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How to Be Patient

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A few months ago someone asked me to point them to everything I’ve written about patience: what it is and how to develop it. I don’t think I’ve ever addressed the topic directly, even though I’ve danced around it a lot.

I now consider patience to be a pretty fundamental life skill, one which directly determines whether a particular elevator ride, social event, drive home or post office visit is an easy experience or an awful one. Whether we can be patient or not is a high stakes matter, because life is at least 90% those kinds of experiences.

I guess some amount of patience develops inevitably, as you get older and gradually realize how self-defeating it is to revile the present, since you spend every instant of your life there.

Still, I can’t recall ever being explicitly taught patience, only being commanded to “be patient!” by teachers, parents and other authority figures. I suspect most people learn the concept in exactly this sort of context, as something that’s no fun at all yet is deemed necessary by adults for reasons they can’t explain, like “work” or “honesty”.

And of course they don’t tell you how. Nevertheless, over the decades I have caught on to its uncanny ability to make life vastly less painful, and have even learned to cultivate it on purpose. So I will tell you what I know, inquiring reader from months ago, and anybody else who’s interested. Apologies for the wait.

Patience is really nothing more than the willingness to live life at the speed at which it actually happens. And of course, life only ever happens at the speed at which it actually happens, whether what’s currently happening is fun or not.

However, our willingness to accept that reality isn’t something we do automatically, and that willingness makes a huge difference to the quality of our experience in life.

Sometimes we can speed up the boring or unpleasant parts with a timely request or suggestion, but impatience doesn’t exactly help us do that. Stewing in a queue doesn’t make it move more quickly, it just makes the time you’re already spending there more unpleasant.

This kind of stewing is just a basic urge to deny reality, which—I’m very sorry—includes many stretches where we are not getting what we want, where no uncertainty is being resolved and no wishes are being fulfilled.

That’s not ideal, but what makes those dry stretches go from unremarkable to insufferable is our trying to live as though they shouldn’t exist, like they’re some kind of cosmic mistake. What? The plane needs some unexpected maintenance? I didn’t agree to that! 

Impatience means demanding the impossible

Actually being in a place or a time other than here and now is impossible, so we escape to the only alternative to reality, which is our imaginations. Sometimes we just daydream haphazardly, but often the imagined reality we escape to is directly related to the thing we’re being impatient about. While you’re waiting at a checkout, your mind is off lecturing some unseen manager about how many cashiers a respectable drug store should have working at, you know, whatever time it is right now.

None of this rumination does what we want it to do, which is to warp space and time such that we aren’t required to ever experience someone else’s petty customer dispute or PowerPoint presentation. Impatience is always stabbing at the impossible: to transport yourself to the wrap-up of this wedding toast, to fly through this needlessly heavy revolving door, to banish from existence this disgruntled customer who’s now making the clerk call the manager.

Let’s be clear that the experience of impatience has nothing at all to do with your ability to help the situation move along more quickly. If there’s something helpful you can do, it can be done without impatience. And often the real symptoms of impatience—the fidgeting, the fuming, the self-righteous inner diatribes, the “why me” feeling—don’t arise until it’s clear you’re quite powerless over the proceedings anyway.

We can’t transmute reality, but patience can transmute our relationship to reality to a considerable degree. And that solves the real problem, which is not the specific circumstance we’re in, but the quality of our experience right now: is it awful or is it okay? Patience makes it okay for life to be what it is, which is extremely helpful, because life is always just what it is.

Giving time

Impatience is a reflex; it will rarely appear to you as a conscious choice. We can retrain the reflex to a different one though, during moments when we’re not confronted by a gridlocked expressway or a misbehaving printer, by getting used to the idea of giving time.

Every day, there are countless easy tasks we perform that don’t require our full attention. For example, when you’re done with the blowdryer, you probably wrap up the cord and put it in the cupboard. But because it’s not exactly brain surgery, chances are your mind is already onto something else—breakfast, work, global politics—for that ten or twelve seconds that your body is doing the task.

This is a subtle instance of the mind trying to skip reality again. But because the reality of putting away a blowdryer isn’t difficult to experience willingly, it’s a perfect opportunity to become more patient, by giving it your full attention anyway.

Rather than spend another twelve seconds uselessly ruminating about the past and future, consider giving that time instead to what is actually happening: the simple task of wrapping up the cord and putting the thing away.

“Giving time” in this way—being fully, willingly aware of the buttoning of a shirt, the sealing of an envelope, the peeling of a carrot—acts as a small but effective challenge to the mind’s habit of trying to constantly get away from real life.

Ten or twelve seconds at a time, we learn not to be so squeamish about simply being where we are, and letting life unfold at the speed it actually does.

Give time to some small thing, then feel free to go back to absently ruminating on election reform, or rehearsing a conversation with your neighbor about his dogs. Later on, when it occurs to you, do it for some other small thing.

This isn’t hard at all, and the result is a gradual relaxing of this constant pull we have towards getting the hell out of most of the moments we’re in.

Things begin to open up. Flying, shopping, and customer service experiences become easier. Errands and social obligations become less fraught, less dreadful. Life as a whole seems less dangerous, because there’s a lot more of it that you’re willing to actually experience.

Again, it’s not much. Ten or fifteen seconds here or there, for something you’d normally daydream your way through. Practice this in easy moments, and you’ll find that the impulse to give time might also arise in the tougher moments, when the captain announces a mechanical issue, or when the person who’s supposed to call isn’t calling.

Each offering of time is a small but powerful act of generosity towards our own well-being. By doing this we’re making the brilliant chess-move of giving at moments where we’re normally very stingy and needy.

The ability to make this expert move changes everything. What a relief it is to discover that you don’t need to avoid experiencing life’s inevitable (and frequent) slowdowns, and that the pain associated with them is almost entirely created by relating to them unskillfully.

What, I can experience an entire trip to the mall without sighing, grimacing or silently cursing? I can sit through an entire red light without fidgeting? I can make (or miss) my connecting flight without losing my shit even once? Can I live my whole life this way?

We can, if we’re willing to give time, as a habit. Nothing else makes sense really—it’s just experimenting with a willingness to live in reality as though there’s nowhere else to be. (Not that there ever was.)


Photo by odonata98


Anh Nguyen August 1, 2016 at 2:25 am


Patience is a skill I struggled to master for a long time. As you said, my parents and teachers also told me to be “patient” as if its something I should have in me, but doesn’t. And in a way I lived with the shame that I don’t really have it, among other skills.

What helped me is simple: being honest about it and humour. Being able to share it with others and laughing about it was very therapeutic, especially since most people have the same problem as well!

Thanks for the thoughtful post!


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David Cain August 1, 2016 at 8:36 am

Humor goes so far, with almost everything in the human world. It’s such a relief to think of ourselves as a silly species that never quite lives up to expectations :)

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Lara August 1, 2016 at 3:11 am

I agree with the concept of patience mentioned here. many people misunderstood me for being patient, when actually i’m just really inexpressive. I am now trying to build habits to make me more patient. it was a nice read, thank you.

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David Cain August 1, 2016 at 8:37 am

Thanks Lara.

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Andrew August 1, 2016 at 3:19 am

Thanks David – a timely reminder on an impatient Monday morning in London!

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David Cain August 1, 2016 at 8:38 am

Good morning! Well I guess it’s afternoon already for you!

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Jeff Hess August 1, 2016 at 3:59 am

Good morning David,

Your photo reminds me of Walter Mischel’s famous Standford study involving children and marshmallows.

While the original results were instructive, the differences in the lives of the children years later were very much more so.

Those children who ate the marshmallow rather than wait and receive a second marshmallow, had less successful and more troubled lives as adults than those children who exhibited patience and waited for the greater reward.

Not only is patience a virtue, it is a survival trait.

Do all you can to make today a better day,

Jeff Hess
Have Coffee Will Write

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David Cain August 1, 2016 at 8:41 am

The marshmallow test reveals so much, and I wonder what the difference is between those kids. Is it how they learned about patience? Genetic dispositions? Their love for marshmallows? I want a marshmallow now.

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Heather August 1, 2016 at 11:56 am

Great. Now we all want marshmallows. And I mean *now*. And there’s my cue to practice patience. :)

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jude August 2, 2016 at 4:00 am

G’day David, I watched a great doco about a Clinical Study called The Dunedin Study that might interest you. Scientists have tracked every person born in (I think) 1971 in Dunedin New Zealand and it’s still going on.
A lot of stuff about Nature vs Nurture, genetics etc in relation to adult life outcomes.
I love your posts. You’ve helped me make real changes in my life.

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Sandy August 1, 2016 at 4:58 am

Loved this post! Thank you David.

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David Cain August 1, 2016 at 2:10 pm

Thanks Sandy

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Ellen Symons August 1, 2016 at 6:11 am

Slowing down is a central practice for me right now, and I think that is another way of saying I’m realizing I need to give time to things. That is a really nice way of seeing it. This article is right on point for me, and funny and wise as always. Thank you, David.

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David Cain August 1, 2016 at 2:12 pm

I find using the verb “giving” is a helpful way to think of it, because it connotes that willingness to offer attention. To my ears (or just my mind’s ears) that’s more appealing and easier to do than “Be patient! Pay attention!”

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Chris August 1, 2016 at 7:39 am

Hah! We were at a wedding this weekend which (thankfully) had a short service. Normally my wife’s family go for the mega-deluxeservice (i.e. Catholic) which lasts for 2 hours, and I end up appreciating the artwork. And the building design. And count the number of lights on each chandelier. And once I start appreciating all of the things about the room, I begin to realize how dumb I’m acting. This is a special moment for these two people, and what else was I going to be working on anyways? When I take a few minutes (or hours in the Catholic wedding case) to be just there and in the moment, it’s telling that I feel so uncomfortable in this space. I don’t go there enough and I’m used to being able to fill the ‘void’ of my own mind with crap from the outside world.

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David Cain August 1, 2016 at 2:14 pm

Oh man a Catholic wedding service is like a black diamond level test for patience. But even long stretches of time are made up of short stretches. In any case, it’s useful just to notice how determined the mind is to not experience what’s in front of it.

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Heather August 1, 2016 at 7:40 am

That’s a great line, ‘patience is really nothing more than the willingness to live life at the speed that it actually happens’. I’ve noticed lately when out driving that people will hardly give a second more time than is needed. It’s been really noticeable lately. Maybe they are just reflecting back to me the way I don’t give myself enough time either, trying to keep myself constantly moving and fill all the spaces in between. Thanks for the reminder!

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David Cain August 1, 2016 at 2:16 pm

One interesting thing to notice is our impatience with the impatience of others. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve noticed myself internally losing my patience with the impatience of another driver.

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Jeanne August 1, 2016 at 10:12 am

I’m going to be thinking of every word you wrote this morning about the art of patience, as I lovingly wash each and every dish, carefully and thoughtfully, that I didn’t get to last night. Oh, and the pots and pans as well. :) A wonderful article, David, and so very much appreciated!

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David Cain August 1, 2016 at 2:27 pm

You don’t even need to think about it, just give the time to the dishes :)

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Clay Nicolsen August 1, 2016 at 10:33 am

David, I will tell you the absolute truth, the whole time I was reading this essay I was thinking: “I’m going to have to remember that thought…I’m definitely going to remember that quote…I’m so going to share that idea…” Your writings are so full of nuggets of wisdom, but this is one of the best.

Mindfulness and being in the present are concepts that are not exactly new, but you really bring them to life. The idea that being impatient is being angry with your life while you’re actually living it is amazing, as is the idea that impatience is demanding the impossible. “I want this line of cars GONE!!”

Tough to pick a favorite, but I really like this one: “Patience is really nothing more than the willingness to live life at the speed at which it actually happens. And of course, life only ever happens at the speed at which it actually happens, whether what’s currently happening is fun or not.”

Love your work.


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David Cain August 1, 2016 at 2:30 pm

Thanks Clay. I didn’t always think of it this way, but impatience is more than just a petty bad habit we have, it’s really rebellion against reality itself, and I’m convinced most of it are in the throes of it for most moments of our lives. That’s a really big deal! So anything we can do to reduce the time spent trying to not experience our lives goes a long way.

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Jana August 1, 2016 at 11:45 am

This is an amazing piece of wisdom and art! Thanks for sharing, it is very applicable in my life right now!

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Sally August 1, 2016 at 12:07 pm

Another excellent teaching. Thank you.

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Dan August 1, 2016 at 3:14 pm

As a retiree who worked in Catholic Church administration for twenty six years or so, my prayer was all too often, Lord, give me patience – but give me patience now! Its taken me a long time to come the the reality that it just doesn’t work that way.

Thanks for a great post and a reminder that life does indeed happen at its own pace.

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David Cain August 4, 2016 at 9:39 am

Hehe…. give me patience IMMEDIATELY!

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Nara Lawrence August 1, 2016 at 3:40 pm

Always great reading from you David. A great piece to share!

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julie mix August 1, 2016 at 4:14 pm

David, I love your writings. This one is terrific . Practicing Mindfulness has really helped me with this. I used to just fume at any wait in a line. Just willing the line to move forward, I got sooo uptight. Now I’m so laid-back that it’s really improved the quality of my life.

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David Cain August 4, 2016 at 9:41 am

Thanks Julie. Mindfulness really is the most direct route to patience. And formal mediation is the most direct route to developing mindfulness. It is amazing to notice you feel laid back in situations that once made you suffer.

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Debbi August 1, 2016 at 4:28 pm

I really enjoyed this post but it made me wonder about my own way of being patient and how it relates to your post. Often, I knit. I always bring knitting to places like doctor’s offices where I know that I will have to probably wait waaaay past my appointment time. Besides giving me something to do, knitting hits most knitters in the mindfulness sweet spot. In some ways, it is leaving the moment to do something else but in others, it brings you directly into the moment in a very calm way (this may sound nuts if you do not knit; if you do knit, you are probably nodding right now). Knitting probably seems like a way to escape, rather than accept, waiting in a patient way but I really feel like it actually occupies just enough of my mind that I do not spin into “crazy woman who does not want to wait one more moment” and can simply be content with the line while engaging with the experience. Even when I do not have something with me to do, I can wait forever and rarely get impatient. I do wonder if this is a natural predisposition or a learned behavior (kind of like the marshmallow question). My parents were both patient and, faced with seemingly massive incompetence/rudeness, would usually wonder what had caused the person to behave that way in that situation, rather than get riled up themselves.
I also loved the post office reference. Doing anything at my post office always takes at least 30 minutes and often an hour (I live in NOLA; we are known for lots of things but bureaucratic efficiency is not one of them). Earlier this year, I had been on line for about 30 minutes and was within about 15 minutes of the front of the line. Someone much further back (who we all suspected was not from here) suddenly started yelling that this was ridiculous and the place needed more help and why on earth wasn’t there more counter help. Without missing a beat, the man behind the counter looked up, smiled, and said, “I think we all need a little sing along to help pass the time.” He then burst out into a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” By the second word of the song, everyone but the crabby lady joined in and we had a lovely time on line. Sometimes, waiting is what you make of it!

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Ellen Symons August 2, 2016 at 5:54 am

Debbi, I knitted my way through two years of massage school: that was the only way I could stay in my seat. You’ve reminded me of how settling it is. Your post office story is exceptional and I will now be carrying it around with me. When I don’t have knitting, I can sing, at least in my head. Thank you!

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David Cain August 4, 2016 at 9:45 am

That is an amazing story! I wish I could have been there. Perfect song choice too.

As for the knitting, it sounds like a great idea to me. In one sense it is an “escape” but not in the reality-denying way I’m talking about. Why not use the time for something constructive?

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Mark Goodson August 1, 2016 at 8:01 pm

Excellent. The mindfullness of buttonning a shirt. I’ve also heard of meditative eating, although I’ve never practiced it.
I was writing recently about the different chemicals that produce Happiness, (or at least what we think is happiness). Of the 4 commonly associated with it, Dopamine is the one pressing us to be impatient. To check this, to click that. Even hugs are said to take 30 seconds to release the more patient chemical-Endorphins.

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David Cain August 4, 2016 at 9:49 am

Mindful eating is really neat. I should do a post on it. It is a huge help for getting more satisfaction out of less food, and helps to make it clear how insane our eating habits can be. I know I’m often preoccupied with taking a second helping while the first is barely registering.

I don’t know much about neurotransmitters. I’m usually more interested in the subjective side of the brain/mind relationship. But it might be helpful to know what they do and what influences their production and release.

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Linda Viste August 1, 2016 at 9:23 pm

Thank you David for your beautiful soul and sharing your knowledge of wisdom, as I seek guidence to enlightenment. This helpful post is definitely what my soul needed to further understand the meaning of patience and taking my time with life. Will be put to practice. Good habits, good life. :)

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Cam August 1, 2016 at 9:47 pm

I want to hear more embarassing anecdotes from your life, David! Those are good teaching tools. The very embarassing ones.

Thank you for continuing to grow and sharing your insights.

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David Cain August 4, 2016 at 9:50 am

The archives is full of embarrassing anecdotes! I try to share one in almost every post.

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Katia August 2, 2016 at 8:30 am

“Patience is really nothing more than the willingness to live life at the speed at which it actually happens.” I agree. It’s challenging to embrace life as it happens, with its natural rate / speed and all the attractive and not very attractive aspects it presents. I suppose it can also be said that patience might be a byproduct of mindful self-discipline. Thank you for this reminder, David.

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Holly August 2, 2016 at 12:44 pm

“We can, if we’re willing to give time, as a habit. Nothing else makes sense really—it’s just experimenting with a willingness to live in reality as though there’s nowhere else to be. (Not that there ever was.)”

but…. what about your smartphone? There are worlds more places to be. Not that this is a good thing. I’m constantly looking for ways to raise my “smartphone escape” barrier. Any thoughts on that?

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David Cain August 4, 2016 at 9:53 am

I have been experimenting with leaving it in my pocket, because pretty much any time I’m inclined to pull it out is an opportunity to practice mindfulness that I will miss.

It’s a good start just to notice that impulse… the move of the hand towards the phone, and see if instead you can give thirty or sixty seconds to the moment. Then pull it out if out if you still want to.

That little break helps to perforate the continuous cycle of want-and-reach-for that dominates a lot of our lives. Just a little stretch of voluntarily experiencing life goes a long way.

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Burak Şahin August 3, 2016 at 1:23 am

Such a nice read. I’ll try giving time more often today. Thanks David.

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Sangita Borgave August 3, 2016 at 2:36 am

Wonderful post David. Very helpful. The title stressed me out a little as I thought ‘oh,another thing I lack!’ and then comes the kind advice of just giving time. This is so much easier to implement and it’s good to know it can make the tough times more bearable.

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David Cain August 4, 2016 at 10:00 am

I think most of us are conditioned to recoil at the word “patience”, because most of us learned about it in the context of being scolded. But it is something we can start to give ourselves, for our own benefit, ten or twelve seconds at a time.

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Steve August 4, 2016 at 12:02 am

The blowdryer cord is a good one. After ironing my shirts for work, I can’t seem to get the iron and ironing board away quick enough. I’m wrapping the cord around the iron with one hand, while folding the ironing board with the other. It should be back in the cupboard in no more than 12 seconds. But if it takes longer than that (the cord unravels, board gets stuck sideways in the cupboard door) I get so disproportionately frustrated, it’s ridiculous! Reading through this made me realise that because I’m not devoting my whole attention to it, I’ve already got my mind on what I’m doing next. So anything that is delaying me from that ‘other thing’ is a huge problem. Devoting my attention to what I’m doing at that particular moment means there’s no reason to get annoyed at how long it takes, because that’s all there is. Hooray for putting away stuff!

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David Cain August 4, 2016 at 9:58 am

I definitely know this feeling. Anytime you notice you’re rushing is a perfect opportunity to consciously slow down and let it take as long as it takes. I used to get really stressed out over tiny things like not being able to get my coat off quickly enough in the winter once I get inside, or scrambling to find the scissors in the junk drawer. The irony is that we’re trying to avoid ten or twelve seconds of boredom/discomfort by skipping it, and because it’s impossible we create a lifestyle that’s full of these all-day-long micro-stresses. You can retrain that sense of rushing as a trigger to remind you to offer the time to the task, which is never more than ten or twenty seconds. It’s just the simple matter of letting yourself experience the mundane task fully, rather than fighting with it or trying to be past it already.

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Rick August 19, 2016 at 9:26 am

Great piece, I really enjoyed your perspective. Several years ago I had an “aha” moment while contemplating the nature of reality. It occurred to me that there was no such thing as the past or the future and the only thing that exists is the present – if the past and future exist, where are they? I can look all over the universe and the only thing that exists is what’s happening right now.
Later I came across some researchers on youtube who were experimenting with Cymatics, or the science of vibrations and how they affect matter- salt patterns on a table change shape based on the frequency of the vibrations applied to the table. It’s really fascinating stuff. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtiSCBXbHAg ) So then I had another aha! moment. What if the physical universe is a 3D version of the Cymatics table, constantly changing based on vibrations applied to matter by some sort of infinite intelligence, sort of like variation on string theory – or even crazier, what if there are legions of “angels” singing and those frequencies are causing our universe to constantly and instantly exist and then change form to something else? Wow.
Anyway, fun for me to think about. But back to my point, your article put a refreshing and different name on what many people call “living in the moment” or being “present”. Patience seems to be all about living in the moment. We can’t be anywhere else- it doesn’t exist. We can’t get “to” the future. The future is merely the present that hasn’t yet come to form.
Thanks for the perspective- you’ve added clarity to a piece of the puzzle.

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Spnce September 23, 2016 at 9:43 pm

Patience should come naturally and if it doesn’t, then something’s wrong. Of course, that means there’s something wrong in all of our lives, but some, more so than others. Impatience occurs for only one reason, just like contention or arguments occur for only one reason…the same reason. If we want to have more patience, then we have to defeat the reason we don’t.

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Jacynthe Bondu September 24, 2016 at 6:58 am

Great article,
I chose to work on my patience already almost 3 years ago and I kinda used the same way but my way and I totally agree… with time and practice on easy and short experience, by choosing the right battle, against myself, to practice it, came a time that I fond yourself being patient and realise it became a reflex! That day I smiled hard and was so proud of me :)

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Chinaza September 28, 2016 at 7:14 am

Very nice article. As they say, patience is a virtue. this is one of the hardest value that can be practiced by any individual. Good work. I am a student of the University of Nigeria Nsukka. this is our link: http://www.unn.edu.ng

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