How to Win the Waiting Game – Chasing Life

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Hey there, listeners. It’s summer travel season for so many of us, which probably means lots of waiting. It’s an unavoidable part of life and painful as it may be, there are ways to optimize that time so that it’s not only less excruciating, but maybe even fun. So I want to revisit one of my favorite episodes where you’re going to learn why we evolved to hate waiting. Plus, the so-called “King of Queues” at Disney’s Magic Kingdom shares how the theme park manages all of those infamously long lines. Now, I don’t want to keep you waiting any longer. Enjoy the episode.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


There’s a reason they call Disney World the most magical place on Earth. When you enter the park, there’s gleeful music in the air, ice cream bars shaped like Mickey Mouse, and your favorite characters come to life. But you also see, though, is lots and lots of people waiting, waiting in line. You can spend hours waiting for a ride that takes less than 10 minutes. So Disney’s goal to make even the waiting for your fun.

How do you make the wait as good or better as the experience. And if they never mention the line, we’ve done our job.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


That’s Dan Cockerell. He worked at Disney for 26 years. One of his major responsibilities was dealing with those lines. And, of course, impatient park guests. His team used a bunch of different imaginative techniques to pull this off.

Instead of having one giant room with a queue line, you break it down into smaller rooms. So there’s always a sense of anticipation. Is this next turn going to be the ride? Is it going to be another room? And so when you go on into the Peter Pan queue, you’re going through different rooms, maybe in Wendy’s room, and maybe you’re going to Neverland and then eventually you’re going to get on the ride.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


And get this. Disney even developed apps just for the lines.

So, for example, if you go to Space Mountain, if you have the app, load it up. It’s going to allow you to build a spaceship. And once your spaceship is built, you get to race it with other people in the queue line around you.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


And then there are the special playgrounds.

Now, the Dumbo attraction is one of the most popular attractions. And the Imagineering team, the operations team, came up with the concept and said, “Well, look, let’s make a queue line, but let’s make the queue line look like nothing it’s looked like before.” Instead of a queue line, it’s going to look like a circus tent and it’s going to look like a playground, and it’s going to have a seating area for the adults to be able to always see their kids. And the kids are going to be able to play and climb on the netting and do all the things they do in an air conditioned space. And the first time, one of the Imagineers heard a little kid say, “Hey, it’s time to go ride Dumbo.” And they said, “can we stay here five more minutes?” We knew we had a winner.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


But trying to magically erase wait times is a big operation. It’s all orchestrated from a master command center where a team of experts’ sole job is to monitor the lines for every attraction in the entire park.

As you walk in, there’s screens all over the walls, cameras of queue lines flowing. There are monitors with spreadsheets that are showing the performance of attractions that are color coded green, red, yellow and going down. And the people on computers with radios taking calls on their phones to update information along the way.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


So let’s say there’s a two hour wait for the Tower of Terror. Mickey and Minnie suddenly show up and are standing by to entertain and distract any guests who might be growing impatient. Or, let’s say, if a ride breaks down at 11 a.m., the command center will immediately alert all nearby restaurants to expect an early lunch crowd. That way, those food lines don’t also get backed up. The number one goal: to avoid impatience and frustration. So the guests not only enjoy their visit, but also want to come back. And you’ll never guess where these line gurus are working from.

You figure if you’re going to run a Magic Kingdom, it seems like the castle is a great place to have your headquarters.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


That’s right. This team operates from underneath Cinderella’s Castle, the most iconic building at Disney World. It’s a subterranean lair connected to a series of tunnels that run under the whole park. Now, I can tell you, I’ve been to Disney World a couple of times with my three girls, but I had no idea that any of this even existed. Which I guess is the point. We remember the rides and forget the time spent waiting to get on them.

And there’s an Albert Einstein quote I found. I thought that, you know, told us really well. You know, he said, “when you’re courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. And when you sit on a red hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.” So the idea is, how can I change your perception of wait time?

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Waiting is and always will be a part of our lives. So for today’s episode, we’re going to talk about the psychology of waiting. Why most of us find it so torturous. And how we can all get better at it, even when our lives are on the line. Life is short, so how do we optimize the time we spend waiting? And more importantly, how do we make sure it doesn’t have a negative impact on our physical and mental health? I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. And this is Chasing Life.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Even if you haven’t been to Disney World, you’ve definitely had to wait before and probably hated it. Well, most of us, at least.

The thing I waited months for was to come out of the closet. Took me 25 years of my (bleep) life.

I waited for a year to be contacted by somebody that I was in love with.

I had been waiting for long Covid to clear up. It’s been a little over a year and a half now, and I’m still waiting.

I love to wait. I love waiting in lines. I really don’t mind. I feel like most of my life is just, like running from one thing to the next. And it’s good to make time for yourself to just do nothing.

My husband, my three daughters and I, we applied for our immigration papers. We waited and waited and waited until after 18 years, we got it solved. But it became such a part of my life that once everything got resolved, I didn’t know what to do with my life without the wait.

There are waiting periods that are really pleasurable and those are the ones that tend to have only good possible outcomes at the end of them. So, you know, what will I get for my birthday? Will my child be a boy or a girl? How will that trip to Vegas go?

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


That’s Kate Sweeny. She’s a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, and an expert on waiting. But she doesn’t focus on exciting waits.

I study waiting periods, which tend to be really hard, where, you know, the end of the waiting period could really change your life in a potentially negative way.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


In fact, there’s a good reason why she studies the negative ones. Those are the kinds of waiting periods we need the most help trying to manage. They can be so stressful and they can have a real impact on our bodies and overall quality of life. But the question I really had is why is waiting such a challenge in the first place?

We think that really one of the things that makes waiting so hard is it combines two really unpleasant things: one is not knowing what’s coming, and that’s the uncertainty. And the other is not having a lot or any control over what is coming. And both of those are existentially difficult.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Since for kids, we always hear that, you know, patience is a virtue. Is patience a virtue? Is there a role for impatience?

That’s a really interesting question. You know, in one sense, patience is a virtue simply because people who care about virtue say it is. You know, it appears in a lot of ancient texts, including religious texts. I think that that’s, you know, in part tied to the fact that the more you can be patient, the better you probably feel, given that you can’t avoid uncertainty entirely in your life. And sometimes, you know, being a little bit impatient in the interest of, let’s say, social justice or, you know, getting something that we deserve or need, is probably a really good thing. And so I think, you know, both have their place, certainly.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Yeah. I mean, it is interesting that we we teach these things. Patience is a virtue. Good things come to those who wait, all of that. And yet, it depends, right, on what we’re talking about specifically here. We did this podcast all about trust. And it got me thinking just from an evolutionary standpoint, that that maybe there was a role for mistrust early in human evolution, like we had to be suspicious a little bit. You know, what about this this this concept of waiting from an evolutionary perspective.

Not knowing what’s coming and not being able to do anything about it isn’t great for survival. And so the thinking goes that we find waiting to be really challenging because kind of historically speaking, it was better to find that uncomfortable and find a way to resolve our uncertainty if we can. Or to find a way to get back in control of our fates. And to the extent that we’re unable to do either of those things, as is the case so often during waiting periods, you know, we’re kind of stuck in a very uncomfortable situation. The more you can reduce uncertainty and gain back control generally, the better we feel.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


And I guess what you’re waiting for, right? Right? That that makes a difference. I remember when my first daughter was born, when my wife was pregnant with her, I remember it was funny, we decided not to find out the gender. And I had this very funny conversation with my mom. Rebecca, my wife, she had the ultrasound and I called my mom afterwards. I was telling her about it and she says, “so a boy or girl?” And I said, “well, we we didn’t find out.” And we chose not to find out. And my mom’s like, “I don’t understand. What do you mean, you didn’t find out?” I said, “well, we could have found out, but we didn’t find out.” And she reminded me that back when I was born, they couldn’t have found out. The technology didn’t exist. It wasn’t good enough to say for sure, boy or girl. She said, “why wouldn’t you find out?” And I said, “we wanted to be surprised at the time of birth.” And she said, “well, why can’t you just be surprised now at the time of ultrasound?” And I just found it really interesting. And she wasn’t impatient about it, but she just didn’t see the value at all in waiting. Yeah. Is there a value in waiting, sometimes?

There can be. Again, it depends what you’re waiting for. So if you know, in the case of having a baby, all outcomes are, not all outcomes, but certainly in terms of the sex of the baby, all outcomes are equally good, then that, you know, if you if you can extend that pleasurable anticipation, you know, all the more benefit. You get that extra time, you know, waiting, eagerly awaiting, wondering, thinking, planning, you know, in advance. And then you get the fun surprise at the end, which might even be more exciting and surprising for all the time that you’ve been waiting. But, you know, again, if there’s some negative outcome, I think, thinking of pregnancy, for example, I know, you know, I don’t have children, but my friends who have gone through it, when they’re going through some kind of testing, for example, you know, with the fetus to see if everything’s okay. I don’t know a lot of people who find that waiting period to be particularly pleasurable. So it kind of depends on what what outcome you’re focusing on, I think.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


You mentioned, obviously, what you’re waiting for is ultimately probably the biggest factor. But are there people who are just better waiters than others?

There absolutely are people who wait better or at least more comfortably than others. Dispositional optimists, those who have that kind of cheerful disposition about their future definitely find waiting to be easier than those who are more pessimistic. There’s also, not exactly a trait, but a tendency that that’s called “intolerance of uncertainty.” It was identified in the context of anxiety disorders — it’s a hallmark of generalized anxiety disorder to be very intolerant of any kind of uncertainty. And, you know, no surprise that that is not a great tendency to bring into a stressful waiting period.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


The count down versus the count up. I went through seven years of surgical training, seven years. And I mean thinking, I guess, but at least I knew it was seven years. And unless I did something really terrible, I was going to, you know, graduate in seven years. Are count-downs better than count-ups?

They seem to be. So when we know that the end of a waiting period or the end of a period of uncertainty will come, and we know more or less when that will happen, there seems to be some comfort in that. It’s really just a layer of uncertainty resolved. I feel like one of the things that can make waiting really hard is not just not knowing when it will end, but maybe thinking it’s coming to an end and then having it extended further.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


But we can still get better at managing how we wait. I know I can. So after the break, we’re going to hear more from Professor Sweeny with some tips and strategies we can all use in our everyday lives to make waiting less painful. And we’re going to hear from someone about one of the scariest waits they ever faced — when the outcome was life or death.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Now back to Chasing Life. As a doctor, when I think about waiting, right away, I think about patients and how much time they spend waiting for care, whether they’re waiting to book an appointment, sitting in a doctor’s office or the emergency room, or if they’re expecting the results of a potentially life altering diagnosis. I think those are the hardest waits of all. You know, an answer is coming. You just don’t know when. Rebecca Seago-Coyle knows this firsthand.

When I was 34, I was doing a self-breast exam and I felt a lump. And I thought, well, I have my yearly exam coming up, so I’ll just wait. Went in and she goes, “I don’t feel anything. Women your age get lumps all the time. No big deal.” I was like, “okay, sure. I’ll believe that.”

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


But as time went by, Rebecca just felt like something wasn’t right.

The lump kept growing, and even my husband was like, “I can see it. Like, even if you’re just standing still, I can see the lump because I think you need to get it checked.” So I went to a different doctor and even she was like, “I don’t think this is cancer, but let’s just go through the motions like it was.”

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


As you can imagine, this worried Rebecca. She’d been expecting the doctor to say that it was nothing like the last time. And the worst part was she now had to wait several weeks to get any answers about what, if anything, was wrong. And even on the day of the appointment, there was more waiting involved.

There’s some suspicious areas that came up on the mammogram. So then they sent me to a biopsy and I had to have two different types of biopsies because they found different areas in the breast that were suspicious. And even just waiting in the waiting room for those two different appointments, they didn’t put the appointments back to back. It was very torturous, in my opinion. Then, you know, an hour and a half later, they brought me back for the second biopsy and it was just like exhausting. I kind of felt like I’d been beat up.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


After the biopsy, Rebecca went home and had to wait for the results, and that was all she could think about.

So I was anxious. My mind was wandering, and in my head I was going through different scenarios. It’s like, Well, what if they tell me this is cancer? What am I going to do? What if they tell me this isn’t cancer? What am I going to do? It’s like I was in limbo.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Her doctors said they would call her with the results by Friday. That felt like an eternity. But finally, the day came.

I went to work, like every other day. And I even had a client meeting, went to my client meeting. And I was, I realized I was constantly checking my phone. So at lunch time, I called the nurse and I said, “Hey, I just want to check in, see, see what the results are.” And she goes, “we’ll call you when we have them.” I said, “okay.” Hung up the phone, even went back to work, got on a conference call. And in the middle of that conference call, my phone rang and I just hit mute because I thought for sure they’re just going to say everything’s fine. You can go back to being a normal human being. So. And then she just said the results are positive and I thought “positive for what?” I said, “wait a second. Are you telling me I have cancer?” And she said, “yes.” And at that point, that’s when I stopped listening.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Even though the news wasn’t at all what she wanted, at least now she was able to make a plan and do something about it.

Being a project manager, once I did get that news and I actually got my final cancer team that was supporting me, I became the project manager for my cancer. Put it into Microsoft Project because that’s how I deal with things. I turn everything into a project.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Rebecca ended up having a double mastectomy, meaning they remove both of her breasts. Luckily, the operation went well and Rebecca recovered. She’s now been cancer free for more than ten years. Now, this experience overall taught her a lot about a lot of things in life, especially about waiting.

Sure, it was a blip in my life map, but my life lesson is I have to learn patience and I can’t control everything. So I need to look for the things that I can control and just breathe through the things that I can’t.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


I hope none of you ever has to go through what Rebecca did. I really, really hope that. But the reason we tell you Rebecca’s story is because it gets at a really surprising piece of Professor Kate Sweeney’s research. Remember her? Our waiting expert? Well, she found that sometimes waiting for bad news is worse than actually getting it.

When you get that bad news, even sometimes the worst kind of news, if nothing else, the worry and the uncertainty is over. And we see people become much less anxious even while they’re coping with a pretty bad outcome.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


I think that’s a really important point, Professor. I mean, I just, I just, so I hear that, just, and I think from a societal perspective, if your goal is to to be humane and reduce anxiety as much as possible for people, you know you’re going to have to give bad news. But it sounds like what you’re saying is if you’re going to, if you’re running a hospital or a large organization or something like that, a focus should be on cutting down on the waiting period. Obviously, you want to have better outcomes, no question. But if you can cut down on the waiting period, you could, sounds like, go a long way towards allaying a significant amount of the anxiety.

That’s absolutely right. And I’ve certainly thought a lot about that in health care. So both making waiting times shorter would be a huge benefit to patients. I think uncertainty in health care is kind of an under, under addressed form of suffering. There are actually quite a few studies, for example, with people who have breast cancer, who, they are interviewed at the end of their treatment, you know, they’ve gone through the whole, you know, nightmare that can be breast cancer. And yet when they’re asked what the hardest part of the whole experience was, many people will say it was it was the not knowing. It was the diagnostic process, the waiting for biopsy, biopsy results, which might seem crazy. I mean, how is that harder than finding out you have cancer, going through some kind of difficult treatment? But, you know, to some extent, waiting times are immovable. You know, if it takes a certain amount, amount of time to process the test result, you’re kind of stuck with that. But the other thing you can do, as an organization, is at least resolve the uncertainty about when the result will arrive. So rather than saying “whenever it’s an we’ll call you,” pick a day that you’re pretty sure it’s going to be in and make an appointment for that day, at least on the phone, so that people aren’t, you know, afraid that every time their phone rings, it’s the big news from their doctor. So I think that those are small changes that organizations can make to to make uncertainty a little bit less painful for for those who suffer from it.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


And all that uncertainty can take a real toll on your health. According to studies, those undergoing a very stressful waiting period reported having disrupted sleep, drinking more alcohol, eating worse, exercising less, which we all know can lead to more serious health problems down the road. That’s why I asked Professor Sweeny for her tips and how we can all get a little bit better at waiting.

So when I’ve asked people: “what do you do to make waiting easier?” The, by far, most common answer is, find some way to distract myself. And in fact, it was that very set of responses that set my lab on the course of studying flow, which I think of as kind of an exquisite distraction. It’s different for everyone, what gets you into a flow state, but something that kind of challenges you pushes you a bit, but not too far. Those tend to be the activities that work best. But you know, that could be baking gardening. For me, it’s data analysis that’s probably not a common one, but tends to be my best option, doing puzzles, you know, any number of things, can create that feeling of flow. And one of the great side effects of flow is that it makes time feel like it’s passing more quickly and it reduces our kind of ability to to think about anything else except what we’re doing. And so that can be, as you might imagine, really helpful when worry is is the enemy, when it’s keeping you up at night, when it’s keeping you from focusing on what you’re doing. If you can quiet that down, all the better.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


I’m glad to hear you say that. You know, I mean, it’s it’s interesting because I do just when it comes to games on the phone or solitaire or things like that, I’ve always had been of two minds on it. I do feel that is a waste of time. Right? What am I doing? I’m accomplishing nothing here. But it may have a role. Maybe it helps get me in that flow state. And maybe it helps alleviate some of the worry, you know, distracts me, whatever it may be. What do you do when it’s clearly a long period of time that you have to wait and it has kind of put your life on hold? There’s a lot that you can’t do. Any strategies or tips on how to best sort of handle that kind of waiting?

Yeah. So I tend to suggest essentially a sort of three step process in coping with with waiting periods and with worry, more generally. One, you know, kind of step one is make sure that there isn’t anything you kind of should be doing to, in the case of waiting for some kind of news, let’s say, to ensure a better outcome. So, you know, if you have, let’s say, a persistent worry about cancer, okay, well, don’t just wait around to get cancer. See if there’s things you could be doing with your lifestyle, for example, or with screening that might make it more likely that you’ll get a better outcome. Another possibility is to plan ahead so you can think about, okay, if you know, if that organ transplant does get scheduled and does come in, do I have everything in place to be able to be away, you know, at the hospital for a period of time? You know, what, do I know my health insurance? Do I know my options? So you can kind of think ahead, get your ducks in a row, essentially. And that’s not necessarily, you know, preventative, but at least it it feels like you’re getting a little control back when you do that kind of planning. And so that’s helpful. And it can also be helpful to think ahead to maybe the potential benefits of a bad outcome. So, you know, if you’re waiting to find out if you passed an exam, we find in our research that if you can think about, “well, okay, you know, obviously I want to pass, but if I fail, maybe some good will come of it,” that can be a very comforting thing to do and actually is helpful down the road if the bad outcome occurs.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Ironically, when Professor Sweeny and I spoke, I was actually 15 minutes late for the interview. So I got to say sorry again, Professor, for making you wait. Waiting is stressful. No two ways about it. But if we can apply some of these tips in our own lives, maybe the uncertainty won’t feel so bad. We’ll be back Tuesday. Thanks for listening.

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