The stripes would fill the screen, constantly changing colour, accompanied by the noise; a mix of screeching, beeping and static, like some sort of futuristic rave. There were no drugs involved here, just the simple insertion of a cassette tape into the Spectrum ZX. The hope was that at some point in the future, it would finish loading and I’d get to enjoy the modern wonder that was the home computer game. Sadly, this didn’t always happen; with personal computers in their infancy, the error screen (like the one above) was all too common. When this happened, my mom would simply say ‘never mind, you’ll have to play it tomorrow instead.’
And this way I learned the art of patience. Fast forward 30 years and that art is all but lost. The mobile phone, not much larger than a credit card, has 15 times more memory than the Spectrum, is thousands of times quicker and more powerful, and with the advent of the internet, meant that almost anything was available in seconds at the touch of a button. Where shall we eat later? Who played that character in Lord of the Rings? When can I get that delivered by? Oh, it’ll be here this afternoon.
We live in an instant world and it’s reflected in our behaviours and attitudes. We’re frustrated when we see the dreaded buffering symbol, when the image pauses, even briefly, whilst streaming a video. We send texts, emails and WhatsApp messages and don’t feel it’s unreasonable to expect an instant reply. Our phones tell us when a message has been read and when someone is online, making us irritated when the person appears to be ignoring us. We have no idea of course what they might be up to at that moment; they could be working, spending time with their family, delivering a baby by the side of the road or saving the planet, but we’re free so they should be too.
But wait, there’s power in patience
Take That told us to have a little, Yoda informed Luke that he must work on it and Guinness said that if we could wait for just under two minutes, good things would come. Science suggests they may well be right.
In 2007, Sarah Schnitker and Robert Emmons showed that people who demonstrated more patience tended to experience less depression and negative emotions, possibly because they could cope better in times of stress. The same authors showed in a separate study that people who demonstrate more patience towards others were more hopeful and satisfied with their lives. Those who get less stressed by traffic jams, queuing and malfunctioning technology also report better mental wellbeing in general.
In a 2012 study, patient people reported putting in more effort and making more progress towards important life goals, and it’s even been linked to less incidents of ill health; coughs and colds, ulcers, headaches, acne and poor sleep. At a physiological level, this may be because they have a better balance in their autonomic nervous system. One half is made up of the well-known, ‘fight or flight’ response, known more technically as your sympathetic nervous system and responsible for the increase in hormones like adrenaline during times of stress. This should be balanced by the parasympathetic nervous branch, your ‘rest and digest’ system, that releases hormones like melatonin to help you sleep, repair and recover. When these systems are not well balanced and you’re spending more time on your accelerator and less on the brake, you’re more likely to suffer physical and mental health issues.
Worth the wait
Back to my Spectrum ZX; I remember the joy and excitement when the game had finally loaded. It was extra special because I’d had to wait for it and because there was always that chance that I wouldn’t get to play Space Invaders or Manic Miner. When you think about it, there are countless wonderful examples of where patience is just better…
• Opening your Christmas or birthday presents without already knowing what they are
• That feeling when the ketchup finally starts to drip out of the bottle and onto your plate, even though the palm of your hand is a little sore from all the tapping
• When you counted the cash in your money box and you were finally able to afford the toy/sweets you so desperately wanted
• Waiting for a letter from your friend in response to the one you sent them ages ago
• The first leaves growing on the plant you’ve been caring for from a seed
• The day you notice those muscles poking through underneath your skin, a little more defined than before for sure, or when you get up that hill without stopping and it takes you by surprise.
What about you? Can you think of things that were just more enjoyable when you’d waited?
Getting fitter and healthier requires plenty of patience, firstly to get there, and secondly to keep it up. If you haven’t been active for a while, changes can happen relatively quickly to begin with, but the fitter you are the slower this change becomes and you’ll have to test those Jedi mind powers to the max. Always remember, your health is the sum of your most frequent, recent habits. You can’t get fitter and then just stop, it doesn’t work like that. Your health, fitness and wellbeing is a lifelong quest and the going isn’t always easy, patience is a must.
How do you stay patient?
In his brilliant book, Misbehaving, Richard Thaler discusses the infamous ‘Marshmallow Test’. In a series of scientific studies, children were offered either one marshmallow (or cookie) now, or they could have three if they waited for 15 minutes. Agonisingly, they were then left alone in the room with the single sugary treat calling to them, tempting them to scoff it down. And of course, many did. Thaler points out that if they’d been offered one cookie at 3pm tomorrow, or three at 3:15, they’d have no problem in waiting the extra quarter of an hour. It’s the immediacy of it that makes it challenging; they can have it NOW…so they do.
The human brain isn’t particularly good at waiting when it can get instant gratification and that’s an important message. It means that if there’s an option to eat all the sugary treats straight away, you probably will. Willpower works on making yourself feel bad for wanting to eat it all and guilt isn’t always the best motivator. Thaler gives the example of a man trapped on a desert island after a plane crash, with only ten energy bars for sustenance. In an ideal world he says, he’d have ten safes each locked and set to a timer, meaning only one bar would be released each day. That’s not the case on a desert island though, so he has to use willpower to restrict himself to just one each day, reminding himself about the long-term benefits of doing so, But our brains aren’t wired that way; studies where people are offered a set amount of money now, say £100, or £120 in a month’s time, often find that people take what’s on offer straight away.
What does this mean for you?
• If you buy lots of sweets, biscuits or crisps, you’ll probably eat them all more quickly than if you just bought one smaller portion at a time
• You have to set up the environment to make it less convenient for you to eat too much or poorly - portion things out into individual containers or even place them in different cupboards. Make it less simple to over consume. As well as being impatient, we’re also lazy. Studies have shown we’ll eat less peanuts if we have to shell them, so buying things like chocolates in individual wrappers will likely mean we eat less.
• When it comes to wanting to achieve big goals quickly, our impatience will often lead us to seek quick fixes, even when we know they’re not healthy and they probably won’t last.
Utilise the psychological tools I talk about so frequently, split the big goal down into smaller chunks and focus only on that. Watch how professional sportspeople talk about taking one game, round or stage at a time. They want the big prize, but they know that patience is the way to get it.
Involve someone else to assist you. Give them your portions of food treats to look after and ration out for you, or report your daily exercise or eating/drinking to them.
Put up visual prompts to remind you what you’re working towards. Bring it back to the forefront of your mind at every opportunity, or else it’ll fall somewhere down the pecking order, likely behind that big glass of wine.
And in life in general, next time you can’t remember what film that guy was in, leave your phone in your pocket and stay in the present enjoying the conversation with your friend or partner. When you’re stuck in traffic, take a breath, put a song on the radio, relax and remember that good things come to those who wait.