Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

The Agony of Waiting

26 Nov 2012

Have you ever paused to think how much time we waste waiting every day? I did so today, and it had me petrified. For the last 24 hours, I decided to consciously audit how much time I was spending simply waiting and doing nothing. It turns out I was spending almost 1-2 hours a day just waiting for things to happen or for people to respond. If I were to spend this time more wisely by just sleeping in, I'd feel so much more fantastic every day.

Just think about it. If you live or work in a condo or other high-rise, you probably spend so much time every day just waiting for the elevator to show up. And even once you're in, you're just standing there, waiting for it to get to the floor you want. Elevators are such huge time sinks that it's often quicker to just take the stairs — both ways. Some premium condos allow you to reserve special elevators that go to certain floors for an extra fee.

This evening, I walked into Subway to grab a quick sandwich. Much to my dismay, I found myself waiting for 2 people in front of me to get their sandwiches made and complete their payment before I could even announce my order. Once I had the cheese laid, I had to wait for it to be toasted. Once I was ready to pay, I had to wait for VISA to process my transaction. It was ridiculous. Where's the iPhone app to order and pay before I even get there?

Earlier this morning, it was the same story at Tim Hortons. There wasn't a line-up this time. Even if there was, the self-service kiosk takes care of that problem which thankfully nobody wants to use. But it took what felt like forever before they could fully service my order of a simple bagel + coffee. 40 seconds to be precise. 40 seconds where I couldn't really do much but just stand there and look stupid. Again, where's the iPhone app to place my order on my way there?

Last night, I waited in line to buy a few transit tokens at the subway station on my way back home. After that, I not only waited for the subway to arrive at my station, but also had to wait for maybe 10 minutes before it left. And let's not forget the wait time to actually get to my destination.

Now don't get me wrong — these are just a few prominent examples. If you were to analyze every single action of yours, you'd see just how much more time we waste waiting for nothing. Time where you're just shut off doing absolutely nothing — either staring into the void or continuously polling for an event of your liking to occur. It's the functional equivalent of calling sleep(3) in your Unix program. You're just plain doing nothing except for holding up the rest of the world.

Let's compile a quick list of everyday agonies of waiting, shall we? Waiting for traffic lights to turn green even if you're a pedestrian, waiting for your food to microwave, waiting for your toaster to pop, waiting for your bus or subway to arrive, waiting for line-ups at the airport and at a gazillion other places, waiting for your Netflix and YouTube videos to pre-buffer and start, waiting for your Letterpress game on the iPhone to refresh its state when I'd much rather have it refresh itself in the background periodically, waiting for websites to load, waiting on DNS requests, SSL handshakes and SSH sessions that seem to take forever to complete, waiting for slow servers like those running Gmail and Gmaps to send you back their response, waiting for small files to finish transferring, waiting for animations on my Mac and iPhone to complete, waiting for apps to load, waiting for my computer to start up or reboot, waiting at the doctor's or dentist's office to be serviced even though I have an appointment, waiting for your turn to pee at the next-available urinal, waiting at the gate to board my flight, waiting in line to have my groceries paid for, waiting for cars to pass before I jaywalk, and on and on the list goes.


Maybe it's not a big deal for you to wait around like that. It hasn't become a horribly huge deal for me either. I just chalk it up as the cruft that is necessary to deal with in order to get through day-to-day life. And I'm cool with that. But let's not kid ourselves that we live in a fast-paced world.

The crux of the issue here is that the brain is idle during all this waiting. It's not always practical to do something productive during these short, but ultra-frequent bursts of waiting. The wait time is broken up into so many different times throughout the day. The most bothersome thing about waiting, say inside an elevator, is that it isn't sufficient time to come up with something interesting to think about. Furthermore, it's just not worth the context switch to jump in an jump out constantly. Context switches are expensive, and sometimes even counter-productive. Being absorbed on the other hand, has wins that you couldn't even begin to describe.

The only time you could be productive is perhaps during the subway ride to work and back. Maybe the ride is long enough for you and without line changes that you can do/read/think something interesting. But even if you get to sit during rush-hour commute, you can't really be absorbed into whatever you're doing due to the numerous distractions around you. You also have to constantly check if you've reached your station unless of course you're one of those lucky ones that get off at the last stop.


In the next 10 years, the engineers of our generation ought to design for speed and efficiency. We may like to kid ourselves that our society today is already hyper-optimized for speed, but I can guarantee you it almost certainly is not. Research and theory of automated subway technology for example is already at least a decade ahead of actual implementation in most major metropolises.

Computer scientists, in particular, are on top of their game. They are already in unanimous agreement that the web is too darn slow for 2012 standards. We're still using 1960's plumbing to power the internet. Thankfully, they want to do something about it. I don't find similar attitude as much I'd like to in other everyday fields such as transportation, retail, point-of-sale systems, or consumer electronics.

This post is a gentle but necessary reminder to you, my ardent readers, that life is just too easy to walk through without carefully scrutinizing the subtle optimizations one could make in the everyday design of society, civilization, and urban thoroughfare. Our generation can't afford to get complacent or smug with our lives, casually assuming that the policy makers and engineers of the last 20 years have already made the best decisions they possibly could for us. Armed with a touch of attentiveness, you'll regretfully discover that more often than not, they haven't.

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