How to procrastinate more productively, according to a psychologist

Clinical psychologist Nick Wignall says procrastination can be a powerful productivity tool, but many people get trapped in feelings of shame about it.
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Taking small productivity breaks gives Wignall a sense of accomplishment and helps reduce anxiety in his day-to-day life.ilbusca / Getty Images/iStockphoto
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By Julie Compton

Clinical psychologist Nick Wignall is a productive procrastinator.

At 5 am every morning, Wignall, 33, gets up, showers, and gets to his office in Albuquerque, New Mexico early. He writes blog articles for 2-3 hours before his first client walks through the door.

And while he procrastinates on his writing, he estimates, about 50 percent of the time, he says it actually helps him get more done in the long run.

Wignall says procrastination can actually be a powerful productivity tool, but that many people get trapped in feelings of shame about it. As a result, he says, they tend to fixate on their emotions rather than the tasks they need to complete.

Clinical psychologist Nick WignallCourtesy of Nick Wignall

“Now all of a sudden you’ve got all this negative emotion built up, and you feel like you’ve got to distract yourself from that negative emotion, and that’s what leads to more severe forms of procrastination,” Wignall tells NBC News BETTER. “That’s when you start binge watching Netflix for two hours.”

But the psychologist says procrastination is quite normal and nothing to feel ashamed of.

“Biologically speaking, we’re all kind of wired to seek out new things in our environment,” he says, “and there is a lot of evolutionary psychology behind that, and I think, fundamentally, it’s not a bad thing.”

There are ways to use procrastination to your advantage, he says. He recommends three steps to become a productive procrastinator.

1) Be aware of how you talk to yourself when you procrastinate

Procrastination only becomes a problem, Wignall insists, when we allow ourselves to feel guilty about it.

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“Procrastination really gets bad, and it can even become pathological, when you start automatically or habitually engaging in lots of rumination and critical talking,” he says.

Criticisms like: “Why am I such a procrastinator? Why do I always get so distracted? I wish I could just focus,” should be avoided, he says. Instead, Wignall says you should remind yourself of all you’ve accomplished.

“Can you say something along the lines of, ‘Ok, so I am struggling to focus on this particular task that I’m doing right now, but there are actually plenty of other examples in life where I actually had a pretty easy time focusing’?’” he says.

“It’s about assessing how realistic is that habitual negative self talk we tend to engage in, and then coming up with alternatives that might be more realistic or just more flexible,” he adds.

Step 2: Procrastinate consistently

Once you’ve rid yourself of the negative self talk and the idea that procrastination is always terrible, you can learn to be better at it, says Wignall.

When you’re working on a major task, it’s ok to take regular breaks every 30 minutes or so, he says. In fact, Wignall says taking small breaks will prevent you from over procrastinating.

“This step comes out of the idea that the urge to procrastinate itself is not necessarily a bad thing,” he says. “It could just be a natural desire for a variety or rest or creative novelty or a creative peek in your workday, which I think is a totally normal thing.”

Step 3: Procrastinate with productive tasks

During your consistent work breaks, focus on things that are productive, says Wignall. For instance, the blogger often spends his breaks working on improving his website.

“I’ll hop onto my website and play around with stuff and do a little designing, and it’s true that, in a way, that’s distracting from the article I’m writing,” he says. “In the long term that’s actually not necessarily a bad thing, because I do need to have a good-looking website.”

The writer and psychologist says these small productivity breaks give him a sense of accomplishment and help reduce anxiety in his day-to-day life.

“I rarely tend to have these big blow ups of procrastination, which is a lot of pent up desire for novelty and creativity and something different,” Wignall says.

How to be a productive procrastinator:

  • Pay attention to negative self talk: Instead of getting down on yourself, think of all you’ve accomplished.
  • Procrastinate consistently: Schedule small breaks every 30 minutes or so when you’re working on a major task.
  • Make time for productive breaks: During your breaks, work on other productive tasks, like writing or exercising or anything you need to get done.

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