Leonardo da Vinci, it has been said, was an inveterate procrastinator. Fond of doodling while the hours passed by, the genius who changed the world wasn’t so expert at getting things done. Helps to put things into perspective, no? At the engaging site Procrastinus (where one can learn much while procrastinating) we learn this of da Vinci:
He explored almost every field available to him, in both science and art. He made significant contributions in engineering, architecture, biology, botany, anatomy, math, and physics. He sculpted, painted, both portrait and mural (e.g., The Last Supper) and made plans for ingenious machines that wouldn’t be built for centuries (e.g., planes, submarines). He also never finished a project on time.
Part of what made Leonardo such a “Renaissance Man” was that he was distractible as he was talented. Jacob Bronowski, the scientific historian, speaks about his procrastination. His talents and energy were often wasted in doodles and unfinished projects. The Last Supper was only finished after his patron threatened to cut off all funds. Mona Lisa took twenty years to complete. The Adoration of the Magi, an early painting, was never finished and his equestrian projects were never built.
His procrastination caused him much grief in later years. Despite his varied contributions, he felt he could have achieved much more. Given his talents, it is without doubt that more of his aspirations could have become a reality in his own time. So much was half-completed that he appealed to God, “Tell me if anything ever was done. Tell me if anything was done.”
Author John Perry may have had a solution for da Vinci. While spending time trying to figure out the source of his own procrastination, he came to this conclusion: Procrastination is the result of a fantasy manufactured to avoid imperfection. Here’s Perry:
Many procrastinators do not realize that they are perfectionists, for the simple reason that they have never done anything perfectly, or even nearly so. They have never been told that something they did was perfect. They have never themselves felt that anything they did was perfect. They think, quite mistakenly, that being a perfectionist implies often, or sometimes, or at least once, having completed some task to perfection. But this is a misunderstanding of the basic dynamic of perfectionism.
Perfectionism is a matter of fantasy, not reality. Here’s how it works in my case. I am assigned some task, say, refereeing a manuscript for a publisher. I accept the task, probably because the publisher offers to pay me with a number of free books, which I wrongly suppose that if I owned I would get around to reading. But for whatever reason, I accept the task.
Immediately my fantasy life kicks in. I imagine myself writing the most wonderful referees report. I imagine giving the manuscript an incredibly thorough read, and writing a report that helps the author to greatly improve their efforts. I imagine the publisher getting my report and saying, “Wow, that is the best referee report I have ever read.” I imagine my report being completely accurate, completely fair, incredibly helpful to author and publisher.
His solution? Structured procrastination. With a bit of self-imposed psychological judo, the weakness can become a strength.
Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.
Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.
Perry’s essay is very funny, and worth wasting some time to read. And, if you’ve got time to spare after that, you can go measure your procrastination here.