As the saying goes, waiting is the hardest part. In the case of psychology, we hate waiting for all kinds of reasons, but as an article in the New York Times points out, it's more about uncertainty than it is anything else.
Photo by James Lee.
As humans, we're not good at waiting for anything. In fact, one study found that the longer we wait for something, the more we think we'll have to wait. Rarely do rewards come at a specific time, so we tend to fail at understanding how long we need to wait for them. That uncertainty of the reward makes waiting — and goal setting in general — very difficult. The Times has a few examples of when this might happen:
Hard logic — or at the very least, logical intuition — would suggest that the more time you invest in something, the closer you are to achieving it. If I practice the piano, I will improve. If I run every day, my time will get faster. But somehow, when we're in the middle of it all, our minds don't see it that way. The more time passed, the further the study participants felt from the prize.
Essentially, when you don't know when you'll be rewarded for your hard work — whether that's a raise, weight loss, or anything else — the harder it is to actually stick to those goals. Since the world doesn't run on a specific clock, that means a lot of our common goals fall under this umbrella. So, what can you actually do about it? In this case, just realising what's going on might be enough:
For those of us battling with goals we just can't seem to reach, the knowledge that our perception of time — and not some inherent shortcoming — is partly to blame may enable us to be more successful in the future. Instead of beating ourselves up for a failure of willpower, we can instead focus on learning to better calibrate our time expectations from the get-go, setting realistic, concretely framed time goals that capture the reality of the task we've set for ourselves.
That simple reframing could have very real repercussions for behaviour. When Washington, D.C., and New York City introduced signs on their subway platforms that signaled just how long you had to wait for the next train, Mr. Kable pointed out, the decision uncertainty disappeared. "You no longer have to decide if you have time to wait or will be late for your meeting and should just grab a cab," he said. "When you have that kind of cue, when you can resolve the uncertainty, when it's a matter of pure knowledge, the decision becomes far easier."
It's impossible to know when you'll lose those five pounds or how long it'll take you feel healthier after changing your diet, but hopefully realising that it might take a while is enough to get you through those first few weeks.
You're So Self-Controlling [The New York Times]