Loose Change

Leonardo da Vinci and the value of procrastination

Posted in Musings by Raj on 05/27/2010
Are you a habitual procrastinator? Do you find yourself routinely putting off important activities that need to be urgently finished simply because you find working on one particular thing too limiting and you can think up a dozen things that you’d rather be working on? Well, you’re not alone, and what’s more, you’re in distinguished company. The March 2009 edition of the ClassicalPursuits newsletter carried an interesting piece on Leonardo da Vinci’s habit of procrastination: How to Procastinate Like Leonardo da Vinci. The article was interesting because it challenged the common perception of procrastination as being a wasteful activity better avoided by anyone aiming to make best use of his/her time. In reality however, the article argues, procrastination may have its own benefits and  Leonardo da Vinci’s life gives us ample clues that this is indeed so.

In the course of his life, da Vinci — quintessential renaissance man and arguably the most gifted polymath of all time — chronicled hundreds of ideas in his notebooks. Is is clear even from the fraction of notebooks that have survived to this day that da Vinci’s ideas ran a vast gamut of the human experience, ranging from painting, sculpture, geometry, anatomical studies, to the design of military tanks and flying machines. However, da Vinci was  seldom able to complete (to his own satisfaction) the projects that he started. Even his most celebrated work of art, the Mona Lisa, was still in his possession when he died (apparently, he had still not finished it to his liking). The mainstream view contends that this lack of follow-through is attributable solely to da Vinci’s “fault” of procrastination. In my opinion, however, it is hard to say whether this “fault” should take all the blame. For instance, da Vinci was known to be an incorrigible perfectionist, always striving to match his work to its conceptualization in his head. This may explain why he finished very few of his projects because he would keep tinkering and fiddling with his works even when they looked perfect to others. Of course, procrastination may explain why he started so few projects in the first place. For example, all the compulsive note-taking may have been da Vinci’s way of avoiding working on any one specific idea in reality.

Does this mean that procrastination is altogether bad? It’s a hard question to answer. A common cause of procrastination is the fear of the unknown e.g., a person may be afraid that he may not measure up to a task and hence put it off indefinitely.  On the flip side, procrastination may also be caused by a subconscious fear of success: if a person succeeds at something, then there may not be anything else left to aspire to (in such a case, that person may unknowingly  indulge in self-sabotage). In both these cases, I’d say that procrastination is decidedly bad. Fear is debilitating and keeps us from growing as individuals. It is a problem that very definitely must be overcome.

However, da Vinci’s example shows that — in some cases — procrastination may also result from having too much on your plate and in such a case, it is hard to judge procrastination in Manichean terms. Personally, I can identify with this type of procrastination. Although I’m not even remotely as gifted as da Vinci, I find that my mind also covers over a great deal of ground in the course of a day or a week. I have dozens of ideas that I wish to work on (at least at the instant they occur to me) ranging from ideas for paintings, different softwares or programming languages that I want to learn (e.g., Blender, Photoshop, Ruby, Python, Java, C++), different foreign languages I want to be proficient in (e.g., Japanese, French), my ideas for computer simulations, implementing body building and weight loss techniques I discover on the Internet, gardening, travel writing and a whole lot more.  As da Vinci (and dozens of other people, I’m sure) have discovered, the problem with having a vast range of interests is that it becomes very hard to choose a single idea that you’d want to devote all your time to. There’s always a nagging thought in the back of your head that your time would be better spent working on that other great idea you had. So yes, this form of procrastination is bad in that it keeps us from actualizing our ideas. On the other hand, it may also play a vital role in helping us connect the dots between widely disparate ideas. Anyone who’s done a bit of doodling or brainstorming can vouch for this fact. Sometimes, the best ideas come to us when we’re not looking for them. And more often than not, these brilliant ideas connect up other more mundane and seemingly-disconnected ideas that we’ve toyed with before. Da Vinci may have been no exception to this process, as the article states:

Leonardo’s studies of how light strikes a sphere, for example, enable the continuous modeling of the “Mona Lisa” and “St. John the Baptist.” His work in optics might have delayed a project, but his final achievements in painting depended on the experiments — physical and intellectual — that he documented in the notebooks. Far from being a distraction — like many of his contemporaries thought — they represent a lifetime of productive brainstorming, a private working out of the ideas on which his more public work depended. To criticize this work is to believe that what we call genius somehow emerges from the mind fully formed — like Athena from the head of Zeus — without considerable advance preparation.


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