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Be More Efficient: The Psychology of Waiting in Lines

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Many people ask “How can I be more efficient?” One way that we all waste time–and especially perceive that we waste time–is when we are waiting in lines.

This is the topic of a classic paper by David Maister. He notes that when people want to be more efficient, they often interpret the world around them differently. For example:

[A] well-known hotel group received complaints from guests about excessive waiting times for elevators. After an analysis of how elevator service might be improved, it was suggested that mirrors be installed near where guests waited for elevators. The natural tendency of people to check their personal appearance substantially reduced complaints, although the actual wait for the elevators was unchanged.

As one [restaurant] waiter pointed out: “If they sit down in a good mood, it’s easy to keep them happy. If they sit down disgruntled, it’s almost impossible to turn them around. They’re looking to find fault, to criticize.”

Be More Efficient: Waiting in Line

© Flickr user eschipul

Maister provides a series of bullet points as advice to for anyone who has customers that might have to wait. But each of these can also be taken as a suggestion for how to be more efficient when you are forced to wait. Here are a few:

Occupied Time Feels Shorter Than Unoccupied Time

If you have something to do, waiting seems shorter and more bearable. This realization about being more efficient is expressed in many common sayings, such as “A watched pot never boils” or “Time flies when you’re having fun.”

If you know you’ll have to wait, you can be more efficient by having something to do. Bring a book. Play a game. Call a friend. Plan to do something while you’re waiting, and waiting won’t seem so bad.

Be More Efficient: Waiting in Line

© Flickr user ButterFlySha

People Want to Get Started

Maister notes that this is the reason that people wait at the bar and restaurant servers are trained to say “I’ll be right with you.” So if you have to wait in line, you can be more efficient by getting started on whatever you are there to do. Fill out some of the paperwork. Mentally prepare for what you are going to say. Organize your papers.

Anxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer

Although we all want to be more efficient, people waiting may be amused by a version of Murphy’s Law attributed to Erma Brombeck:

The other line always moves faster.

In other words, you can be more efficient by trying to reduce your anxiety. Remind yourself that the plane has seats for everyone and won’t leave without you, so there’s no cause for alarm.

Uncertain Waits Are Longer than Known, Finite Waits

If you don’t know how long you will be waiting, it’s difficult to find ways to use your time. You could be called any moment or be there for ages.

That’s why it’s helpful to try and figure out how long the wait will be. Measure the movement of the line with your watch and estimate the number of minutes remaining. Then, you’ll be able to fit in a chapter in your book or a important phone call.

You can be more efficient by determining how much time you have remaining.

In Summary, You Should…

All of these tips can help you when you are waiting in line. The psychology may be more impactful than the actual dynamics of the system or service. But most importantly: practically everything in business and life can be thought of as a line.

Get better at waiting. Be more efficient. Find something else to do. In no time, it will be your turn.

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