The Frustration of Waiting in Line: Idle Thoughts about the Queue


The folks in the above photo don’t look too happy. They are waiting for a bus in Chicago back in 1973. Just the year before, my grad school roommate Don Osborn told me that he’d had a nightmare about getting into his car, merging into traffic, and thereby creating complete and total gridlock — everywhere and forever. Talk about a long wait.

Earlier this month, a 125-mile traffic jam on the highway from St.Petersburg to Moscow lasted an entire weekend, Friday through Sunday. A snowstorm was identified as the cause.

At least the folks in the traffic jam presumably had access to car radios, music systems, and internet-connected phones. Those in the 1973 photo had none of those things. What might they have done to pass the time?

  • Talked to their neighbors.
  • Meditate (not as popular then as now, however).
  • Think about the things they were grateful for.

Based on their facial expressions, however, it looks as though they were preoccupied. They appear to be compulsively checking the horizon, hoping to spot the bus, forgetful of the old adage “A watched pot never boils.” Some are surely grumbling about the traffic, the lousy public transportation system, the cold weather; or worrying about the appointment for which they will be late.

A more productive activity would have been to think about the countless previous times they’d been late in their lives, caught in lines of one sort or another, and how life went on without tragic consequences. Or, they could have spent the time contemplating those who suffer real tragedies, and realize that waiting in line is small potatoes by comparison.

No one would have stopped them from looking around at the architecture or doing some people-watching. I suspect there were lists to be made, too. Things like:

  • What do I need to get at the grocery?
  • What are the things I need to work on to be a better person?
  • What have I been putting off that I need to put on the top of my to-do list.

They probably didn’t, of course.

Various estimates suggest that we Americans spend two to three years of our lives in line. A lack of control seems to be part of what makes this unpleasant. Many of the same people who hate being in line will procrastinate on tasks that cause them even more agony than a time-wasting queue. I recall my anticipatory anxiety as I contemplated calling a girl for my first-ever date in high school. I must have stared at the telephone (only land-lines existed back then) for an hour or more. I’ve long since learned that getting things over with quickly is not only more efficient, but reduces suffering; and, that the lead-up is by far the worst part of the process. She said “yes,” by the way.

Bowery Men Waiting in Breadline, 1910

Bowery Men Waiting in Breadline, 1910

Another way of dealing with involuntary waiting is to reframe the situation. Instead of seeing it as a problem, you might look upon it as an opportunity to learn a zen-like patience. That attitude would cause you to be grateful to the inefficient checkout clerk at the store or the person in line ahead of you who has 13 different coupons to process and is writing a time-consuming check rather than using cash or a credit card. But, if patience seems a stretch for you, some effort to accept the things you can’t change could work to make you feel less aggravated.

Waiting can sometimes build anticipation in a good way. If the world were filled only with immediate gratification of every desire, I suspect we would value all those pleasures less. Waiting for a first kiss or the chance to attend your first Major League baseball game gives those (very different) events more meaning because of the wait. Waiting for a well-prepared meal leads to more satisfaction than a quick trip to McDonald’s. Indeed, the excitement of Christmas Day for small children is entirely dependent on the delayed gratification involved. The sheer joy of watching one’s children explode out of bed to open their gifts is something to behold.

Issues of fairness and self-recrimination seem to pop-up more in places where there are multiple queues. If you’ve chosen the slowest moving line, you’re likely to kick yourself or to get angry that “your” checker isn’t more efficient. On the other hand, if you happen to make the “right” choice of which line to stand in, you probably aren’t going to think you are the luckiest person in the world. In other words, the movement of your line matters more when it is slow than when it progresses rapidly.


Funny that few people say they can’t wait to get to heaven. As much as the faithful identify it as the ultimate reward, doctors don’t see too many patients neglecting treatment of life-threatening diseases because they want to checkout faster. And so, most of us do our best to keep our spot in the mortality-queue static; and are happy to let someone else jump ahead, hoping in this kind of column alone, that things move slowly.

Even when we aren’t in line, we spend much time waiting. When you are little you can’t wait to grow up. A bit later, you can’t wait to get your driver’s license and then go to college. Then, too many of us wait for the weekend and are impatient to retire, waiting for the gold watch and the free time that comes along with a Social Security check.

Just perhaps, we are preoccupied with the wrong thing. Whenever we are “just waiting,” we aren’t focused on the present moment or anything that might be of value. We are, like the people in the top photo, looking down the street for the bus that is going to take us someplace better in the future, or so we think. Yet, most would agree, the time is going to waste.

The next time you find yourself in a slow-moving line, it might serve you well to consider another way to use your queue time. There is much to ponder, much to love, much to learn in life. The line might be a kind of study hall or a laboratory to make a new discovery. The queue gives you a chance to change yourself.

What are you waiting for?

The first image is called Queuing Up For the Bus, photographed by Paul Sequeira in Chicago, 1973 for the EPA. The final photo is of “Sailors assigned to the phone and distance line detail wait to start a replenishment at sea from the bridge deck of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43). Fort McHenry is deployed with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group supporting maritime security operations in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.” (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kristopher Wilson). All three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Betting on Life: A Psychologist’s Guide to Making Retirement and “Bucket List” Plans

When you reach a certain age (which some of you have not), you might have occasion to fill out a retirement planning questionnaire. It is a sobering experience. It asks all the expected questions, but somehow still unsettles you. How much do you make? How much do you owe? How much have you saved? And then the big one: how long will you need the money after you retire? Or, to put it differently, how long do you expect to live? You know, how long before you “kick the bucket,” from whence the phrase “bucket list” comes?

Even if you are very young, you are probably already making an unconscious bet on your future. You are assuming that some things must be done pretty soon and that others can wait. Implicit in this decision is that you will be alive long enough to do those things you choose to delay. If you are relatively young, you probably will. But, of course, there are no guarantees. If you’d like to find out what the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company thinks your life expectancy might be, you can take an easy and free 13 question test that will take less than five minutes and give you an immediate estimate: Lifespan Calculator.

When you get a bit older, however, the probabilities begin to turn. You might not want to think about this, and some of you could be about to search the net for the latest update on Snooki; in other words, a topic that is less weighty and more amusing. Still with me? Good. You are a brave soul.

All of us take risks, including young people, and we usually avoid disaster in spite of that. The sun rises tomorrow despite drinking too much, having unprotected sex, and eating the wrong things. I don’t advise you to do stuff like that, but I can’t imagine having any kind of life worth living if one were so cautious as to avoid all possible risks, always wear a bullet-proof vest, and never give one’s heart away for fear that it might be broken.

But, time does tend to march on, and the odds don’t improve with its passage; specifically, the chance of having enough time to do all the things you might want to do. I bring this up because I retired in December and have had tons of conversations with people in the last two years about their retirement plans. I wanted to learn as much as I could in order to inform myself about what I might be getting myself into.

I talked with a lot of very smart people, some who weren’t retired and couldn’t imagine it, some who were retired involuntarily, and some who made a choice to do it. I tried to find out the ups and downs of it all and, now that I am retired myself, I’ve been asked questions by people who are hoping to learn from my experience; to find out what things are like on this side of the work force.

What have I learned? First, even though I feel good about my personal choice, I know that it fits only the particular circumstances of my life and personality. I can’t promise you that you would be as pleased with the decision to retire as I have been thus far. It might be absolutely wrong for you.

Second, if you are young it might be useful to run through the list below while you have the time to achieve fulfillment in the first half of your life. The eventual retirement decision will be easier if you make good use of the early years and have little regret over misspent time that can no longer be recovered.

Third, I realize that there are risks on both sides of the choice. You can retire when you are at the top of your game or when you are well-past your prime. You can retire when you are still healthy and active enough to enjoy life or when your body and your brain make that impossible. You can retire with enough money to live comfortably or discover that the days of your life have outpaced your ability to pay for lunch.

What factors, then, do people think about as the try to figure this out? For the sake of this list, I’ve not included those individuals for whom continued work is an absolute necessity because they are without the financial resources to retire even for a short time:

1. Money. Even though some people have enough money to retire for a while, many are afraid to take the risk of retirement for fear of eventual destitution. Others have knocked themselves out to make a high salary and find the idea of walking away from that income to be difficult. This is particularly true for people who have known financial hardship in their lives, those who see their income as a kind of measure of their rank among their peers, or folks who simply put great importance on dollars and cents.

In the absence of financial necessity, the decision to retire pits the value of money vs. the value of time, unless your work itself is engaging enough to be the best possible use of that time. Put differently, ask yourself whether you would continue to do the work you do in the absence of financial compensation. The answer will tell you something about how much you value the job vs. how much you value the money that it provides.

2. Lifestyle Issues. This is certainly correlated with the money concerns I’ve just mentioned. The difference with this item, however, is that some people believe it is essential to live just as they always have, or perhaps even more grandly, in terms of vacations and the other non-essential things that money can buy: fine clothing, expensive dinners, and the like. They plan to continue working so that their level of non-essential expenditures can be maintained.

3. Responsibilities, Obligations, and a Strong Work Ethic. Continued work can be driven by having relatives who are financially dependent or have large medical expenses. But even without such demands, I know individuals who have a strong desire to serve others and believe they have a duty to an organization, a team, or simply their fellow-man or woman. Others, however, have a sense of guilt if they do not “work,” because they were required to do so growing up and evaluated accordingly by their parents. For them, work is driven not so much by its “meaning,” but by some sense of having to do it in order to measure up to an old, internalized standard of what makes them worthy of affection or approval.

4. Hobbies, People, and Interests. If one is to have a decent retirement, it is essential to have interesting things to do. Lying around, watching TV, and observing the grass growing are not weigh-stations on the highway to happiness. For most people, a good retirement requires human contact. Those whose social ties are to be found largely in the office can get pretty lonely after the office is permanently closed to them. For doctors, that can include the absence of social fulfillment derived from seeing patients; for teachers, it can be the sorely missed daily contact with students.

Similarly, productive endeavors are essential. Worry and anxiety are likely to close in without some way of organizing your life and engaging in fulfilling activity, even if that activity is labeling your coke bottle collection. Folks who have developed neither social networks nor hobbies often keep working for fear of what the alternative would be like. The routine of work can be comforting and give you a sense of stability. Without an adequate retirement routine — especially for those prone to worry or anxiety — there is also the risk of reliance on the self-medication of alcohol or recreational drugs. Before you retire, you’d best have an idea of how much you will still need the society that work provided and the routine it required, and how else these might be achieved.

5. Energy. If you still feel enormously energetic most of the time once you reach 65 — well, then you are a better man or woman than I am. Some of us retire, at least in part, because the physical cost is greater than it used to be. Others, because they have less resilience available to deal with the stress of working — the “emotional overhead” of staying in the rat-race. Moreover, if you want to have an active retirement, you do still need to have some gas left in the tank. Wait too long and you will be running on empty. It is one reason why a few of us choose to get off the escalator.

6. The Lure of the “Bucket List.” Most of those who belong to the “mature” or middle-aged set have the idea that they will eventually get to the category of things that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay: those items that have been postponed until there is “enough time” to do them. Thanks to the movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, the concept of The Bucket List has entered popular consciousness.

The list provides an incentive to flee your day job while you still have the capacity to enjoy the activities you’ve delayed. They don’t have to be elaborate or difficult to achieve. The list can include items as simple as taking a course of study in something you’ve always had an interest in, reading Proust’s magnum opus, or learning how to sail or fly a kite. My friend Ron has a very thoughtful list that is part-way toward completion. He has already done things like working for Habitat For Humanity and going to see a space-shuttle launch. The “great hot dog tour” waits for him. Yours truly will be riding shot-gun alongside of him, hoping that eating our way across the country on a diet of “red-hots” (a kind of sausage on a bun) won’t kill us.

Don’t think, however, that everything can be postponed. Something that sounded good at age 25 might not feel as good if you accomplish it at 65. All work and no play when you are young sets you up to miss the boat on those things that are best done early. Paris in the springtime of the year feels better in the springtime of your life, when you can flirt with a comely young Parisian rather than watch someone else do it and realize that you should have made the trip decades before.

7. The Joy of Work and Making a Contribution. I am pleased to say that I know a number of people who get great joy and fulfillment out of doing the job that they also do to make a living. Why give something up if it is akin to a “calling?” Symphony conductors are well-know to continue their work well into their 80s, so strong is their passion for making music. I also had a legendary pediatrician, Dr. Albert Stein (no relation), who maintained his medical practice into his 90s. For myself, I found my work as a clinical psychologist very satisfying. But was it a “calling?” Probably not.

8. The Desire for Freedom From the Oppression of the Clock and “Responsibility.” The wear and tear of life can erode your soul. The second-hand of the clock slices you a small sliver of your life, like a piece of pie that you can no longer consume. We are a “time driven,” deadline-driven society. The machines and electronic devices task us to keep up with them. E-mail, voice mail, and text messages seem to demand instant responses in a way that letters and a hand-written message taken by your secretary did not a few years back. Workplaces often expect you to surrender your life to the company, putting your family second, your friends third, and any personal time out of the question.

You might know that the origin of the word “deadline” comes from a line that was drawn in a military prison yard during the Civil War to make sure that the prisoners did not get too close to the prison wall. If you did cross the “deadline,” it was assumed that you intended to escape. You were shot simply for violating it. Today’s work deadlines might just be killing us too. In Japan, they even have a word for working yourself to death. It is called karõshi.

9. The Desire to Spend More Time with Your Spouse, Family, Grandchildren, and Friends. This is not exactly a “bucket list” item, but can be very important, nonetheless. First, however, I should point out that some people postpone retirement for fear of spending more time with their spouse! Others are surprised only after they have left the job that there are complications from more proximity to their partner. Best to know whether you are really compatible with the older version of your companion (and she with you) before the decision to quit work. If not, make plans to do lots of things separately. With respect to others, one of the most often cited benefits of retirement is the ability to be with grandchildren and the opportunity to spend more time with old friends or make some new ones.

10. Status and Its Loss. Many of us define ourselves, at least in part, by our work. For those who take particular pride in what they do and the status that it confers, it is especially difficult to surrender their profession. Loss of identity is a risk. In such cases a satisfying post-work life requires that one be flexible enough to re-define oneself and no longer feel the necessity of being “the big guy” who is indispensable to the organization. The truth is that work will go on without us. Put very darkly, “the cemetery is full of indispensable people.” However much your absence might mean on a personal level, there is probably someone who can do your job as well or better than you can, other than raising your children and grandchildren.

11. The Ability to Appreciate and Accept Things. It is useful at any age to feel gratitude for the things you have. It is equally beneficial to enjoy simple pleasures: a beautiful day, laughter, and the excitement of a game of ball — especially if you are playing in it.

If you are aging well there will be some loss of restlessness and driving ambition over time — a sense of being “in the hunt.” Be grateful for that, too. Unless you have tamed the beast that youthful ambition can be, you will feel more like the pursued than the pursuer when that youth is well behind you. Win the games you can win while you have the grace and speed and drive of a young man. A good retirement usually requires a belief in accomplishment that one can look back on — the feeling of a job well done. If retirement age finds you still maniacally trying to beat the competition, you should either stay working or ask yourself why you remain driven.

I think it is pretty easy to fool yourself about the reasons you continue to work, as well as those that might cause you to retire. But, from a psychological viewpoint, the greatest risks in life are usually those that require change. Even though retirement isn’t the same as walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls, to some people it feels that way.

The decision to stop working requires not only that you establish a new kind of life, but some amount of courage in facing the fact that you won’t live forever; and that even if you do live many more years, you might not be in the shape required for the life you imagine. High achieving individuals are generally good at postponing gratification, perhaps too good. Be careful not to fool yourself into thinking that there will always be more “good” time.

That said, neither work nor its absence in retirement ever produce a perfect state of being. Work or no work, all the same daily indignities are available, from people cutting you off in traffic to dealing with insurance companies over a claim. Few people achieve serenity, but acceptance of things “as they are” can occasionally come close. If and when you decide to retire — assuming that you have planned it well, have enough money in the bank, and have a sustaining curiosity about life and people — you just might find it to be lovely.

Whatever your choice, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy in both the images below) has the best salutation: “Live long and prosper;” to which a fellow Vulcan would respond “Peace and long life.” These extra-terrestrial, science fiction-based humanoids are said to have lifespans that can extend beyond 200 years. Yet, as the above salutations suggest, even they remain mindful of the preciousness of time.

The top picture is called Card Games and Game Tokens by victor vic. The second image is called No Death (the grim reaper crossed out) by Benjamin Hauber. It is followed by a Green Bucket by 4028mdk09. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally, Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock in the 1960s and at the 2011 Star Trek Convention, the latter by Beth Madison, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. In each instance he is giving the sign that goes along with the salutation “Live long and prosper.”