Watch your wait

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, December 13, 2010

It's that time of year again: We're all excited about the holiday decorations, parties, finding gifts for our family and friends . . . or are we? Are you already stressed by the crowded parking lots at malls, long lines at stores and seemingly endless waits everywhere you turn? I've already had a number of people write to me about the stress of the season; it can tax even the calmest of persons.

Is it just me or does it seem as if the waits are everywhere? Recently, I was visiting a doctor's office and ended up having to wait two hours. This was an appointment scheduled months in advance. Like many of you, I prepare to wait in any medical office. I schedule the appointment so that I can get to my other meetings, I fill out all the forms in advance, I'm friendly to those overworked and harried receptionists, and I bring work to do while I am waiting. Normally I am cool with the wait, but, for some reason, this one was much longer than normal and I was seeing the window of time for my next meeting slipping away. What was the point of making an appointment months in advance? I could tell that others around me were wondering the same thing, and it got me thinking about the whole process of waiting and what people can do to keep themselves calm during these stressful experiences.

It is important to note the worst times to engage in certain activities and to avoid those times. What are the busiest times in the grocery store, the mall, the doctor's office or the post office? I have now learned to try to schedule the first appointment of the day at a doctor's office. The wait is significantly shorter and everyone is a lot friendlier.

If you can't avoid the busy times, call an office in advance to see if the person you are going to see is on time or running behind with appointments. Then be prepared to wait.

Think about how you want to use your time that day. The people who seem the least stressed in a waiting room or in line are the ones who are engaged in another activity -- whatever it is.

Maybe it is a good time to close your eyes and rest (we certainly don't get enough rest in our lives). Think about the wait as a forced break. Or use the time to listen to music on your iPod, play a game, engage in a conversation with others around you, or just meditate or pray.

If you feel you have to accomplish something, work on your to-do list. Bring things to do -- reading you've been wanting to catch up on, paperwork or bills you have to take care of, text messages or e-mails to send, letters to write, briefcases or pocketbooks to clean out, Sodoku or crossword puzzles. Depending on where you are waiting (perhaps the airport), you could take a walk around to get some exercise.

The key is to have a bag of projects in your car or with you so you can turn to them when you find yourself having to wait during this busy season. Some people remark that they can't get anything meaningful done in short windows of time, so it is important to have some projects that don't take long to complete and some that are more involved to fill your various wait times. In addition, having some things that don't require lots of concentration might be important if you are waiting someplace noisy.

When you think it, the amount of time we all spend waiting is significant. Maybe if we thought of it as our personal time rather than wasted time we could feel better about waiting. Make a list of the things you have been meaning to do for our own enjoyment (reading, drawing, listening to music, writing, playing games, etc.) and have them ready when you are forced to wait. You could feel more relaxed and less bothered by the waits in the first place.

I have to say that now that I have reframed waiting as my own personal time, I actually look forward to it since it gives me the chance to do things I have wanted to do. Maybe this can work for you as well. It certainly could help us all better cope with each other.

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 and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at

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