Loose Change

Leonardo da Vinci and the value of procrastination

Posted in Musings by Neeraj 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 (more…)