Waiting Mode: Why you can't do anything before your appointment and what you can do about it

Feeling trapped by a combination of anxiety, executive dysfunction, and time agnosia before an appointment is frustratingly common. Here's some ways to escape waiting mode.

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May 12, 2021

Tiimo member

May 12, 2021
Maaya Hitomi
Maaya Hitomi is an ADHD Coach with a Master's in Psychology. They are the voice behind Structured Success @StructuredSucc

SUMMARY

  • Before an appointment our worries can leave us unable to do anything, leaving us stuck just waiting.
  • It’s like rumination, where our thoughts are constantly drawn back to the appointment. Executive dysfunction and a strained relationship with time only make it harder to use this time effectively.
  • Mind dumping our anxieties onto the page and mindfulness can help with the rumination.
  • Focusing on interesting, challenging, novel, or urgent tasks, even lower priority ones, can make doing something more likely.
  • Setting hard to ignore reminders and small, realistic goals for this time can make it less scary to start a task in the first place.

Something strange can happen in the hours leading up to an appointment or other commitment: We enter Waiting Mode. Once in waiting mode, we become unable to do anything else before the appointment. It doesn’t matter if we have important tasks that need to be done. It doesn’t matter if we have enough time to do them. It doesn’t matter if we want to do them. We just wait. We wait, consumed by a vague sense of anxiety around the upcoming appointment and, if you’re anything like me, feelings of guilt and shame for being stuck and not managing to use this time more effectively.

While waiting mode isn’t unique to neurodivergent folks, it is much more debilitating for people who already struggle with executive functioning. These folks, including those with ADHD, autism, PTSD, depression, and/or anxiety, find themselves in waiting mode more frequently and often fall into waiting mode longer before the appointment.

So, what is waiting mode and what are some strategies for getting out of it, you ask?

At its core, Waiting Mode is an attention regulation problem related to anxiety. In many ways, it resembles rumination — a thought pattern where our mind focuses on a distressing situation and continues to return to it even after being pulled away. No matter how hard we try, when we’re stuck in waiting mode, our mind keeps getting dragged back to the upcoming appointment, our anxieties around the appointment, and our plans to cope with them. This connection to rumination and anxiety offers us the first chance to get unstuck.

Strategy #1: Get the anxiety out with a mind dump

For ADHD and autistic folks in particular, anxiety is often a coping mechanism for our neurodivergent conditions, and this holds true for waiting mode as well. Whether it’s because we need to develop a social script for the upcoming appointment, or because we’re trying desperately to remember all the steps needed to prepare, getting it out of our head and onto paper will help. Don’t worry about organization or presentation; instead, capture every thought you can and organize them later to solve a specific problem, such as developing a script or drafting a packing list.

Strategy #2: Practice mindfulness to observe the thoughts and let them pass

While mind dumping is a particularly useful strategy for capturing and organizing the information bouncing around inside our head, it’s also a form of mindfulness. In general, mindfulness refers to a state of self-reflection that allows us to observe our thoughts without being consumed by them. Mindfulness is often associated with meditation, but can be a part of many different activities or strategies. Because mindfulness is all about observing our thoughts without getting attached, it is a solid strategy for coping with anxieties generally and waiting mode particularly.

However, there’s more going on in waiting mode than just rumination. It also serves as a barrier to beginning a task in the first place. In addition to the normal amount of energy it takes to start a task, having an appointment adds the need to plan an endpoint for that task. While this may seem like a small difference, it makes getting started even more energy intensive. Considering that executive dysfunction can make it much more difficult to muster up the energy to start tasks at the best of times, this additional barrier can really be the difference between getting started and remaining stuck. To overcome this, we have two options: 1) remove the barrier, or 2) add more energy. And since the appointment isn’t going anywhere:

Strategy #3: Do the thing that requires the least energy to start

While the specific task requiring the least energy will differ from person to person and situation to situation, the general rule is to look for tasks that are interesting, challenging, urgent, or novel. Tasks that involve any combination of these four elements are going to be easiest to start, but are often not the highest priority tasks on our to-do lists. That’s okay. After all, getting something accomplished during the time before an appointment is always better than just waiting.

If none of your tasks involve interest, challenge, urgency, or novelty, you may think that you're doomed to being stuck in waiting mode, but this isn’t necessarily true. Trying to complete ordinary tasks in a new way can build a sense of novelty or interest, while racing a timer or another person to complete a task can serve as a healthy sense of challenge or urgency.

The final element that makes waiting mode such a common experience for people with neurodivergent conditions is Time Agnosia. Time Agnosia refers to the way ADHD and autistic folks don’t have a naturally strong feeling for the passage of time. This weakened relationship with time can lead us to losing time, such as when we hyperfocus and hours pass as if they’re minutes, or to struggle with estimating how long tasks are going to take us. The anxiety of waiting mode, then, could be a coping mechanism attempting to prevent us from hyperfocusing and missing our appointment entirely or attempting to stop us from starting a task we won’t be able to finish in the time remaining.

I recently wrote an entire article on Time Agnosia with more in-depth focus on specific coping strategies, but the main strategy relating to waiting mode is:

Strategy #4: Outsource the task of remembering

If you’re constantly checking the clock to make sure that you didn’t blink and miss your appointment, it’s going to be hard to focus on anything else. Setting reminders can be helpful, but hyperfocus can plow its way through those as well if we’re not careful. In order to give these reminders the best chance of working, we need to make sure that they force themselves into our consciousness. This could mean setting multiple alarms so that you have multiple chances to disengage from the task at hand, using alarms that require an action to turn off (such as Alarmy), or outsourcing the reminder to someone with a better relationship with time (especially if they’re coming with us).

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Tiimo was designed to have notifications that alert you multiple times as you’re moving through your activity.

Ultimately, Waiting Mode is a complex combination of anxiety, executive dysfunction, and Time Agnosia. This complexity means that the best approach to getting unstuck requires a variety of coping strategies addressing different aspects of the experience. As discussed here, some helpful strategies for getting out of waiting mode include:

  1. Getting the anxiety out with a mind dump.
  2. Practicing mindfulness to observe the thoughts and let them pass. Mindful reflection can help to cope with the anxiety and help to prepare for the appointment ahead of time.
  3. Doing the thing that requires the least energy to start. Using the time before an appointment to focus on tasks that are easier to start, even if they’re lower priority, can reduce the harm of executive dysfunction and make this period of time more bearable.
  4. Outsourcing the task of remembering. Finally, accommodating our weakened relationship with time through the clever use of tools and social support can make starting a task in the first place a less risky endeavour.


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Since coping with waiting mode requires such a variety of strategies and each person is likely to approach it slightly differently, I’d love to learn more about the strategies that work best for you. Please get in touch via Twitter to tell me more about your strategies!

Maaya Hitomi is the ADHD Coach and Academic Strategist behind Structured Success, where they work with ADHD, autistic, and otherwise neurodivergent clients to develop strategies for better coping. They have their Master’s and undergraduate degrees in Psychology, and 4 years experience as an ADHD Coach. More importantly, they’re (probably) autistic, and definitely ADHD and dyslexic, and rely on their structures and strategies to support their own success. Connect with them & get in the conversation on waiting mode on Twitter!

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