The Surprising Power of Waiting

Tuesday, October 27, 2015 · 3 Comments

Most people believe that waiting is a waste of time and it’s best to fill that time with something… anything. Whether we’re in line at a the grocery story, waiting at a doctor’s office, or sitting at a stoplight, the brain seems to be cued to fill that space. Nowadays, many of us pull out our phones and begin sifting through various messages, reading over documents, or surfing the web.

However, the belief that waiting has no value is a mistake. In fact, the secret to a sense of personal control, general satisfaction with life and even success lies in learning how to find peace with waiting.

We’ve all heard the famous adage, “Patience is a virtue” or “Good things come to those who wait.”

Easier said than done, why?

We’re not in control of our brains

Because underneath the subtle yet intolerable experience of waiting is a little anxious gremlin that fears being alone. This gremlin is operating on old software that says if you’re alone that means you’re not being protected by your clan and it’s a threat to your safety. In those small moments of waiting, it takes the controls of your brain and reaches for something to “be with” so you’re not alone anymore.

In other words, the anxious gremlin is in control and you’re not in control. Studies are clear that lacking a sense of control is associated with negative stress, anxiety and depression. Also, the more we let the gremlin run the brain, the stronger it gets – or as the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb says “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Using waiting for good

What if you were to practice being on the lookout for moments of waiting in the day? In those moments, instead of grabbing something to fill the space, you recognized it as an opportunity to be okay with just waiting. You can soften the muscles in your body that have just tensed due to a mini fight/flight/freeze response and just recognize you’re safe.

What we practice and repeat in life becomes more automatic. If you practice and repeat this, you’re going to start taking back control of your mind and being more at ease.

There are so many opportunities to practice. You can do this while waiting for the bread to toast, waiting for someone to get out of the shower, waiting for a certain report at work, waiting for the screen to load, waiting for your partner to clean the dishes, waiting on hold on the phone, and even waiting for your newborn to settle down as you’re doing your best as a parent to soothe her.

In doing this, you strengthen self-control, trust in yourself, and with less tension in needing to fill the spaces, you feel more relaxed in life.

You’ve freed yourself from this delusion of immediacy, grasping and need and opened up to a sense of ease, contentment and confidence.

Try this very simple exercise today and in the days ahead. Consider where you might be waiting. As you notice the waiting, relax your body, recognize you’re safe and just be curious about the experience of waiting.

As they say, “the proof is in the eating of the pudding.” In my experience, this is where the gold is.



Author of Uncovering Happiness and co-author of MBSR Every Day


  1. Atul Mathur
    December 3, 2015 at 11:42 am

    A common experience is waiting at a traffic red light. Recently I have been practicing taking three deep breaths. What a difference! It is so relaxing. In fact, given a choice between a route with stop sign and the one with more red lights, I now choose the ones with red lights.

  2. December 2, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    “Be anxious for nothing” comes to mind as this article reminds me of the gift in waiting. This is especially important for me as I contemplate my next job (to pay the bills), as I grow my life purpose business, as I determine where I most want to live and make my next home. Thanks for the reminder that I have control over what my mind can do when it is in a state of acceptance.

    December 2, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    I remember reading years ago “Stranger in a Strange Land” where the idea of “waiting is…” was an important concept.

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