Patience is the foundation of nearly every good habit. Without it, you cannot save money, learn a new skill, or lose weight. Patience is also one of the hardest qualities to cultivate.
“Patience” in this case means the ability to wait things out. It’s not losing your mind in a traffic jam. It’s accepting that long-term goals get their name because they can’t happen overnight. It’s taking five minutes before you respond to new information. It’s accepting that healthy habits don’t immediately reap rewards. Patience is a factor in achieving long term goals as much as it is a factor in keeping your cool in the moment.
When we we’re impatient, we look for shortcuts. When we take shortcuts, we tend to get sloppy or make bad decisions. This is fine when you don’t care about the quality of work, say, you’re just throwing together dinner for the night or tossing together an invitation to a neighborhood barbecue. When you’re looking for ways to avoid the work because you want a result without the effort, shortcuts are problematic.
Impatience is evident in the self-help movement. Self-help gurus consistently advertise the shortest way from point A to point B, and they use our impatience as a means to sell their bullshit products. They sell weight loss without effort, wealth without work, exercise without sweat, or education without diligence. We eat these terrible ideas up because we don’t have the patience to wait for self-improvement. The quicker that magic bullet comes, the better.
Patience isn’t just some high level concept about self-betterment. It’s required for stupid day-to-day things too. Patience is not pre ordering video games. It’s not pirating movie screeners. It’s waiting for proper reviews before buying the next iPhone. Without patience we’re consumers who make stupid choices, then whine about how nobody prepared us for the fallout.
I’ve noticed myself becoming content with impatience. That impatience has become my default state. I’ll blindly order something from Amazon without much research, skip learning how exactly a 401(k) works, or haphazardly honk at a car that’s not moving in the turn lane.
Impatience is a badge of honor because it means I’m too busy, which is a sign of relative success. In reality, impatience is a recipe for being broke, angry, and unhealthy.
I don’t think this is just me. Whether it’s the guy who looks to me for support as he whines about the length of the grocery store line, the Prius that cuts me off in traffic to get to the light five seconds before me, or the friend who cries about the starting salary in their new position, the present is all that matters to most of us. The mere thought of waiting for anything causes anxiety and dread.
Of course, patience has long been a struggle for mankind in general. It’s called a virtue because it’s hard, uncommon, and difficult to practice. But perhaps thinking of patience as a virtue is the wrong approach. That kind of thinking makes it seem like patience is something you either have, or you don’t.
In practice though, patience is more like a habit, and habits are something humans are very good at adapting to. I’ve found it most useful for myself to pause before reacting to the day-to-day annoyances that test my patience. This comes easiest by shifting my attention in the moment to something else, away from my point of view. If a line at the grocery store is long, I’ll think about how tough the checkout person’s day is. If I’m annoyed about traffic, I’ll concentrate on how everyone else around me is just as annoyed as I am. That little bit of thought, several seconds, is often enough to quell that moment-to-moment impatience.
Cultivation of long term patience can perhaps develop from that same habit forming approach. Give yourself rules about the stupid stuff first: stop pre ordering media, refuse to buy anything on launch day, or opt out of Amazon’s free two-day shipping to get a dollar of free credit for movies. When you have the luxury to take your time with something, do so. Spend a little longer preparing dinner, take your time on a side project, or reading articles you saved.
Then, tackle the big stuff that requires the long term patience: the 401(k)s, learning a new skill for career advancement, or saving money to buy a house. With any luck, it’ll be a little easier to achieve those goals.
Illustration by: Angelica Alzona.