How To Handle Your Brain Getting Stuck In 'Waiting Mode'

"Waiting mode" might sound like a smartphone setting or something your oven would do before you start cooking, but it can also describe the weird and kind of frustrating thing your brain does when waiting for a scheduled task. The term appears to have started in 2020 when X (formerly known as Twitter) user @semispeaking tweeted, "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." Over 235,000 people liked the tweet, ushering in a slew of "waiting mode" memes and TikTok clips.

"Waiting mode" is a colloquial term, not something your doctor would diagnose, but that doesn't make it any less real or relatable. "Waiting mode is relatively common," Mollie Spiesman, a therapist, told Bustle, adding that it's a nearly universal experience that can happen to anyone. You might switch into waiting mode before a critical doctor's appointment, a first date, or a big test. Or, in some cases, you might even notice yourself freezing up for hours before low-stakes activities, such as meeting up with a friend or running errands.

What causes waiting mode?

Though anyone can find themselves stuck in waiting mode before a scheduled task, some factors could make the phenomenon more likely. Firstly, waiting itself can trigger anxiety, according to PsychCentral, and as a result, you might not be at the top of your game while your clock ticks away. Part of this stress comes from not knowing how the scheduled event will go. "Evolutionarily, it makes sense that we feel anxiety in these scenarios," Dr. Michelle Davis, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety research and treatment, revealed to PsychCentral. "It was important for our ancestors to feel a sense of distress when faced with uncertainty about their next meal, or lack of control around safety from the elements." Even if you might not share the concerns your ancestors had, waiting can still be unsettling, especially if you already struggle with anxiety.

Another reason you might feel paralyzed: executive dysfunction. "Executive functioning refers to how we prioritize, plan, organize, and track our activities and responsibilities," therapist Sarah Shapiro told Bustle. "Someone who struggles with executive dysfunction may feel stuck when they attempt to prioritize their to-do list." According to the Cleveland Clinic, executive dysfunction may be related to neurodivergence, which might be why waiting mode is commonly associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Waiting mode vs. task paralysis

Waiting mode might sound like another problem that plagues people with ADHD (as well as some without the condition): task paralysis. However, they aren't the same thing. According to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, task paralysis occurs when you use procrastination to cope with fear or a lack of motivation. It often occurs when you have a mountain of things to do and a lack of bandwidth to get it all done. Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical assistant professor at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, explained to The New York Times that, during task paralysis, our bodies react to long to-do lists the way they would any other perceived threat. "With a big overwhelming task list, that threat could be the threat of failure, or it could be the threat of letting others down. It could be the threat of feeling stupid or incompetent because we don't know where to start or how to do things," she said.

Feeling overwhelmed and frozen in task paralysis looks similar to being in waiting mode, as they both involve some amount of procrastination and idleness. However, waiting mode specifically relates to an already scheduled task and the time leading up to it. Though the two responses might happen in tandem — like if you're drowning in assignments but end up doing nothing until your 6 p.m. work dinner — they describe two different issues and may require different strategies to overcome them.

Step 1: Determine if waiting mode is a help or a hindrance

You know the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it?" Well, the same idea applies to waiting mode. The phenomenon might seem counterproductive, but — good news — it can sometimes work to your advantage. For instance, if you have an event coming up that requires preparation and punctuality — say, an international flight or a job interview — it might be best not to burden yourself with too many other tasks in the meantime. Otherwise, you could get sidetracked and wind up late.

Waiting mode might also boost productivity for some people. Therapist Rachel Holzberg explained to Well+Good, "[I]t's common for the brain to enter a state of panic in order to create a sense of urgency or motivation to complete tasks." In other words, you might not be in the right state of mind while waiting to get started on another task. But once your scheduled activity is completed, you'll realize the deadline for the other task is approaching and feel compelled to get work done ASAP.

Of course, not everyone's brain works this way, which is why it's crucial to learn your own patterns and productivity habits. If you've realized from experience that waiting mode only spells trouble (in the form of late fees, delayed assignments, and neglected housework), move on to step two.

Step 2: Front-load your schedule

If getting trapped in waiting mode is a problem you know you deal with often, consider changing up your schedule. When possible, plan to get tasks and appointments done sooner in the day rather than later. That way, you have no choice but to get up and get things done, only leaving space open in your schedule after your meetings, doctor's appointments, and other must-dos have already been completed.

Unfortunately, this step may not apply if you aren't able to choose the time of the task or event. Still, you may be able to set some boundaries and ask for certain accommodations, even if someone else is dictating your schedule. One such scenario was featured in a viral TikTok clip by ADHD coach Ceri, where the content creator expressed her frustration with waiting mode triggered by vague appointment times. "Can we agree that it should be illegal to say, 'Someone's gonna come around your house any time after 8:00 a.m.?'" the TikToker quipped in the video. If you can relate, try asking for a specific meeting time or limit your availability (for instance, by letting the other person know you'll no longer wait around for them past noon).

Step 3: Stay on top of stress

You might feel stressed once you've snapped out of waiting mode and realized how much time you lost in your day. However, the stress often begins even earlier. In fact, therapist Amy Braun explained to Bustle that waiting mode is often caused by anxiety leading up to a big task. By slipping into waiting mode, you can feel a sense of control over what's to come. But even if pressing pause on everything feels comforting in the short term, it can fuel more stress and regret in the long term.

If you suspect stress and anxiety are behind your mental freeze-ups, consider interrupting waiting mode with a calming ritual or habit. Need inspo? Try box breathing, yoga, or journaling. Jenna Free, an ADHD therapist, also suggests challenging negative, shame-inducing thoughts you may have about yourself. In a clip on TikTok, Free says to acknowledge that you're susceptible to waiting-mode paralysis and remind yourself using your "conscious mind" that you're not defined by these tendencies. With some practice, you can remember that you're capable of overcoming waiting mode, regardless of your past actions and choices.

Step 4: Prepare, then let go

Since waiting mode can sometimes be the brain's way of trying to seek control, it may help to take practical steps to stay on top of upcoming tasks. Then, after sufficient preparation, let the rest go. Here's how it works: Let's say you have a doctor's appointment in the afternoon, and you're waiting at home until it's time to head out the door. Early in the day, gather your health insurance card, purse, and anything else you may need for your appointment. Follow your typical morning routine so you're ready far before your departure time. You can even set an alarm on your phone to remind you when to leave in case you struggle with time blindness. Then, knowing that you've done everything you can to prepare, give yourself permission to let any lingering worries go so you can move on to other tasks.

This step might help if your waiting mode is the result of perfectionism. As Dr. Sharon Saline, a clinical psychologist and ADHD expert, wrote in Psychology Today, procrastination is sometimes caused by the desire to do things perfectly. With waiting mode, you might assume that completing tasks now will jeopardize the bigger task you have scheduled later, especially if you have limited mental bandwidth. However, thoroughly preparing for the task in advance may eliminate potential mistakes and help you feel more confident leading up to the event. Then, you can spend your free time staying productive, not paralyzed by perfectionism.

Step 5: Make a list

You've relieved some stress and prepared for your day ahead. Now what? Give yourself some structure with a to-do list if you don't have one already. This will help turn your attention to your other priorities so you aren't preoccupied with your later arrangements. "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," Jennifer Teplin, psychotherapist and founder of Manhattan Wellness, shared with Well+Good. "I find that if you set yourself up for a successful day by prioritizing and outlining, typically you will have a better outcome."

If you tend to feel overwhelmed by to-do lists, try organizing yours by the estimated time each item requires, beginning with the quickest tasks. Then, knock out one five-minute-or-less item to give yourself some tailwind. If your list still puts you in a state of panic, you might need to break down each item into smaller, bite-sized chunks. As E.J. Masicampo, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, told CNN, "Something that's been sitting [on your to-do list] for too long is probably just stated in too big terms."

Step 6: Adjust your environment

If you plan to spend the time leading up to your 1:00 p.m. therapy call or 4:00 p.m. work meeting lounging around with your smartphone, it makes sense that you might slip into waiting mode, even if you intended to get things done. That's because your environment encourages leisure, not productivity. Changing up your space could make all the difference.

First, the obvious: Eliminate distractions, including any unnecessary devices. Set your phone to airplane mode or stash it in another room until you've tackled any must-do tasks. Additionally, clear away any clutter that might throw you off while you're trying to focus.

Then, swap your lounge chair or sofa with a desk near a window. "Studies have shown that views of greenery, even in your peripheral vision, can help you feel rested and rejuvenated, allowing you to focus for longer, so it's a good idea to position your desk with a view through a window," design expert Oliver Heath explained to House Beautiful. Another option: head to a coffee shop or co-working space. According to Medical News Today, working in the presence of other people, known as "body doubling," could improve focus, particularly for people with ADHD. Surrounding yourself with other busy bees might put an end to your brain's waiting mode — just don't forget to peel yourself away from the group in time for your appointment.

Step 7: Talk to a doctor or therapist

Waiting mode is more than just a catchy, memorable phrase. Mental paralysis leading up to an event can interfere with your daily life and ability to complete important tasks. And, because waiting mode is often associated with stress and anxiety, it can put a damper on your mood even after you're done waiting.

If your brain switches to waiting mode regularly, consider visiting your doctor or therapist for support. They may be able to diagnose and/or treat neurodivergent conditions, including ADHD. They may also offer help if you're experiencing ongoing anxiety that exacerbates your waiting brain, particularly if other coping strategies have proven ineffective. "When your world starts to become limited because of anxiety, that is a good signal that it's time to seek treatment," Dr. Monique Reynolds, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Behavioral Change, told Self. You don't have to live your life on standby, waiting for the next appointment or major event. A trusted professional can help you savor the moments that can often get lost when you're stuck in waiting mode.