Waiting in line is a miserable experience in most situations, but it’s a boon for social psychologists who want to study group dynamics. A bunch of strangers in a stressful, annoying situation trapped for long periods of time are great for data collection. Scientists haven’t figured out how to eliminate long lines entirely, but they have spent many decades figuring out what makes the experience slightly more bearable. Here are 15 scientific tricks that might make your wait a little easier.
1. Turn on some music.
Several studies find that listening to music can reduce the stress of waiting, whether you’re stuck in line or anxious to hear your name called in a hospital waiting room. Even if the music isn’t necessarily your favorite band, it can make the experience more bearable. In one study, callers who listened to panpipe music were willing to wait on hold for 20 percent longer than people who only heard a verbal message warning them that there was a wait.
2. Bring a friend.
In a 1992 study, participants who socialized during a 10-minute wait did not find the interval stressful. In comparison, people who waited with strangers and kept to themselves experienced stress (which was then alleviated by listening to music). The same rationale can apply to waiting for longer periods of time, like anticipating an upcoming trip. Fill your downtime with social events and the wait won’t feel as long.
3. Be mindful.
Scientists find that mindfulness can help ease anxiety and stress—feelings that can kick into overdrive during a wait. When you’re stuck behind a dozen families trying to mail that package at the post office on the Saturday before Christmas, try a little mindfulness meditation. Focus on your breathing and the present moment, and try to let go of any thoughts that pop into your head.
4. Think about that money-back guarantee.
When companies guarantee to serve their customers within a certain amount of time—like with a 30-minutes-or-less pizza delivery—making good on that guarantee makes customers feel more satisfied with their experience than they would be if they had not been quoted a maximum time. So if you’re promised a 30-minute wait for your pizza but you get it in 25, you’ll be happier.
5. Accept that waiting is unavoidable.
People need to feel that waiting is fair and equitable, or it feels even more intolerable. (Think about any time you’ve been at the back of a long line only to see someone cut to the front.) When waiting is seen as unavoidable (such as when a flight gets snowed in or when a crowded restaurant has a wait for a table), it’s more tolerable than when there’s no discernible reason for the wait or when it seems like it could be easily avoided (like when there’s a crowd waiting at a checkout with no cashiers). It may not be pleasant, but people generally feel more at peace with a long wait if they know why it’s happening and feel that it’s an inexorable part of the experience.
6. Take a deep breath.
You don’t have to go fully into meditation mode to calm down. Try just breathing. Take slow, deep, even breaths from your abdomen. This lowers the amount of oxygen in the blood and kicks off the body’s relaxation response, lowering blood pressure and anxiety levels and making you feel calm.
7. Think of it as practice.
Patience is related to self-control, which some studies have found can be bolstered by practice. For instance, in one study of smokers, people who exercised self-control regularly for two weeks by avoiding desserts were more successful at quitting tobacco than people who didn’t practice self-control. So think of exercising patience as being kind of like going out for a run. It’s unpleasant, but the next time you need to run up the stairs or deal with a truly frustrating situation, the training might come in handy.
8. Remember that the wait feels longer than it is.
Uncertainty, anxiety, and boredom all make waiting feel even longer. Not having anything to do while you wait in line for an unknown amount of time (except wonder if you’ll be late to work) will make your wait feel eternal. Psychology studies regularly find that people overestimate the time they spend waiting. Just remember that it’s not as bad as you think it is.
9. If there’s a way to estimate your wait time, do it.
People who look at real-time information about when buses are arriving do not perceive their wait time to be as long as those who have no idea when the bus will come. In one study, Seattle bus riders who used a real-time transit information app that kept them apprised of how many minutes away the bus was estimated their wait time to be 30 percent shorter than people who used traditional bus schedules (which don’t take delays into account).
10. Admire the efficiency of the waiting experience.
Fast food restaurants are very deliberate in the way they design their drive-thru windows. The customer orders at one window, then has to drive around the building to pay and pick up food (sometimes at separate windows). This means that different customers can be ordering, paying for, and receiving their orders all at the same time at various points in the line, reducing the backup created when people are fumbling for change or are slow in taking their food and driving away. Having to drive from one window to the other fills the wait time between ordering and receiving your food, too.
11. Look for single lines that feed into multiple counters.
One of the things that annoys people most about waiting is the perception that the line is not fair—that you won’t be served in the order you arrived. Feeling that a wait is unfair makes the time pass even slower. However, single lines that feed into multiple counters (like at the check-in counter at an airport or at a bank, where everyone waits in the same place for their turn with one of several available clerks) are perceived as significantly more fair. No one has to worry about whether they accidentally chose the wrong checkout line and got stuck behind that one slow person counting out pennies on the counter.
12. Practice anxiety reduction.
Anxiety is one of the key emotions that makes waiting feel even longer. If you’re anxiously awaiting some future event, try an anxiety management technique like deep muscle relaxation. In this exercise, you sit or lie in a quiet space, close your eyes, and focus on tightening and relaxing all the muscles in your body, one by one. Regular practice will help you get the most out of this stress reduction activity.
13. Imagine the experience you’re about to have.
Waiting is more pleasurable when you’re anticipating a coming event than when you’re waiting to make a purchase, psychologists find. Part of this may be because when anticipating an experience, you think about it in abstract terms: You can imagine all the possibilities of your upcoming vacation, while you know exactly what you’ll do with your new pair of pants. Being able to visualize the different scenarios and feelings that will arise makes waiting more pleasurable.
14. Pay attention to anything but the wait.
Studies find that watching the clock makes a wait feel longer. When waiting is the primary task, people estimate the time period to be longer than when they’re doing something else. So try to concentrate on something—anything—else.
15. Think about it in terms of delayed gratification.
While people like anticipating experiences more than anticipating buying products, waiting to buy something can still be enjoyable. All that waiting can make a purchase feel more valuable and important. Instead of thinking about being at the end of a long checkout line or not being able to buy that new phone until next year, think about all the enjoyment you’ll experience once you finally have it in your possession.