10 Tips for Cultivating Patience in an Impatient World

As an elementary school teacher, my wife finds great fulfillment in helping her sixth graders improve their math skills. But she almost always has to deal with a few students who moan about having to learn new things. They lack the patience to correct their mistakes and practice until they’ve achieved mastery. Their impatience in turn tries the patience of their teacher.

At church, at home, and in the workplace our impatience can start to feed on the impatience of others. Since none of us have the patience of Job, all of us try each other’s patience. Stopping this vicious circle requires a little more patience from all of us. This means being willing to give others – and ourselves – time to change.

Of course, patience is not always a virtue. Sometimes teachers need to send disruptive students to the principal’s office. Sometimes we need to seize the day and take immediate action. Justice, courage, and kindness often call on us to make a difference without delay.

But it goes without saying that most of life’s challenges require patience. It takes patience to accomplish worthwhile goals. It takes patience to face unexpected trials such as serious illness, financial setbacks, and failed relationships. It takes patience to deal with life’s daily problems, including backed up freeways, bad weather, and slow lines at the grocery store.

One of the obstacles to developing patience is that our modern world caters to convenience and immediate gratification. We don’t need to grow a garden when we can pick up whatever we need from a convenience store. We don’t need to spend our time with home-cooked meals when restaurants and pre-packaged meals are always available. We don’t need to save up money to buy a new car when we can get a low-interest loan and buy it now. We don’t need to wait a week for our favorite television show when we can watch the entire series over the weekend on Netflix. And we don’t need patience to travel a thousand miles when we can hop on a plane and be there in a couple of hours.

So how can we cultivate patience in an impatient world? Here are ten tips.

The first two are taken from a 2017 journal article published in the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality by Sarah Schnitker and her colleagues at Fuller Theological Seminary.

1. Attach meaning to suffering.

Schnitker describes how religious communities generally promote the idea that some forms of suffering can be redemptive, leading to self-mastery, empathy, and greater life-fulfillment. This is what she calls a “transcendent narrative identity.” It provides the strength to look beyond present suffering and work toward a future where our lives have changed for the better.

2. Learn to control your emotions.

Schnitker and her fellow psychologists identify emotional regulation as another core aspect of patience. It’s easy to become frustrated, annoyed, and even bitter when things don’t go our way. But acting on negative emotions almost always makes situations worse. When I start to get impatient, I try to imagine how I would respond in my present circumstances if I were patient. Every once in a while, this sort of cognitive reappraisal helps me respond more calmly with a long-term perspective.

3. Look to nature for inspiration.

Ralph Waldo Emerson offers this advice: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” It takes time to develop a strong root system that can support sturdy branches and bear fruit. We’re more likely to develop patience when we understand that disappointment and heartache can make us more capable of tasting the fruit of happiness in the future.

4. View patience as a golden mean

Aristotle helpfully describes most virtues as the golden mean between two extremes. For example, true courage is found somewhere between cowardice, on one hand, and recklessness, on the other. In a similar way, possessing patience means that we avoid foolish, impetuous actions. But it also means that we avoid a passive or lazy acceptance of suffering, injustice, and mediocrity.

5. Be humble enough to take small steps

For me personally, patience implies the willingness to take small steps to improve my life and the lives of those around me. Building a business, raising a family, and getting an education are made up of little things that add up over a long period of time. This same principle applies to recovering from the emotional wounds caused by unhealthy relationships. Shakespeare’s Othello explains it best: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”

6. Be consistent in taking the small steps

In working toward an ambitious goal, I find that I need to set aside non-negotiable time every day, even if it’s just a few minutes, to do something concrete. If I go more than a day or two without taking any steps toward realizing my goal, the future that I had envisioned grows dim and I begin to lose hope. This is one of the reasons why scriptural counsel often pairs patience with diligence.

7. Be a finisher

Because I’m naturally an impatient person, I tend to get discouraged and move on to something else when I don’t see results as quickly as I’d like. This brings up the importance of personal commitment. Devote yourself to worthy causes and see your projects through to the end. Knowing that you’re a finisher can help you stay the course.

8. Don’t try to control other people

Self-mastery is one of the cornerstones of a happy life. We need to control our emotions, our thoughts, and our actions. But one of the surest paths to unhappiness is trying to control other people. Persuade family members, friends, and strangers through your example. Then give the people you love room to change. Try to remain pleasant and never give up on them.

9. Remember how tough you are

Patience is more about toughness than weakness and passivity. When life gets overwhelming, remind yourself of the many challenges and difficulties you’ve overcome in the past. You’ll find hidden strength and happiness if you just keep moving forward.

10. Cultivate hope for a brighter future

Patience is much more than a willingness to endure suffering. It’s about believing in a brighter future that comes one small, imperfect step at a time.

Ambition and the Virtue that Cannot be Named

Aristotle

Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken another long break from most of my online distractions, including news articles and streaming movies. The timing has been particularly good, because I’m working toward an ambitious project deadline at work. Outside of work, I’ve spent more time than usual fixing sprinklers, cleaning the garage, and playing games with my family. With less anxiety and greater mental focus, my voluntary “fasting” from online entertainment has again been a very good thing.

One of the insights I’ve gained this time around is the importance of having some sort of passion or ambition to fill the void left by the things I’ve taken out of my life. A lack of ambition is often what leads to overindulgence in diversions in the first place. However, ambition can also get out of hand. An all-encompassing sort of ambition leads to neglecting personal health, family relationships, and other important aspects of our lives.

Once again, our discussion of character leads back to Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that we typically use the word “ambition” (philotimia, or the love of honor) to refer to someone who has excessive ambition. And we usually call someone “unambitious” if they suffer from a deficiency in their desire for honor or excellence.

Aristotle observes that unlike other virtues such as courage, wisdom, or self-mastery, the golden mean with respect to seeking honor does not have a name. But he insists that this virtue has to exist, since it’s possible to seek honor both too much and too little. The person who possesses the golden mean seeks honor in the right way, from the right source, and in the right amount.

From a religious perspective, we might view the “honors of men” as an unworthy pursuit, especially since they typically distract us from the love of God and the love of our fellow beings. To justify any competitive desire for excellence and honor, we could see it as a way to glorify God and inspire others. The 1924 Olympic gold medalist (and Christian missionary) Eric Liddell insisted: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

I personally haven’t figured this all out. I know that ambition can lead people to compromise their integrity and interfere with their devotion to God. But I also believe that a noble form of ambition is essential in fortifying good people against the allure of self-destructive behavior.

Self-Mastery Training

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has defined self-control as a “moral muscle” that can become fatigued through overexertion. Like any other muscle, our ability to exercise self-control has limits. For example, we can’t expect to put ourselves in compromising situations time after time without eventually giving in to temptation. And we need to give ourselves regular breaks from daily challenges and responsibilities — time to relax and recharge our willpower, as it were.

However, we can also engage in a regular exercise regimen to strengthen our moral muscle. I like to call such exercise “moderate asceticism.” We typically associate asceticism with the radical self-denial and otherworldly lifestyle of monks and hermits. But I believe moderate forms of asceticism should have an important place in each of our lives. These practices might not only be appropriate, but essential in cultivating true self-mastery.

It’s interesting that our English word “asceticism” is derived from the Greek word ἄσκησις (pronounced askesis), which originally meant training or exercise, specifically athletic training. If we bring both the ancient and modern meanings together, we might suggest that just as an athlete needs to train his or her mind and body to reach the highest level of competition, we all need to train our minds and bodies to acquire cardinal virtues such as practical wisdom and self-mastery. This is the kind of training that’s not just for addicts and others who need therapy. It’s for all of us who are committed to developing self-mastery a few small steps at a time.

Here are ten practical examples of moderate asceticism that I encourage you to try on a regular basis.

  1. Every month or so, consider fasting for 24 hours, skipping a couple of meals and spending time focusing on the needs of your soul more than the needs of your body. Donate the food or the money you would have spent on food to a local food bank for needy families.
  2. Wake up early in the morning every day for two weeks. Whether it’s 4, 5, or 6 am, wake up at the same time every morning, regardless of when you go to sleep. Spend some time meditating, reflecting on your life’s purpose, and planning for the day. If you’re a man or woman of religious faith, spend a few minutes each morning in earnest prayer.
  3. Strictly limit your technology and media consumption for an entire week. You might consider limiting your use of the Internet and email to your time at work. Use your time at home to engage in old-fashioned activities such as playing board games with the family, reading, and having face-to-face conversations.
  4. Lock up your credit cards for an entire month and limit purchases to your essential needs. At the end of the month, give all of your surplus budget away to charity.
  5. Take a cold shower every morning for a week.
  6. Regularly go through your closet and remove a few items of clothing that you haven’t worn in a long time. Give them away to a local thrift store. Keep doing this every few weeks until you begin to feel that your life has been simplified. Try the same exercise with other material possessions in your life.
  7. If you haven’t developed the habit of exercising regularly, set aside one week to begin such a habit. Choose a time to engage in vigorous exercise every day for that entire week.
  8. Devote an hour each day to learning a foreign language. Fill the entire hour with rigorous, focused study and practice.
  9. Cancel your leisure activities for two weekends in a row. Spend those weekends instead volunteering at a soup kitchen or other community service program.
  10. Commit yourself to a strict one-week diet, limiting your calories by one-third, eliminating sweets, and avoiding all fast food restaurants.

Any one of these practices will improve your moral conditioning and make you more capable of achieving excellence in the things that really matter in your life.

* For more insights on self-mastery and the other cardinal virtues, check out my book, The Character Cure: Four Cornerstone Virtues for a More Fulfilling Life.