Just a Little Patience: 14 Ways to Develop Restraint

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about nine techniques I was using to teach myself patience, because patience was (and still is) one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced on the road to financial independence.

The techniques that worked for me boiled down to three things.

First, try to see situations in your life from different perspectives. Step back and evaluate things from the perspective of your future self a year from now or five years from now or 20 years from now. Step back and evaluate things from the perspective of your children, from the perspective of your spouse, from the perspective of your friends.

Second, make big goals, then break them down into tiny day-sized pieces. What can you do today to achieve this goal? This puts the emphasis on things like frugality and automation and shopping around in terms of personal finance planning, which are the more successful strategies I’ve found.

Third, put the focus on enjoying the ride rather than pining for the destination. Rather than looking for the things that are missing in your day, look for the abundance of things that are there. Don’t get fixated on the three things you choose to do without when your life is loaded with infinite avenues of entertainment and fulfillment.

Those things are great principles to live by, but they don’t always feel applicable to the struggles of day-to-day living. How do you take those overall principles of patient living and really ingrain them into ordinary daily life, especially when that life is often incredibly busy and full of distractions?

Here’s a practical checklist of things you can do regularly – daily or less frequently, depending on your needs – to develop smart patience in your life.

Think about your goals and initiatives for today when you first wake up.

The first thing I do each and every day when I wake up – literally as I’m rising out of bed, using the restroom, and getting a glass of water – is to think about what I’m going to do that day. What habits am I working to improve? What tasks do I need to get done? How am I going to go to bed tonight with my life just a tick better than it was when I woke up?

For me, this usually takes the form of a to-do list, one that I keep on my phone. As I’m standing there drinking a glass of water, I’ll look at my list on my phone. It lists the things I want to keep in mind that day – habits I’m working on to improve myself and today’s key tasks. The number of things usually numbers between 10 and 15.

The habits I’m working on are ones that recur each day. I leave them on my to-do list all day long so that I see them throughout the day and check them off at night. The tasks get checked off as I do them.

How does this build patience? The thing to remember is that I’m not really looking for results when it comes to most of the things on my to-do list. Those habit reminders are not about results. They’re simply reminders of things I need to do today in order to keep bobbing in the right direction in life. Patience really builds when I combine this strategy with other ones on this list.

Review your day during downtime.

Whenever I have a few minutes of downtime, like when I’m driving my kids to soccer practice or waiting on the dentist, I use that time to reflect on my day so far and what’s still to come. Often, I’ll grab my phone and review that to-do list again – the one mentioned above, with all of my ongoing habits I’m trying to build on it.

Again, this just keeps me mindful of what my goals and initiatives are for today, keeping them fresh in my mind so that I don’t walk away from them because I’m not seeing results right now.

At least once a day, I take a longer block of time and actually write in a journal. I usually take one element of my life – usually something that’s bothering me or a mistake I’ve recently made – and expand on it a little, trying to dig into the core of what’s bothering me and see if there’s an applicable solution.

The advantage here is that I address little bumps in the road quickly before they develop into big problems. Impatience is often the result of processes that aren’t going as smoothly as we hoped, so by simply dealing with the little problems right away by thinking through them and coming up with good solutions, you prevent them from developing into big problems that can really freeze up the gears of progress and allow impatience to destroy what you’ve been working for.

Intentionally do things with minimal distraction.

A big part of patience is enjoying the ride rather than focusing on the destination, and one way of doing that is to simply focus on the moment. Focus on what you’re doing right now. Focus enables you to fall into a state of flow, where time passes without you even noticing it because you’re so engaged and productive. Focus also enables you to notice lots of little nuances and pleasures that a distracted mind misses, like the feel of warmth on your skin or the nuance of what a friend is trying to tell you.

The most effective method of doing this is to simply turn off your cell phone for a while. When you’re doing something that requires focus or which really rewards having your full mind at attention, just turn your phone completely off for an hour or so. Yeah, you might miss a social media update. So what? You might miss a text from someone. So? You can get back to them later. You can check social media later.

Turn off your phone when you’re settling in to work on a project. Turn off your phone when you’re about to do something fun. Turn off your phone when you’re spending time with people you love or care about. Let your focus be on the thing you’re actually doing and the people you’re actually with. Don’t let your cell phone be a crutch for your social or intellectual impatience.

Take on ‘micro-challenges.’

One technique I’ve found that really helps with building some extra life into long-term life changes that require patience is to have “micro-challenges” on many days, where I challenge myself, just for today (or maybe for just a few days), to do something extra challenging to push myself toward a new habit or toward a long-term goal.

For example, you might simply commit to spending no money at all for an entire weekend, making do with the things you already have on hand and on activities that are free. If you’re trying to lose weight, perhaps you experiment with intermittent fasting, where two or three days a week you simply choose to eat one meal later in the day rather than three meals.

These things are mostly meant to add a new angle or some “spice” to a larger goal that requires patience and give you a fresh angle on the strategies and techniques you’re using to move toward that big goal. It’s simply a way to keep a big goal from becoming completely routine, which means that it’s easy to get frustrated with it and give up. If you keep playing around with the tactics, it’s much harder to lose patience with it.

Ask three questions before making a statement.

This is an extremely simple strategy that I learned from a mentor that accomplishes a number of things at once. First, it improves your conversation skills by giving you a nice guideline to work from. Second, it requires you to be paying attention to what the other person is saying in a conversation rather than focusing on what you’re going to say next and giving you a bit of time through questioning to refine your thought. Third, it draws the other person into expressing their thoughts and ideas, making them feel important. Perhaps best of all, it teaches patience, by making you wait before you say something.

I’ve started consciously trying to use this strategy in conversations, not only to make my conversations better and improve relationships with people, but also to subtly teach myself a bit of patience in the moment. I don’t have to immediately jump in with my thoughts, no matter how important I think they might be. I don’t have to focus on me, me, me all the time. I can wait. I can listen. I can learn.

It’s so subtle and simple, yet it really does have an impact. I can feel my desire to jump into conversation streams lessening. I find myself being more interested in unpacking what the other person is trying to say and learning something from that. I find that when I do say things after doing this, the things I say are more composed and, dare I say, wiser and more considerate. It’s like a microcosm of the practice and benefits of patience.

Postpone impulsive splurges.

Sometimes, we just get hit over the head with some sort of impulsive desire to buy something. Maybe we see a book in a bookstore or an article of clothing that just looks so cute. Perhaps you want to buy a new item for the kitchen or maybe you want to upgrade your cell phone. The impulse strikes you and it’s pulling hard.

Here’s the reality, though. You don’t need that item. The want is strong, but it’s not a need. Thus, there’s nothing truly urgent about it. There’s no reason you can’t wait for a little while.

My strategy is to simply wait 30 days before buying anything that’s not strictly a need. Rather than buying something, I write it down somewhere. Usually, it goes on my Amazon wish list; sometimes, it’ll go into a note somewhere.

Not only does this force me to be patient, it pushes me to draw on that patience in the moment. It also saves me a lot of money, because I often find that if I wait for 30 days on that purchase, I no longer really want that item after those thirty days. You’ll find that once that happens a few times, you begin to really doubt how true those strong spending impulses really are.

I do keep a small amount of money around for impulsive experiences, like going out with friends. You can’t predict when a friend might want to stop for ice cream or go out to a movie or something like that. That money can be spent however I want, so I can still be spontaneous. I just use this rule when I’m dealing with purchases or unnecessary solo experiences.

Plan ahead for big indulgences and enjoy the anticipation.

If you do decide to spend money on an item or an activity that you want for personal enjoyment, don’t do it right away. Instead, plan for that indulgence down the road. Plan a vacation in advance. Plan a big purchase in advance.

Doing this achieves a bunch of things at once. Obviously, it teaches you patience, but the rewards keep going. If you’re patient with a purchase, you’re going to have a lot of time to shop around and get more value for your dollar, which means you’re going to end up spending less on this thing.

Even better, if you’re patient with a purchase, you’re also going to be able to really enjoy every drop of anticipation. Rather than just splurging and getting the joy immediately, you get the fun of thinking about something that’s coming up in your life. You effectively wind up extracting a lot more joy and pleasure from that purchase.

I’d far rather plan on going out with a friend on Friday than going out today. Why? I can think about that event for a few days and look forward to it. If I go out right now, I deny myself the joy of anticipation.

Chart your progress over time.

One of the best things you can do when you’re working on a big goal is to look for some sort of number through which you can judge your progress. For example, if you’re working toward a financial goal, you can focus on your net worth or the total of your debt. If you’re working on a fitness goal, track your reps or your speed or your max weight or your step count. If you’re working on a weight loss goal, track your calories or your weight.

The purpose of this is to keep track of the fact that you’re making progress, even if it’s not as immediate or as intense as you expected it to be. Each time you write down a number, you can look back at the last few numbers you’ve jotted down and see that you are, in fact, making progress. Your net worth really is going up. Your weight really is going down.

I find that actually making a graph of those numbers that creates a visual line of your progress is really helpful. Seeing my progress heading in the right direction always makes me feel good, and a graph is very visual in that regard.

Focus on how far you’ve come, not on how far you have to go.

When you’re trying to be patient with progress towards a big goal, it’s often intimidating and overwhelming to look at the tremendous distance you have to cover. If you started at $0 and your net worth goal is $1 million, building to $10,000 net worth is a great accomplishment, but if you’re staring at the $990,000 yet to go, it seems overwhelming.

Don’t look at how far you have to go. Focus instead on that $0 to $10,000 jump, which is pretty awesome. You’ve come far and you deserve to be proud of it!

From this perspective, when you look forward, look instead at matching your progress of the last month or the last quarter rather than focusing on a huge target. You moved your net worth up $10,000 in the last six months – can you beat it over the next six? I’m actually pretty sure you can do it if you keep up with your tactics.

Look at how your life was five years ago or 10 years ago.

Again, if you’re waiting impatiently on a big goal in life, rather than staring at that goal and obsessing, step back and look at your life now compared to the disaster that it was before you started on this goal.

If your goal is financial, you’re likely in way better financial shape than you were then. If your goal is health-oriented, your health is likely better. Whatever your big goal is centered around, it’s likely that you’re far better off now with regards to that goal than you were when you started. Look at how much better that aspect of your life is!

When I look back to where I was ten years ago financially, I almost weep with joy. I used to have a career that involved a lot of travel and a lot of office work time; I now have a career flexible enough that I can spend a ton of time with my kids. I used to be loaded down with mountains of debt; I’m now debt free. I used to have a negative net worth; now it’s quite positive. My life is far better today.

Take on a few long-term commitments.

Take on commitments? Yep. Few things will teach you patience quite like taking on responsibility for a long-term project in the community that needs a guiding hand.

You will constantly be faced with delays from unexpected sources. You will constantly feel like you’re taking one step forward followed by one step back. You will often feel frustrated and have this sense that nothing is happening.

Eventually, though, you’ll begin to make peace with it. You’ll begin to see that Rome wasn’t built in a day. You’ll start to realize that cool-minded patience almost always results in better decisions and steadier progress toward the result.

When you see that at work, you’ll start to practice patience in other aspects of your life as well.

There’s nothing quite like a slow-moving project that you can’t just push forward out of raw force to teach you patience.

Review how you can make the most out of those things you’re responsible for.

Another aspect of being patient is that you often have plenty of time to really maximize your approach to whatever it is you’re working for. If you’re working toward a big weight loss goal, for example, focus on finding new strategies for causing your weight to drop. If you’re working toward financial independence, focus on finding new strategies for spending less or for investing more effectively. If you’re on a long journey toward completing a work project, look for ways to improve the project without a bunch of additional time or resources.

In other words, you don’t have to just sit still when you’re being patient. You can constantly evaluate the problem before you and figure out intelligent courses of action to take in order to improve your rate of progress or to improve the quality of the outcome.

I find that having a mix of strong curiosity and a natural restlessness, two things I possess, makes this strategy really effective. I’m drawn toward looking for ways to improve my situation and my progress toward my goals, even if the methods are like a drop in the bucket. Every drop matters, and I feel good when I figure out something new, even if it’s tiny.

Pause before you take action and ask yourself if this really makes sense.

Many of our biggest mistakes in life come from a simple lack of patience. We didn’t wait around to find out more information; instead, we jumped in head first out of pure impatience and got ourselves in trouble. We speak out about a situation before finding out all of the information. We jump into a course of action before we understand all of the drawbacks. Often, we dive into things just because they look promising at first glance.

Whenever you find yourself quickly making a decision, or you’re about to speak out against or on behalf of something you just learned about, stop. Ask yourself if you’ve really got all of the information you need to make a sensible decision. Do a little bit of homework and look at a few different perspectives on the issue.

I’m not always good at this in the moment, so I try to reflect on those moments later on – as I note above, I spend downtime reflecting on my day and the day to come. I’ve found that, over time, being patient with my words and my actions comes easier and easier. I’ve also found that having more patience with those things is almost always a benefit to my life and my relationships.

Remind yourself that mild discomfort is tolerable and doesn’t have to be immediately fixed.

One of the surest routes to impatient action is a sense of mild discomfort in modern life. We are surrounded by so many tools for fixing mild discomfort – endless sources of entertainment, online shopping at the click of a button, the ability to call almost anyone from anywhere at any time, endless diagnoses and “medical advice” about any physical discomfort, and so on. Because of those convenient “solutions,” it’s often easy to just grab at them and make the mild discomfort go away.

The problem is that we pay dearly for living a life without any sort of mild discomfort, a life with every want attended to. We lose patience. We lose money. We lose the ability to handle lots of ordinary situations.

The reality is that wanting something and not having an immediate fix isn’t a bad thing. It might be mildly discomforting to not have the thing you want right now, but is it really that big of a deal? Usually, it doesn’t matter – that mild discomfort will vanish on its own quickly, anyway. Alleviating it directly just costs us money and drains us of our patience and our tolerance.

If something strikes you as being mildly uncomfortable, don’t treat it like a nail and hit it with the “comfort” hammer. Instead, move on with life. You might just find that the problem goes away on its own, and when you’re used to that, a lot of problems seemingly go away on their own.

At the end of the day, patience is a skill that can be cultivated over time with lots of little practices in your life, just like any other skill. Use some of these practices to cultivate your patience and you’ll find it to be a valuable tool you can rely on throughout your financial journey – and every other long journey in your life.

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Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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