Career Coach: In our fast-paced area, patience takes work

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, July 19, 2010; 21

By Joyce E.A. Russell

We've all probably heard the expression "don't sweat the small stuff," but can this really be done in this geographic region? People often refer to the East Coast, and specifically, the Washington, D.C./Maryland/Virginia region as one of the most hectic, fast-paced areas to live. How can anyone in this area not sweat the small stuff, and does it matter anyway?

It does matter. There is a Chinese proverb that says, "One moment of patience may ward off great disaster. One moment of impatience may ruin a whole life." So many employees, customers and family members seem to bear the brunt of our impatience and stress from our fast-paced, action-packed lifestyle. So do we -- with greater mental and physical ailments and dissatisfaction with not being able to "do it all." I spend increasingly more time coaching executives on how to develop patience so they can have a better quality of life.

Many leaders are trying to pack more and more accomplishments and activities into each day. Their schedules are so tight, they have little room for anything unusual or spontaneous that might come along. So when a family member calls to have lunch, an employee wants to sit down and share some concerns or when a customer phone call takes a little longer than "planned," the stress starts building up. I feel for these overscheduled people -- I have the same struggles. Yet we all need to ask -- what are the costs of all these activities and this frenetic way of life to ourselves, our employees or co-workers, our families and even others we meet during our days?

Developing patience is a major stress reducer and something many of us need to improve. Patience is tolerating waiting, delays or frustrations without becoming upset. It's being able to control our emotions and impulses and proceed calmly when faced with difficulties. This is very difficult for many people, especially in a world where we expect everything so quickly. Here are some tips for increasing your patience:

Think about what triggers your impatience. What events or people or phrases or circumstances make you lose your cool? Once you have identified them, you can try to manage yourself in those situations.

Pause. Take deep breaths when you find yourself getting out of control.

Slow the pace down. Practice thinking before you speak. Rushing to do things gets our adrenaline and stress hormones going full steam. It wears us out and ages us prematurely. It increases the tension in our relationships.

Use a softer tone when speaking. I knew an executive who had a really bad temper and used to blow up at his staff. One of the first things he did was soften his tone in his everyday conversations. Once he got used to this style of speaking, he rarely raised his voice.

Realize that not all situations are urgent. Realize that you can't control everything. Sometimes we have to just accept and appreciate life as it unfolds. Realize that some things do not have to be done a certain way. Yes, I know that there are some things that do have to be done a certain way, but not everything in your life. Sometimes an employee may come up with an alternative way of doing something, and that can be good for innovation, even if you are stressed that it wasn't done the way you would have done it.

Build in wiggle room in your day. If you don't, then when one meeting goes over time, you will be behind on your next meeting, and the next and the next ... If, however, you allow for some free time in your day, even if just 30 minutes, then this enables you to feel less pressed all day. It also enables you to have some spontaneity in your days -- to stop by someone's office just to say hi and ask how the kids are, or to catch up on the news, etc.

Have more fun. When I ask executives I coach what they do for fun, some will immediately tell me about their hobbies (fishing, golf, cooking, painting, etc.) while others hesitate. It then dawns on them that they are so busy accomplishing things that they don't have any hobbies anymore. Personal time, even if just a few minutes a day, is important for everyone.

Smile. Be friendly with the people around you as you're waiting in lines or commuting on the Metro, etc. Complaining about it will certainly just make you more impatient. Try smiling -- it is amazing how much that relaxes you and enables you to calm down.

Exercise. Walk, get some fresh air, do yoga, bike ride, anything to get you moving and in a different environment. Maybe even try exercising without listening to music or watching the news -- just let your mind wander when you run or walk. It's amazing how much this can rejuvenate you.

Listen to or play music. Pick songs that cheer you up or relax you.

A physician friend of mine recently told me that while treating a terminally ill patient, he asked her how she was always able to be in such a positive mood when her condition was terminal. She told him that each day that she was able to get out of bed was like a bonus day that she was given. Perhaps, if we all considered each day that we are given as a bonus day, we might be able to show more patience with ourselves and those around us. Just a thought.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She can be reached at

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