Sick South Africans know the secret of success

'Pretty soon it's 9.40am and still you haven't been seen, but that's how we do things in Britain'
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The Independent Online

Some years ago I was sitting in a doctor's waiting-room in South Africa, thinking how odd it was that doctors actually have separate rooms called "waiting-rooms". We are so much in thrall to the medical profession even now that we fully submit to the expectation that we are going to have to wait without complaining in a room called a "waiting-room". Very few other businesses would be so high-handed. A hotel lobby is not called a "waiting-room". People in restaurants spend more time waiting than eating, but no reference is ever made to that fact.

Some years ago I was sitting in a doctor's waiting-room in South Africa, thinking how odd it was that doctors actually have separate rooms called "waiting-rooms". We are so much in thrall to the medical profession even now that we fully submit to the expectation that we are going to have to wait without complaining in a room called a "waiting-room". Very few other businesses would be so high-handed. A hotel lobby is not called a "waiting-room". People in restaurants spend more time waiting than eating, but no reference is ever made to that fact.

Admittedly, railway and bus stations do have areas labelled "waiting-room", but I think they are entitled to do that, because you often expect to wait for a train or a bus. The bus or train company is not apologising for making you wait; they are saying, on the contrary, "Look, you have arrived early for your train or bus, and we have given you somewhere nice to sit and wait - isn't that nice of us?" (Airports might well have continued that tradition, except that as they really do make people wait a lot, they do not draw attention to the fact by providing anything labelled "waiting-room". At the very most they call them "lounges" or "concourses". Never waiting-rooms...)

So there I was, sitting in this waiting-room in a doctor's surgery in South Africa, waiting to be treated for something that I cannot now recall, though it must have cleared up, as I am still alive. Sitting in a waiting-room in a foreign surgery is different from the same experience in Britain. In Britain you will have been given a specific time for an appointment - 9.10am, for instance. So you arrive at 9am and sit in the waiting-room, and pretty soon it's 9.40am and still you haven't been seen, but that's all right, because that's how we do things in Britain.

In South Africa they don't give you a time at all. To make up for that, they see you pretty soon. However, in the time you do spend waiting, you have enough leisure to let your eye wander round the room, and what I found was a list framed on the wall telling me how I should conduct the rest of my life.

You don't find that in a British surgery, where at the very most you will find a notice giving advice on how to give up smoking, or asking you to bring in your unwanted magazines.

Here in this South African surgery there was a notice which started something like this:

1. The rest of your life is all you have left.

2. So you had better get it in order now.

3. And the way to do that is to write down all your problems in a list, all the things you still have left unsorted and untackled.

4. You know what they are, don't you?

5. Yes, you do.

6. Then grade your tasks into order of difficulty, with the most unpleasant tasks at one end of the list, and the easiest and nicest at the other end.

7. Now do them all one by one, STARTING WITH THE ONES YOU MOST DREAD, and going on to the others once you have tackled the problems you have been shelving and postponing and sidelining for so long.

That notice could have been written for me. All my life I have been making lists of things to do, and all my life I have promoted the easiest things to the top of the list.

To be fair to myself, I have always done them. To be honest, though, I have rarely done the hard ones. Indeed, on some occasions in an effort to make the list look better, I have even written things down which I have already done and then crossed them off immediately. So this advice from the anonymous moralist on the South African wall struck deep at the heart of my ill-ordered life, and I resolved at that moment that things from now on would be very different.

And to show I meant business, I got out a bit of paper at that very moment and wrote on it:

"The Rest Of My Life.

1. Follow advice on wall of South African surgery..."

I still have that piece of paper, and I am still as fully determined to carry out my intention as ever I was.

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