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The “I can’t start any tasks because I have an appointment in 5 hours” problem

McKinley Valentine — 3 min read
frozen because i have a responsibility at any point in the future
Photo by Paxson Woelber / Unsplash

Not everyone has this problem, but plenty of people do: if I have basically anything scheduled in a day, my brain goes into “waiting mode”. Like, that appointment is the next thing on the list, can’t do things out of order, so can’t do anything else until the appointment.

As you can imagine, that is stupidly inefficient. For anyone else who suffers from Waiting Mode brain, here is the method that help me get at least SOMETHING done.

  1. Figure out when you’ll need to leave the house to make the appointment, and how long it will take you to get ready for it. Be very generous in your estimates. Set an alarm for “time to start getting ready” and a second alarm for “you have to leave in 5 minutes”. If it’s a Zoom appointment, I set the alarm 10 or 15 minutes early so I can transition into meeting-mode, get a glass of water, fix my hair etc.
  2. I actually do this maths when I make an appointment and put the details in my calendar. So it will be like “dentist’s appointment 2pm, leave house at 1pm to catch the 1:10 train”. So on the day, I don’t have to figure it out.
  3. What time is your “getting ready” alarm going to go off? The one with the generous buffer? Let’s say you have an appointment at 4pm, and it will take you 15 minutes to get there. But you’re going to double that estimate to be safe. So you’ve set 2 alarms: one at 3:25pm (“leave the house in 5 minutes”) and one at 2:25pm (“start getting ready”). It won’t really take an hour to get ready, but these are really generous margins because you have to be able to put total faith in them.
  4. Okay! So it’s 10am now, and you have to get ready to leave at 2:25pm. If you spent an hour working on a task, it would be 11am. So an hour is definitely safe. Just 100% definitely. So set a timer for 1 hour and work for that amount of time. Set an alarm for 11am so you don’t worry about losing track of time.
  5. Now, in my experience, I can actually get past the mental block and do some work, because I’ve put a tonne of buffers in and I’ve set up alarms and I trust that it’s not possible for me to somehow miss the appointment. At 11am after the first alarm goes off, I might decide it’s safe to work for another hour and set an alarm for noon.

The reason this works is that Waiting Mode Brain seems to be caused in part by anxiety. It’s worsened by ADHD because people with ADHD have no sense of time and get “hyperfocus” where they get caught up in something and stop perceiving their surroundings. The difference between ADHD and an anxiety disorder is that ADHD anxiety is typically rational and based on experience: we really have missed important appointments despite having 6 hours to prepare for them, because we got hyperfocused on something and lost track of time, etc.

(Fun fact, sometimes adult ADHD gets mistaken for OCD despite being almost the opposite condition neurologically, because in order to manage their life, ADHD adults often develop structures and organisational methods that they get really, really rigid and protective about. But it’s not irrational: they know that if they don’t follow the system, they will lose important documents, be late, let people down, and generally ruin their own lives).

So all the steps are about creating a structure you can trust with external reminders and plenty of buffers. Think about whatever your anxiety might need, and deal with that too (like maybe you have to get ready for the appointment and pack your bag for it when you first wake up and put everything you need by the door).

It’s not a foolproof method (I think there’s other processes involved, such as for me being kind of weird about having to do things out of order, and also bad at task-switching), but it helps a lot. If you have other tips for dealing with Waiting Mode Brain, whether you have ADHD or not, please share!

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #116 – subscribe to get the next issue in your inbox!

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