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In Defense of Waiting

woman looking out onto traffic in new york city

About a month ago, I was waiting for my car in a New York City garage when the attendant snapped at the woman in front of me for taking too long to put away her wallet. She must have taken 5 seconds longer than he wished. She turned to me and said: "I can't stand this rushing anymore! Maybe it's because I am 12 weeks pregnant, but I am so tired of having to do everything extra fast!"

I understood her. We live in an age where we expect superhuman speed in everything we do. Waiting is an annoyance in our modern day lives. In fact, I am sure the parking attendant was expecting me to be bothered by the slight delay caused by the woman. I confess, I did feel a wave of irritation wash over me as I waited for my turn to be checked out, but as soon as the woman expressed her upset, I completely simmered down. And I began to think. What has made me so impatient that even waiting for my turn at the parking garage can make me feel frustrated? Wouldn’t it be better to use those minutes in between activities to just zen out?

To be fair, I know that much of the impatience is due to overwhelmingly long to-do lists. Any bump along the way that slows us down in getting things done can cause us anxiety. Also, with smartphones and tablets, we have been given the opportunity to never have an idle moment. We can answer work emails while waiting in car line, buy our kids new pajamas while waiting to be checked out at the grocery store, text with friends while waiting for the light to change. Technology has turned every single second into arable land. It follows that when circumstances seem to squander our precious seconds, we become irritated.

But whatever happened to just zoning out? Or using idle moments to chat with those around us, read a novel we carry with us, or just take a deep breath?

Back in 1999, I spent two weeks at a cabin in Northern California with a group of friends. We spent our time lying on rocking boats on the lake, soaking up the sun; driving up the mountain at night to make bonfires, eat s'mores, and look at the shooting stars; going on hikes and running across the flower-strewn fields we found along the way. But what I remember most intensely and most often is sitting on deck chairs, staring at the nature around us, doing absolutely nothing but making each other laugh for long stretches of time between activities. At times I did get bored and a bit frustrated by the extra-slow pace, but I actually miss the serenity that enveloped me more than I miss the fun we had.

In hopes of recapturing some of that serenity in my current life, I have begun to approach waiting periods differently. While waiting for my Pure Barre class to start, I either chat with those around me or simply sit, staring into space. I do not look at my phone. I challenge myself to drive to my kids’ school without once checking my email at the stop light. Anytime I have to wait in line, I take a deep breath and resist the urge to multitask.

What I have found so far is that when I don’t use stolen moments to get work done or to respond to friends, I don’t have memory issues. Did I actually send that email? Did I text her back? Isn’t something I ask when I do those tasks at prescribed times. Also, I feel much more composed when I don’t rush around. I like the feeling of walking into dinner or an appointment with my head squarely on my shoulders and ready for the people I am meeting since I rested my mind on my way there.

Of course, I am also finding I am more productive at work when I don’t use stolen moments to get things done. It makes sense as “to be effective, minds need opportunities to wander.” There is also something about knowing I only have a certain window to work, respond to emails, and answer texts that makes me buckle down.

It’s hard to not cheat and try to squeeze in some work or a response while running around, and sometimes it just has to be done. But it feels very good to be a sort of sentinel for the art of waiting and giving individual activities their proper time.

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