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Mind Over Matter: Seven Strategies to Cultivate The Will To Wait For What We Want

The patience to wait for an optimal outcome is more than an achievement of knowledge and willpower, it's a demonstration of the human ability to apply strategies designed to improve patience and defeat counterproductive thinking habits.

“The strongest of all warriors are these two — time and patience.” 
― Leo Tolstoy

Like a beam of light, the grand plans we put into motion in our personal and professional lives carry energy and momentum. Our plans have a way of expanding, colliding and intersecting with the lives of others we meet along the way. We mix and merge our well-intended plans. It’s no wonder so many of us struggle with an inner restlessness about the role that time and patience play in planning for our future and achieving our most valued goals.

The restless feeling of impatience that drives our desire to want results as soon as possible adds a counterproductive layer of stress that affects our mind, body and health. No amount of grasping at the light or chasing down our time-sensitive to-do list can guarantee faster results or greater certainty. Learning to soothe impatience can provide stress relief and allow for the best possible outcome of important life decisions.

If patience holds the promise of access to greater possibilities; allowing time for strategic thinking, evaluating options and setting goals, then impatience is the opposite. Impatience can motivate us to minimize the value of working toward our goals, deter us from taking time to understand alternative options, and in some cases, provoke us to switch goals.

In our hyper-connected culture, we’re often rewarded for our impatience as consumers, with offers to “buy now” and receive next-day delivery. A life of convenience comes at a cost. We expect unreasonably quick results from ourselves, and everyone around us.

Impatient thoughts are rooted in habitual patterns of thinking that are detrimental to our decision-making ability. Our demand for instantaneous information and answers distracts us from being fully present and enjoying ordinary life activities. This quality of internal distraction makes it difficult to concentrate on what’s happening in the present. It takes a toll on relationships and our emotional availability to partners, friends and family.

Why so impatient?

The invention of the light bulb by Thomas Edison in 1879 changed society’s relationship with time and productivity. With the ability to stay awake after dark, evening routines shifted and greater demands on productivity emerged. A century and a half later, daily technology influences the thoughts and behaviors of 2 billion people. As a society, we spend significant portions of our waking hours immersed in the glow of virtual activities designed to capture our attention and manipulate our behavior in the blink of an eye.

Seven Strategies To Cultivate Patience

  1. Imagine the consequences of an impulsive choice

    Making small changes to how options are presented or framed has the potential to expand our ability to exercise patience. By imagining the consequences of our choices, it may be possible to change the nature of our impulses according to a study published in Psychological Science that explored the role of imagination on willpower. Neuroscientists at UC Berkeley found links between patience and imagination in the brain. Their findings suggest imagining an outcome before acting upon an impulse may help increase patience without relying on increased willpower.
  2. Play the positive “what if” game

    What if, by waiting, everything turned out better than we originally hoped? Visualize the ideal outcome. Describe how it would look. This mental exercise creates a potential reward. Rewards can help offset the detrimental desire to intervene in the natural course of events.
  3. Step away from the time machine

    If thinking about the uncertainty of the future is unsettlingly it can be helpful to moderate the amount of time and prime mind space devoted to future-tripping or wandering the halls of nostalgia.

    Learning to disengage with the time machine in our mind can greatly ease the angst of the transition between stages of life. It’s tempting to flash forward, then flip backward in time creating a domino series of optimal or suboptimal scenarios based on the unknown, or an actual unexpected detour or delay.

    While positive outcomes can arise from studying the past and imagining the future, engaging in the process simultaneously will simply result in feeling overwhelmed and spike the desire for control and impulsive action that may do more harm than good.
  4. Be present

    Being present means, letting go of the past and the future. No ruminating about what was or could have been, or acting on an impulse triggered by fear of missing out.  Focus on being present, now.  Being in the “now” comes with the added benefit of letting go of anger, shame, and worries. Take a walk, journal or have a conversation. Turn away from thoughts that allow free-falling into the past.
  5. Commit to a plan

    Deliberately committing to a plan of action in advance offers several advantages. First, the capacity to honor priorities and make rational decisions in circumstances that require a snap decision, or situations where more time will lead to overthinking and distorted perception.

    Second, the will to commit to action provides the grounding needed to engage in complex problem solving and ability to make choices that temporally extended time for projects that require coordinating with our future selves.

    Last, committing to a plan of action is a commitment to stay the course, signaling to others our belief in the possibility of attaining the desired outcome as well as our suitability as trustworthy collaborators and partners.
  6. Accept the things that cannot be changed

    It’s not easy, but learning to accept the fact that there are some things we have no control over frees our mind to focus time and energy more productively on things within our control.
  7. Bake a cake

    Baking a cake takes time and effort to gather ingredients, prepare a mixture, and allow baking time for an optimal outcome. If you’re tempted to turn up the oven’s heat in hopes of making the process go faster, the result will be a disappointing, overcooked cake. The natural consequence of giving in to an impulse to rush progress is the burden of having to start over from scratch. In the end, starting over consumes more time and doubles the necessary ingredients. The reward for patience? A satisfying piece of cake.

Most significant life decisions involve outcomes that unfold over time. As sure as sunlight, time rewards patience.  We can learn to soothe our internal restlessness with healthy thinking habits and strategies to relieve stress and prioritize desirable outcomes.

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