Solving the puzzle of procrastination
In 1491 lived a frustrating and eccentric man. With a bad tendency of being unreliable, he regularly struggled to finish his work. Years and sometimes even decades passed as he lacked the interest to finish the orders of his clients. Not driven by money or merit, the only thing dictating his will was his limited attention span. He was a true master of procrastination.
Even then, he was completely extraordinary. What he lacked in work ethic and discipline he made up in raw skill and personality. His talent stemmed from his curiosity, and his accomplishments established him in history as one of the most intelligent people to ever grace our world.
He is considered the greatest painter of all time, renowned for making the world's most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, but also for so much more. His name was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci.
Leonardo was a polymath, the ideal archetype of the multi-talented Renaissance man, equipped with an unquenchable curiosity that lead to impressive knowledge in countless subjects. The same curiosity that sparked his creativity was also the origin of his biggest weak point – it led to a lifetime of procrastination.
A man of wide focus but many talents
Having a heavy tendency to procrastinate, Leonardo was driven by passion. He wasn’t interested in academia, and instead quickly acquired the skill of painting through practice by combining science and art, utilizing the study of optics and the mathematics of perspective to create art of unprecedented and stunning realism. He had such raw skill that his artistic mentor Verrocchio allegedly quit painting after seeing how superior Leonardo's skill was to his. Even then, he was not satisfied in being defined as just a painter.
The inability to focus on just one thing resulted in him directing his attention everywhere: He relentlessly studied anatomy, observed hydrodynamics, engaged in military engineering, conceptualized flying machines, and created realistic maps that nearly rival the modern accuracy of Google Maps. His thirst for knowledge encompassed almost every field culminating in his extensive personal research. Saying that he was a genius is a heavy understatement.
The story of Leonardo da Vinci reveals two sides to procrastination: Although it can be a catastrophic force that weakens discipline and routine, it can offer an invigorating effect on creativity. One of the reasons behind Leonardo’s inventiveness was his inability to focus on just one thing at a time. Modern research suggests that he may have had an attention deficit disorder, which would explain his behavior – we'll have a closer peek into that later.
How was Leonardo able to use procrastination to his advantage, and how did he suffer from it? What can we learn from him in our own struggles to end procrastination?
Leonardo's phenomenally accurate drawing of Imola superimposed over the Google Earth satellite image of the modern city. Before Leonardo, cities were generally portrayed in profile from a vantage point, without regard to proportions or mathematical accuracy.
The distracting force and cause of procrastination
On many occasions, Leonardo had to be impelled to continue his work. He always had something more interesting waiting for him if he wasn't struck by motivation. The underlying research seems to back this up: Procrastination is classified as avoidance behavior according to Timothy Pychyl, who studies procrastination at Carleton University. He asserts that it's a coping mechanism that directs people away from tough things, pointing them towards pleasure, no matter how small or temporary it may be. Leonardo undoubtedly found more joy from interpreting the ways of our world than painting yet another portrait of a local figure.
Before we consider procrastination to be a great evil, let us have a moment for gratitude. Much like Leonardo, we are in a good place to be able to procrastinate in the first place: We have a place to sleep and a safe environment that enables us to work, or not to. Being the illegitimate son of a notary, Leonardo was in a historically exceptional but fortunate position: He had no obligation to follow in line with his father’s back-numbing career but he enjoyed the liberty of growing up in a relatively wealthy family regardless.
The dark shadow of a hidden diagnosis
Like us, Leonardo most likely had a lot of time to think, be creative, and procrastinate. His life was characterized by his constant struggles with discipline, which left many of his patrons frustrated. A recent study suggests that the great artist might have had an attention deficit disorder, such as ADHD. Taking into account his often erratic behavior and lack of focus, this conclusion seems reasonable as ADHD is often associated with a tendency to procrastinate and an increase in creativity and originality.
Attention deficits are tough to talk about because the research and cures are somewhat limited. In many cases it’s not a question of attitude or motivation: For some, attention problems are very real disorders that make studying innately harder, especially without treatment. Leonardo was very aware of his own shortcomings in his consistency and lamented it later in life. Had he known that there was a limit to how much he could affect his condition, perhaps he would have been more at peace with himself.
Even then, there seem to be methods that work for reducing ADHD symptoms. Of all treatment methods, the simplest solution would have likely helped Leonardo as well: A diverse assessment of many individual studies recently concluded that physical exercise provides the highest improvement on average for the core symptoms of ADHD. The documented effects of it were more potent than neurofeedback, cognitive training and even cognitive-behavioral therapy. Despite this finding, getting professional medical help is always the best and primary solution in order to get a tailored plan for treatment.
Leonardo had an intense ability to direct his short-term focus on interesting phenomena. He could sit for prolonged periods with excellent visual assessment and observe the reality around him. Here is one of his studies on the movements of water, visualized and analyzed to an almost unprecedented extent.
Confronting the dragon
The human mind creates powerful reasons for why procrastination is a better choice than your important obligations. "I need to be in the mood for this", "I work better under pressure", or "I just can't seem to get started". If we couldn't rationalize it, there would be no procrastination. This is why becoming aware of your procrastination is the first and most crucial step in overcoming it, because that is when you notice that it's avoidance behavior that you actively try to rationalize.
Leonardo was very much a slave of his own motivation. In many instances, it would take him months to paint a commission as he followed the whims of his motivation and mood. When painting the famous Last Supper, there would be days when he would arrive at the monastery, paint a few strokes, and call it a day. On some days he would sit on the scaffolding painting from sunrise to sunset, forgetting to eat or drink. Unlike Leonardo, we don't always have the liberty to determine when we want to work.
Luckily, there are several evidence-based approaches to reduce procrastination. One of the most potent of them is rethinking your tasks through to-do lists. A big essay on a large topic can be intimidating, but making a to-do list that breaks it into smaller and quicker tasks is an excellent way to start. Instead of putting the vague "write essay" on your to-do list, you could write down three smaller and more manageable tasks. "Do 30 minutes of initial research", "plan the essay structure" and "write the introduction" are much easier challenges that you can overcome one by one.
Procrastination, revisited and redefined
Leonardo was a fervent believer in to-do lists which was a big contributor to the success of his personal research. Instead of procrastinating with housework or similar short-lived obligations, he wrote down and completed tasks that fed his curiosity. "Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle", "ask Benedetto Potinari by what means they go on ice in Flanders", and "ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night". These were just some of his bizarre to-do list entries jotted down to intrigue and teach him.
This is what separates Leonardo's procrastination from our common modern habit. I call it productive procrastination: If you procrastinate with a less important but still useful task, it's ten times better than settling for meaningless tasks, although still inferior to completing your obligations. This category sits between fulfilling your obligations and superficial procrastination as a middle ground to useless procrastinating and maximum productivity.
As scrolling Instagram or watching TV didn't exist, Leonardo invested his time in much better distractions. This is what truly made him the universal genius – had he procrastinated by sweeping the floors or rearranging his closet, we probably wouldn't have known him as the master inventor and curious mind.
A graph detailing the usefulness of productive procrastination and why it made Leonardo da Vinci's time so fruitful. A massive amount of his time was spent procrastinating on productive research, whereas we tend to procrastinate with superficial things such as entertainment.
Like any great story, the tale of Leonardo da Vinci deserves to be so much more than just a listicle of self-help methods. In case some of Leonardo's curiosity has rubbed off on you, I encourage you to check out the full list of researched procrastination prevention methods yourself. It's a collection of six research-backed approaches that help with procrastination, curated by the reputable American Psychological Association.
Seeing the painting in the river of color
There is one more thing to learn from Leonardo through a little re-framing. In terms of his universal genius, procrastination and ADHD was his greatest power. It's what drove him to explore, to get distracted, and to be creative. He effortlessly switched from studying anatomy to hydraulics and back again for more. Without his attention deficit, he most likely would have hammered away at painting from commission to commission, decade by decade of his life. There would be no studies on water, impressive map-making, or conceptualizing flying machines. There would be no Leonardo da Vinci as we know him.
Look back on yourself. If you suffer from a lack of concentration, that wide focus is still a part of you, and it's a skill that needs to be developed like any other. Many that have an attention problem, diagnosis or not, embrace it and make the most of their situation by surrounding themselves with many interesting but productive activities by utilizing productive procrastination. If they're bored with writing they switch to walking and let their mind run free during the walk around the neighborhood. Or, they notice their triggers: sometimes procrastination can be triggered by certain bad habits, like a subconsciously triggered morning routine that starts with two hours of browsing social media in bed.
Florence was Leonardo's formative first metropolis and a big contributor to his identity. Characterized by liberty and creativity, Florence enabled many types of professionals to thrive, free from dogmatic critique or traditionalist skepticism.
Looking at your reflection in the fountain
Concentration is tough. But being honest with yourself and admitting your personal shortcomings is the first step in taking action. Even though he struggled with his attention problems, Leonardo embraced his own identity. His lack of focus was a great source of diverse learning and skill, which is why he presented and branded himself as a master of many fields.
Leonardo da Vinci was a diverse man, both in skill and personality: Not afraid to wear brightly-colored tunics, to advocate for animal rights and to show pride for his varied talent, he refused to be categorized as a man of singular talent. He made his struggle to focus his paramount strength. That’s exactly what made him Leonardo da Vinci.
Be that same person in your life. Be the person that values what you already have, and embraces who you truly are, because that is the essence of your being.
(This was the second of twelve foundational articles created by The Rational Society in 2022. The story and contents of this article are based on the research and insight from Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. I warmly recommend it as a fascinating book about one of the brightest minds and most unique inventors our world has ever seen.)