Nine Techniques for Developing Patience

patienceThe single greatest challenge I’ve faced since learning how to turn my financial life around is patience. I want to be debt free now. I don’t want to face the long journey from near-bankruptcy to financial independence. I practice frugality every day and I’m working hard to create more income, but the path from where I’m at to where I want to go is long. It takes patience, and patience is not a virtue that I was born with.

I know many people in this situation, to the point that I believe that a lack of patience is actually endemic in people under forty (or so). We are all out there fighting for at least the level of success our parents had and we want it now. We don’t want the “salad years” where we’re living in a tiny apartment, scraping by and saving for that house. We don’t want to pay our bills and just see a few dollars left in the account. We don’t want to go into work every day for several years and never get a raise, never get promoted, and never get close to our dreams. We don’t want to sit on an index fund for twenty years ekeing out 10% gains a year – we want to hit that home run.

In the end, though, all of these challenges become much easier once we learn a little patience. Patience is a learnable virtue – or, at least, one can learn techniques that make it possible for us to be more patient.
Over the last year, I’ve been working quite hard to develop my own patience. I have two young children who can sometimes use all of the patience in the world – it takes patience to respond calmly when my daughter spits out pureed vegetables for the tenth time or my son has a “terrible twos” temper tantrum. I’m working towards getting rid of a mountain of debts I’ve accumulated in my life. I’m trying to build a writing career without the “proper” background. I’m trying to build up a stable and solid investment portfolio. In a nutshell, I’ve got many avenues of my life that demand patience right now – and so there’s no better time to start.

Here are nine of the most useful techniques I’ve found for teaching myself patience. I use almost all of these on a regular basis to keep myself patiently on task, not jumping the gun, and not getting distracted at a moment’s notice. Try these – they may help you succeed with some big goals that seem almost impossible.

Figure out what your actual destination is.
Whenever you act with impatience, you’re wanting some sort of outcome that isn’t within easy reach. What is that outcome? Simply by taking the time to define where you want to go, you often get some serious clues as to why you’re constantly impatient.

When my son was young, I would go through periods where I was impatient with his crying. He’d get incredibly upset before bedtime, and I’d spend hours rocking with him, calming him, and bouncing him. There would be times during this when I would get incredibly impatient – I’d get so upset I’d have to put him down for a bit and step out of the room. But, when I realized that what I really wanted was for him to be happy (my happiness would follow), I realized my best course of action was to just be close to him and put my own feelings aside.

Another example: a person buys stock in Apple a couple of years ago because they believed the iPhone would be big. In 2006, Apple’s stock dipped quite a bit and the person started to get seriously impatient for the big rise. An impatient person would sell. A patient person would know the actual destination – the release of the iPhone and the resulting bump in Apple stock – and would just wait around for it (and score some serious profits).

Make a “Plan B,” too.
Sometimes, patience isn’t enough. Sometimes you do need to abandon your plans, but you need to understand when to abandon them. Making impulsive choices out of a lack of patience is often the result of not having considered a “plan B” and when you should switch to that second plan.

For example, if my son is being obnoxious, I might talk to him about it, but that doesn’t always work – he is a two year old, after all, testing his limits. I might want to react to his first bad choice by punishing him, but that really wouldn’t work without letting him know clearly what the problem is. So, I choose to talk to him about what he did wrong and then have a “plan B” – a trip to his “time out chair” if he does it again.

Similarly, with the Apple stock mentioned above, you can help to control your impatience by defining a very clear set of circumstances where you would abandon the stock. That way, you just simply wait for either the destination or for the situation where you would abandon it. You wouldn’t even need to follow it that closely, taking the edge off of your impatience.

Take the other side’s perspective.
This is a great technique for gaining patience with others. Whenever you feel your blood rising, take a moment to look at the situation from the other person’s perspective. Why are they behaving this way? Would you blowing your top or acting rashly cause them to change their behavior? Just a few seconds of reflection on this is usually enough to calm down.

I really like to use this in traffic when I see someone driving slowly. I might initially get frustrated, but then I’ll glance over at the car and see a little old lady behind the wheel, and I imagine my grandmother driving. Her primary concern is to make it to her destination safely – time’s not very important to her. And then I smile and I don’t feel as impatient with that driver.

What about a situation where a friend of yours asks you for a loan – again? You might just flare with impatience here, but look at it from their eyes. They haven’t yet figured out how to manage their money or their life and thus they’re asking for help in the only way they know how. You don’t have to give them the loan (in fact, you shouldn’t), but you might at least gain some patience with them.

Break down big goals into tiny ones.
Right now, I’m working on the big goal of freedom from debt. I have a mountain of over $200,000 in debt to get through and there are times where I look at all that debt, shake my head, and wonder how I’ll ever get through it. I get tempted to just say “forget it,” bust out the plastic, and buy some new toys.

I keep on task by breaking it down into microgoals. Each month, for example, I plan on paying off a certain percentage of the debt. 0.5% of that debt would be about $1,030, something I can accomplish with effort, so each month I elect to reduce that total debt by 0.5%. This makes this giant goal very immediate – my little moves each and every day, like not stopping at a coffee shop, add up to reaching the small goal for the month. Continually reaching that monthly goal means I’m continually making progress towards that giant goal, and I can see, bit by bit, that I am getting there.

I used this technique well with building The Simple Dollar. I had some big dreams in mind when I started – dreams of a million page views a month. I got there not because of that lofty goal – one that would have left me losing patience and perhaps giving up – but because I broke it down into tiny steps. I set a goal of a 15% increase in page views each week over the previous one, on average. Week after week, I kept doing it, watching my page views go from a handful to a basket full to a bushel to the current levels I now enjoy. I no longer use that as my microgoal for The Simple Dollar, but I still use similar things to keep the momentum going.

Wait. Just a little.
This is a brilliant technique to use no matter what obstacles you’re facing. I’ve even identified this technique in the past, discussing the ten second rule and its many applications. In a nutshell, whenever you’re running out of patience or temptation is about to claim you, stop for ten seconds and think about the choice you’re about to make. Is it the right one? It’s often enough to get you back on track.

Let’s say I’m at the bookstore and I have a new bestseller in my hand. I already have several books at home to read from PaperBackSwap and I can easily get on the waiting list for it at the library, but I still want it, so I head for the checkout. If I just stop for ten seconds and think about it, I’ll probably make the right choice and put it back on the shelf.

This technique works in all aspects of life – signing up for extra options with your cell phone, buying into a hyped mutual fund, signing up for a credit card, and so on. Don’t be impatient and just run in headfirst without thinking – take ten seconds and give such decisions some reflection.

Recognize that there are some things that you simply can’t control.
Life deals us unexpected things all the time. Someone passes away unexpectedly. Someone rear ends us on the way home from work. Someone’s late for an appointment. Someone’s computer breaks down. Someone’s sick. These things can’t be controlled, and blowing up due to impatience as a result of these things doesn’t help anyone.

Just yesterday, my son had to use the bathroom just before we were about to leave to go grocery shopping. Since he’s in the middle of potty training, it meant we wouldn’t get on the road for another twenty minutes or so. I was already running later than I wanted to and I started to get frustrated, but when I realized that I couldn’t control the fact that my child needed to use the restroom, I just kind of smiled and helped him get his shoes off.

Similarly, you can own a stock when something unexpected happens. Let’s say, again, that you’re an Apple stock owner. What would happen if a meteor fell out of the sky and felled Steve Jobs? Apple’s stock would go down quite a bit in response – and there’s nothing that you could do about it. Remember, if you can’t control it, there’s no use getting mad or impatient about the results.

Think about the things that make you react on impulse.
In all of our lives, there are things that we do impulsively. I impulsively get very frustrated with myself if I get into a writing drought and can’t come up with the words to express what I want to say. I also often act impulsively when I get hungry – sometimes I don’t make the good choices I might make if I thought about it a little.

I used to eat impulsively very regularly and it caused my weight to balloon. It took a while to realize that I acted in a very impatient fashion when I was hungry, and when I finally realized it, I spent some time seriously thinking about it. Why did I just seek the fastest thing to eat? I thought about the many reasons that was bad for my health and not necessarily good for my taste buds, either. After plenty of reflection, I began to look at my hunger choices in a different light – and I started dropping pounds.

A similar phenomenon happened with investments. When I first dipped my toes into buying stocks, I was very impulsive. I would switch things around over and over again, trying different configurations, particularly if I didn’t immediately see results. It took some time for me to realize that you don’t invest in stocks for the immediate return unless you’re a day trader or a hedge fund manager. I thought about it, did some reading and research, and thought about it some more – and eventually I came to realize that just sitting on a well-planned investment works much better.

Recognize when you do act on impulse.
Quite often, I didn’t even realize I was acting on impulse until later, and I’d beat myself up over it. I’d change my investments, watch my old choices go up in value, and get very frustrated with myself. I’d get hungry, eat some fast food, then feel guilty later. What I didn’t realize is that the moment when you recognize an impulsive choice is the best time to reflect on it, not to beat yourself up over it.

Forget the results, enjoy the process.
For me personally, this is the most important technique of all for learning patience. For almost everything, the journey to get there is most of the fun, and it’s something I didn’t understand until the last couple of years.

Take frugality, for example. I used to be very impatient and I would throw money around to solve problems. When I started trying frugal living, I would often get annoyed if I found myself investing time in things. My epiphany came one day when I was making my own laundry detergent – I started off just looking for a way to save money, but I found out I was enjoying the process. Now, I quite enjoy thinking about frugal ways to live, from preparing my own meals to doing preventative maintenance around the house with my son tagging along. The process itself can be a lot of fun, and that just makes the eventual outcome more sweet.

Becoming a parent was perhaps the best teacher of all. I might get impatient with my son goofing around during potty training or my daughter crying beyond consolation, but it turns out that these moments are among the best times to really bond with my children. Now, I don’t mind sitting in the bathroom with my son talking about how big boys use the bathroom, or bouncing with my daughter and holding her close as she cries. These are the moments that make for a great relationship.

All you need is just a little patience.