... I cope. How is the rest of mainstream society affected by this? When was the last time you took a quiet walk by the river or sat quietly on your own for more than five minutes?

    The answer to what ails us, in my opinion, is to slow down and smell the roses, not speed up.

    What was that phrase? "More haste, less speed."

    • Andrew Kingsford
    • Project Director and Consultant, KCS

    You need only look at the common occurrence of road rage—that state of mind that turns ordinary people into complete morons when they get behind the wheel of a car. Is this "rage" based upon our expectation and capacity to get to a place in record time, only to have another driver (doing the speed limit) who will ultimately slow us up and delay our arrival by maybe 3-4 minutes? Or is it based upon our impatience to wait or to be courteous to another person or even show consideration? "Time," these days, is measured by how much we pack into a day ... not by how productive the day really was. We are becoming an impatient species based on our use of technology that serves us and the expectations we have of ourselves and others ... It is, after all, only a matter of time before it catches up with us.

    • Peter T. Gow
    • Chief Manager, St. George Bank Limited

    I also wonder if people prefer to use machines these days rather than have people-contact, especially where customer service is not a high priority of the organization. Poorly trained and motivated customer service staff, along with poor systems to facilitate the transaction, add up to loads of frustration for the customer. Have we oversold our technology and our ability to deliver because of our desire to out-do our competitor?

    • Karthik
    • Software Analyst, FMCA

    Disney, from what I read in Prof. Heskett's article, programs our minds to allocate more wait time and delights the customers by serving them faster.

    We don't care how fast a person serves [customers] in a fast food joint when we are 22nd in line, but we get impatient if we are next to be served.

    When we are 22nd in line, our mind has surrendered to the fact that it is going to take a lot of time and, hence, is patient. But when we are next, we have allocated a pre-determined time for the person ahead of us to be served, and if that time is exceeded we get impatient.

    To summarize, expectations lead to disappointments or delights. And by carefully adjusting the expectations, we can change the effect on the customer.

    As Disney has been doing, if we could indirectly make our customers expect things to be a little slower and if we would provide the product or service faster, then the customer would be delighted.

    Caution! If we verbally give them a later deadline and beat it every time, the customer would soon realize the plan and begin to expect the product/service quicker than the deadline.

    This process of making the customer's mind allocate a longer lead time should not be obvious.

    • From an HBS alum (MBA '97)

    As a regular student of consumer behavior and a person whose business mission is to act on such observations, I've long been convinced that "patience" is a frontier of competition.

    A profound implication of the decreasing patience of consumers, it seems, is a mandatory (not optional) portfolio strategy to new product development. Rather than individual linear efforts, companies must develop ways to add "convenience" or "responsiveness" to the consumer offering in parallel, because the pace of technology has made it impossible to predict which option may emerge as the most compelling.

    While this is common sense to those in the technology sector, packaged goods and services have not thought in this way. This is demanding a fundamentally different mindset in industries that have long been rewarded for conservatism and incremental improvements.

    • Paul Kelley
    • Financial Manager, Harvard Business School

    I think the frustration with delays in tasks related to information technology stems from the perception that someone else has done something poorly: the server is inadequate, the software is not optimized, the network traffic was not estimated properly. Systems have become tools, and when any tool fails to perform as expected we experience frustration.

    We expect Disneyland delays so while they are frustrating, they are not as irritating. Speedpass is more a convenience than a timesaver, because time saved over alternate pay-at-the-pump options is inconsequential. There is also something enjoyable in making the red Pegasus on the pump light up!

    • Imran Jafar
    • Webmaster, Wipro Technologies

    I have observed this pattern of increased impatience myself. Most of it stems from the fact that we get used to a certain rhythm, and we associate this rhythm with a task.

    Let me explain: I ride a scooter from home to work and back everyday. While the traffic I encounter is unpredictable, I have got used to the degree of unpredictability, which remains constant everyday. The result is that I ride on "auto-pilot" and any change in the degree that I am used to (from a heavy downpour, for instance) makes me sit up and take notice.

    Working in the IT industry and living in the information age makes the [tolerance for] such time variations very small. The result is that even minute differences become noticeable, i.e., a one-second delay in launching your MS Word document. The faster the response times we get used to, the more impatient we get, because the comparisons become so much more pronounced for small response times.

    A task that takes two seconds on a computer would drive me nuts if it were to take six seconds, because that's three times more than usual. This would seem like reaching work an hour late! The latter might seem more critical than the former because it's 1/24 of the day, but when taken as a comparison of the expected and actual amounts of time, it causes the same anxiety.

    Another factor that affects us all is the awareness of how fast things CAN be. When I stand in the queue at a supermarket, the impatience stems from the feeling of being "so near yet so far."

    I can't stand the phone being busy. I haven't written a letter in months and if someone asks me to smell the roses...

    • Sales Director
    • Construction materials company

    We try at every moment to save time because it has become such a valuable asset. We utilize this newly acquired time to get other stuff out of the way — and find ourselves more and more busy. We grow so accustomed to filling every moment with something productive that we defeat the original purpose of rushing up to have some spare time. We end up behaving like a dog that is running and barking at a truck; but when the truck stops, the dog does not know what to do.... This is sad. We don't know what to do with our spare time, so we kill it.

    • Renee Dupras
    • Consultant

    While technology has made life easier and, occasionally, more interesting, it has deprived us of a sense of self beyond an "I want it now and I want it all" mentality.

    The fact that you are only as good as the timeliness of the information you have doesn't help, either.

    Fortunately, as the majority of the population ages into mid-life, the realization that good things take time, and the ability to sit, wait, listen and watch once again come to the front, we will slow down. You know, there is something to be said about washing the car windows as you wait for the tank to fill. It can't be done quickly and you have at least six windows to wash. The pump always beats me...

    • Matt Lynch

    If anyone's interested there are vast amounts of research indicating that human perception of time is related to both activity and situation. An excellent book that overviews how people perceive time is Edward T. Hall's "The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time."

    • Aurin Bhattacharjee
    • Student, Carnegie Mellon University

    I believe the assertion that people are becoming increasingly concerned about wasted time is completely accurate.

    In contemporary American society there is never a lack of opportunities to better oneself economically or otherwise. It is only natural that people become frustrated when they are stuck doing nothing when they could be doing something else productive.

    However, it is notable that this is not necessarily a good thing. The American inclination to work and achieve success has put us at the forefront of the world on many levels. It has also detracted from our quality of life and increased our stress levels. The incessant paranoia of falling behind the competition (every second counts) and trying hard to maximize our efforts leaves many Americans burned out.

    In Europe, for example, the cultural habits are much more relaxed and self-improvement is not at such a premium. From personal observation, it seems as if Europeans are more content and less perplexed with their lives.

    This in no way means that their culture is superior to ours, but perhaps it suggests that we should moderate our ways and appreciate the passage of time for its own sake.