“Men of lofty genius, when they are doing the least work, are most active.” LEONARDO DA VINCI
Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity. Long before the modern obsession with efficiency precipitated by the Industrial Revolution and the Protestant work ethic, early civilizations recognized the benefits of procrastination. In ancient Egypt, there were two different verbs for procrastination: one denoted laziness; the other meant waiting for the right time.
It may not be a coincidence that some of the most original thinkers and inventors in history have been procrastinators. A prime example is Leonardo da Vinci, whose original accomplishments spanned painting and sculpting, architecture and music, math and engineering, geology and cartography, and anatomy and botany. Scholars estimate that da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa on and off for a few years starting in 1503, left it unfinished and didn’t complete it until close to his death in 1519. His critics believed he was wasting his time dabbling with optical experiments and other distractions that kept him from completing his paintings. These distractions, though, turned out to be vital to his originality.
According to historian William Pannapacker, Leonardo’s studies of how light strikes a sphere, for example, enable the continuous modeling of the Mona Lisa and St. John the Baptist. Pannapacker states, “His work in optics might have delayed a project, but his final achievements in painting depended on the experiments. … 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. … If creative procrastination, selectively applied, prevented Leonardo from finishing a few commissions — of minor importance when one is struggling with the inner workings of the cosmos — then only someone who is a complete captive of the modern cult of productive mediocrity … could fault him for it. Productive mediocrity requires discipline of an ordinary kind. It is safe and threatens no one. Nothing will be changed by mediocrity. … But genius is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. You cannot produce a work of genius according to a schedule or an outline.”
Da Vinci spent about 15 years developing the ideas for The Last Supper while working on a variety of other projects. The painting began as a sketch of figures sitting on a bench. A dozen years later, it became the foundation of the unique horizontal arrangement of 13 people seated at a table. Although he was often exasperated by his procrastination, da Vinci realized that originality could not be rushed. He noted that people of “genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least, for they are thinking out inventions and forming in their minds the perfect idea.”Adapted from Original by Adam Grant