Of course, you could be productive during that time by knocking out small, manageable tasks, but your waiting brain is like, "nope, let's wait for the big thing." So, you just think about all the things you have to do, without actually doing them. Why is it that we put ourselves through this productivity-squashing cognitive torture? And more importantly, how can we combat it?
A very annoying brain feature I have is what I call Waiting Mode. Like today, I have to leave for an MRI at 2:45. Unfortunately at 12:30 or so, my brain decided to activate Waiting Mode, which means that instead of getting anything done, I just have to sit here and wait.
— Cole (he/him) (@semispeaking) October 16, 2020
First, know that the brain doesn't love when things don't go according to plan. According to Jennifer Teplin, LCSW, we often have an 'ideal scenario' for getting a task done. When something interrupts that routine or expected schedule, we short circuit, in a sense. So, if you have an idea for your day is going to go, with, say, a meeting at 1 p.m. and then another at 3 p.m., unless you intentionally plan to finish something between those meetings, your brain may interpret any additional information as a curveball that poses to interrupt the laid-out schedule it's comfortable following.
In addition to being a function of comfort that allows us to stick to our regularly scheduled programming, waiting brain mode is a form of procrastination that can actually fuel productivity in some. That's because certain folks thrive off looming deadlines in order to finish things. According to therapist Rachel Holzberg, LMSW, "it's common for the brain to enter a state of panic in order to create a sense of urgency or motivation to complete tasks." That said, research suggests procrastinating rarely helps folks finish tasks as well as they could if they didn't procrastinate.
With this in mind, the element of time management is a crucial one for understanding and combatting waiting brain. According to therapist Emily Sterns, LMSW, overestimating how much time a task may take can preclude someone from choosing to work on it when they see a meeting looming on their calendar, especially if working on said task requires them to pivot and refocus. So, by understanding how long something will actually take, it may be possible to avoid both undue worry and procrastination and combat waiting brain from absorbing unnecessary minutes and hours of your day.
Want more specific tips for how to show your waiting brain who's boss? Check out expert advice below.
4 tips for how to combat waiting brain, if you need to get things done
1. Making a priorities to-do list
List your top priorities in terms of what must get done today. Then move to tasks you'd like to get done today, including items that should be completed by end of the week and potential issues that Future You (the person you'll be a week from now) might have to deal with.
"I find that if you set yourself up for a successful day by prioritizing and outlining, typically you will have a better outcome." —Jennifer Teplin, LCSW
"If you have this list ahead of your day, at the waiting brain onset, you can quickly reflect on it and hopefully pick one of your pressing tasks and push through a few of the 'would-be-nice' tasks for the day," Teplin says. "I find that if you set yourself up for a successful day by prioritizing and outlining, typically you will have a better outcome."
2. Reach out to your support systems
"When others hold us accountable, we're more likely to complete the task at hand, so don't hesitate to reach out to a friend who can provide you with a push that you may need," says Holzberg. "When others aren't available, use a reward system, like watching your favorite show, to keep you motivated to combat waiting brain."
3. Check in with yourself
If you're in the throes of waiting brain mode, it might actually help to call yourself out. Teplin encourages you to ask yourself what, exactly, you're waiting for. Find out the "why" behind your idle moments, because it actually might help you make moves. "When we call out what we're experiencing and dig a little deeper, we often find out that what felt like a boulder is really just a pebble," says Teplin.
4. Try time-blocking
For those who are overwhelmed by tasks both big and small, dividing your schedule with time-blocking can be a godsend. Instead of having a meeting at 3 p.m. and refusing to work until then, you now have a dedicated, on-your-calendar period between 1 p.m. and 2:30 when you get work done.
"One would do this by setting a weekly calendar with specific times for specific responsibilities," says Sterns. "Self accountability and time management is crucial for success in combating 'waiting mode.'"
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