Waiting Brain is the concept that your brain enters a kind of standby mode where you are very unproductive in the lead up to big events or important tasks.
As an example, let’s say you finish a meeting half an hour early and have another one coming up. You have thirty minutes back that you weren’t expecting, but rather than complete a few easy tasks, your brain says ‘well there’s no point starting anything new because I’ll have to stop in 15 minutes’ so you do nothing.
Or, you’ve got something big happening, whether it’s a doctor’s appointment or a big sales pitch at two o’clock in the afternoon and by mid-morning the thought of it has consumed your day and you can’t concentrate on anything else. The fact is in either scenario, you could still be productive, but rather than achieve anything you let ideas ruminate without actually doing anything about them.
It was interesting to discuss with Alan Clark , why we allow ourselves to get into this productivity-squashing cognitive funk, and importantly, how can we combat it?
An obvious solution would be to talk about productivity and time management and how better we could fill those empty minutes, or plan better to avoid big gaps leading up to events. As an example, in a typical day, I can have nine or ten Zoom meetings back to back. Usually, because everyone is prompt and on point, they finish five or ten minutes early. This means I often get an hour back in my day. In that time I tend to do a number of small, two-minute jobs that don’t require me to switch my brain on, or I do my bookkeeping because a) it’s my comfort zone, but b) it’s something that I can pick up and put down and it doesn’t cause me any stress or bother.
In my mind every time I use one of those five or ten minute blocks to do something that I would otherwise be doing at the end of the day, that’s feels like a win.
But another school of thought we explored on the Mind Your Business Podcast is do we necessarily want to fill this time, or can we be smarter about how we approach these gaps and perhaps use them to create a break and maybe reduce a feeling of overwhelm? If we took these opportunities to step back, make a clearing in our schedule then rather than seeing it as losing 20 minutes, we might instead see the gaps as a chance to just stop and think and use the space to replenish your resilience and create insights that you can use to improve your service.
Prior to lockdown, my gaps between meetings would be spent either walking or driving to the next meeting. My default, at least in the car, would be to call a client, so I didn’t really experience the procrastination of Waiting Brain. Now I rarely leave the office – or house- and my day is Zoomed out, it’s more apparent so I think there is definitely a link to movement, which causes energy and engages our brain and prevents it getting into ‘waiting’ mode.
The second way Waiting Brain manifests itself then, is when you have a big event; a meeting, an appointment, a pitch and while you aren’t on standby mode from nine o’clock in the morning, it’s in the back of your mind throughout the whole day. And then by the time you get to an hour, or two hours out, it’s become such a momentous thing that your brain enters waiting mode and it’s game over until the thing is done.
There are two ways I deal with this. The first is that I try and break my day down so that if I can achieve three identifiable things in it, I am winning. I work around the important event by making sure that my three wins are small enough to be achieved around whatever or whenever that is. I confront whatever it is and change my working habits to maintain my productivity.
The other thing I try to do is to book those sorts of things in as early in the day as possible. I eat my frog for breakfast so I am not stressed about it all day, I get it done and then I can be productive afterwards.
The third approach is self-confidence; nothing is ever as bad as your mind lets you think it will be and if you have already spent time making your business and your approach as good as it can be then you are going to be able to deal with whatever situation you find yourself in and can have absolute confidence that you are prepped in advance and that your product or service is good enough.
Whether you use the time to plan, complete small jobs or take the time to step back and breathe, the key is to have a system that works for you.
The opposite of waiting brain is another procrastination zone created by putting things off until the last minute. I’ll use the example of my school days and homework set during the summer holiday. I was given five bits of homework, I had the whole summer to do them and yet I ended up doing them the last weekend before I went back to school. I am sure I am not alone in this approach.
Interestingly, there’s a lot of research that suggests the reason we do this is because the brain works best at a certain level of stress and pressure and that actually it’s hard to be productive without a pressing time boundary. Although we operate months in advance of our formal deadlines, I combat this by booking in client meetings for a fixed date so I create my own deadline, knowing that two days before the meeting I will deliver the product.
Rather than having a fixed event that causes a lack of productivity, it’s the lack of a fixed deadline that allows our brain to dance around and stop something coming to the top of the priority list and choosing to do other things instead.
The key thing here is clarity. Clarity on what we actually need to do, what the task or project is, what the commitment is, how long it will take and importantly when we will do it. Then add it to the calendar.
A phrase we hear a lot to combat this procrastination is time management, but I think time ownership is more useful and fits with both concepts discussed in this blog.
If you really own your time, then you are probably more mindful of how valuable it is and what you really want to use it for. So, then if you get an unexpected half an hour back it probably becomes an easier decision for how you want to spend those 30 minutes.
Waiting Brain is a cognitive state that occurs typically either when you get given half an hour back between meetings you weren’t expecting and yet you can’t be productive, or you’ve got one big thing in your diary that consumes all of your thoughts and also stops you being productive.
The different ways to combat it is to:
- Use the time to make a clearing in your thoughts or schedule and step away and just let your mind go
- Use the time to get a number of little jobs out of the way, so you don’t end up doing them in the evening or at the end of the day
- Use the time to re-energise, exercise and build up your resilience again
- Take the time to call other clients on the spur of the moment, connect and keep your brain working
The opposite; procrastination brain occurs when you don’t have deadlines. There’s no fixed timeline and so your brain wanders in a different way. To combat this, the insertion of artificial deadlines feels like an easy win. Alternatively, if you find yourself in a meeting or situation that is wasting your time, have the confidence to get up and walk out.