Managing impatience

When we cannot wait to do something strange things happen. Usually, we act impulsively, take high or unnecessary risks and miss good opportunities. When we are emotional, we are more animals than humans… Can we fight impatience and become more resilient? More reading here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Impatience is not a bad thing

Like every other human quality, impatience is neither good nor bad. Consider a hunter sitting perfectly still and waiting for a pray. If he is not patient enough, he will miss his lunch. However, if he is too patient, he will die of hunger still waiting for his target.

Impatience drives us to use more effective means to reach our goal, and it also drives us to switch from a harder goal to a more manageable one. It is not a lack of something, but a delicate balance. Too much or too little patience and our ancestors would die.

Like many other things we inherited from the ancestors in savannahs, impatience is not suited for the modern environment. Too many excitations simply destroy the fine balance. We may either become incredibly impatient or get totally obsessed. Both qualities are bad.

Marshmallow test

A child is offered a marshmallow. If he can allow it to lay on a plate he will get two marshmallows. Can he handle himself? This is an issue of self-discipline. If the family is functioning, the father is in the family and the mother is educated, discipline is easier.  The kid feels safer and can be sure that the reward awaits him.

If the child is not safe, he is less sure that the good behavior will be rewarded. He is more likely to take whatever there is on the table than wait till it doubles.

We have something similar with lottery winners. They are very unlikely to invest the money and live from the interest rate. Instead, they tend to lose all the money they won and then some more. Why? The very concept of winning the lottery makes them lose grounding and pursue unrealistic goals or seek immediate satisfaction.

How to feel safer?

Some people are very neurotic or apathetic or euphoric. This is their personality trait. It can probably be treated chemically.

Normal people can be either, based on the environmental factors. Good family and authority figures we can trust increases the perceived level of safety. A clear understanding of reward and punishment further contributes. Being a part of a strong social group helps. Further confidence is built by competing successfully tasks of increasing complexity. More confidence is added by physical practice and the ability to trust one’s body.

If you take away one of the factors, the confidence drops. The kids of various minorities are less likely to pass the marshmallow test, and the grownups are more likely to enjoy surplus resources than invest them.

There are many factors that contribute and many different tests. If the success rate moves between 45% and 65% it is experimentally significant, yet it may not matter for a specific individual.

We’re more likely to feel impatient when we have more options.

Let’s go back to impatience. We might be able to be confident and gritty enough to deal with impatience, yet we may feel it very strongly. When will it get unbearable? If we have something better to do.

Wasting time very patiently when there are better things to do is not only hard, it is also unreasonable. And be sure that impatience will motivate you to be creative, come up with alternatives, and analyze all alternative scenarios. An ancient hunter waited patiently for his prey because that was his best option of putting the food on the table. If fishing was a better option, he would patiently fish.

Today we have options. We will eat no matter what we do. And if we have money, it is really unclear what is the best way to use it. Some options include education, real estate, and stock exchange. Then there are options with various levels of risk exposure. Nobody quite knows which option is better. If we are sitting on a pile of cache waiting for some market event, maybe the money could do a better job being invested. And if the market trend can revert soon, maybe it is better to pull the money and invest it elsewhere. There are many options and nobody knows.

Clearly, we are very impatient. After all, we are not sure that the option chosen by us is a good option, and we get bombarded by stories of people who have chosen differently.

The 3Ps of progress

To make progress we can practice:

1. Practice, because effort coupled with feedback is critical to developing mastery and achieving excellence.

2. Patience, because mastery and meaningful accomplishment happen over a long time frame.

3. Perseverance, because obstacles are likely and setbacks are common in any endeavor.

Strangely, each of these qualities can coexist with impatience.

We practice impatiently, as we imagine moving to the next level. If we do not change the practice as we progress, we do not improve. Moving too fast can generate misunderstanding and bad habits.

We invest a lot of time into the practice. Yet if we get impatient we can practice differently. There are many forms of practice and many exercises that lead to progress. Who can tell which exercise is better?

If we encounter setbacks we suffer. Yet, setbacks are extremely common. If we are impatient and creative, we may discover alternative ways of dealing with the challenges. These alternative ways are typically less effective, so then our impatience moves us back to the things that work.

Typically impatience generates slower and less linear progress. So what? We might discover something new in the process…

Do not be stupid

Trying to work against impatience may be more dangerous than trying to work with it. After all, it is always useful to map and understand the alternatives.

People who use a lot of willpower to overcome their impatience get tired. They occasionally snap and do something impulsive.

Impatience is not a good reason to do something stupid. Study and map your options. Some of them will work, but probably not all of them. Be impatient in your visualization, considering the alternatives – but choose the right time and place to do that. Multitasking should be avoided when dealing with critical issues.

Authority and fear

In times of great fear, we tend to follow strong leaders. Charismatic authority figures reduce our impatience and calm us down. This is an intuitive reaction.

Typically, charismatic leaders are actually MORE dangerous and we should be more impatiently look for alternatives. In the Roman republic, senators were chosen for life, two consuls for a year, and dictators if any were assigned for six months. Yet the terms of dictators were usually prolonged one way or another.

While we should be impatient when in danger to survive, we are actually more patient as we do not like the alternatives.

So while impatience can be healthy and natural, it can also be counterproductive.


Mindfulness offers an interesting alternative to impatience.

  1. Pay attention to your thoughts
  2. Acknowledge the impatience when it happens
  3. Divide your mind into the impatient being and a calm observer
  4. Try to understand the alternatives that generated the impatience
  5. Either choose to follow one of the alternatives or calm down the impatient being with the lack of valid alternatives
  6. Consider changing focus to breathing and then back to the activity

Basically, we do not fight the urges but explore them. Who knows, maybe we will discover something useful…

Do not beat yourself

Quite often we act impatiently and miss some great opportunity. Especially when following trends in investment. Beating yourself for being impatient does not work.

Try to be compassionate to yourself. Everybody makes mistakes.

Instead, try to introduce a rulebook with simple rules and ensure that you follow the rules. This is very simple, and also very effective.

Striking the right balance

Impatience has its blessings and its curses. It is very hard to increase impatience. I really do not know how this can be done. There are many ways to deal with excessive impatience. Maybe this is one of the reasons we usually have a slight excess of impatience.

Try to use impatience as a motivation for creative research. Follow it with your thoughts, but not necessarily with your actions.

Practicing mindfulness, spending time in nature, reducing the number of excitations to something reasonable via digital detox. There are many ways to strike the right balance.

Strategies to reduce destructive behaviors

Our destructive behavior follows certain patterns. If we find some way in which we were destructive, we can deal with them.

CBT is the theoretical basis for this practice. Write down the triggers, the emotions and behaviors, and the acceptable alternative path. Eventually, we start choosing the alternative path intuitively.

One of the strategies is finding a balancing partner. E.g. each time that impatience wins, go to a person that can help evaluate the activities and brainstorm the options.

At the beginning of our marriage, Anna and I had been very impatient with each other. Going to other people looking for a partnership could be a bad alternative. Instead, we went to counseling each time our impatience was triggered. And then we found ways to reframe impatience into creative productivity, which is actually great.


Impatience is natural, and typically helpful. Do not fight it. Use it to find a better alternative and a more productive balance.

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