In case you think waiting on a coworker to finally finish an overdue assignment is a modern phenomenon, consider what happened 535 years ago in Milan. That was where the good friars of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception asked Leonardo da Vinci to produce a painting of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child for the altar of their chapel.
With a naïve optimism familiar to anyone who has ever made a living as a freelancer, Leonardo agreed to finish the project in seven months.
Twenty-five years would pass before Leonardo’s painting was installed.
Maybe you think of Leonardo as the ultimate Renaissance man, a genius of engineering, art and design. He was all these things, but he seems also to have been an accomplished procrastinator. Like a lot of freelancers I know, Leonardo had trouble staying focused on projects and finishing them. He was in fact notorious in his own time for making big plans, then never getting around to realizing them.
Understanding Leonardo’s procrastination might help us understand how work gets done—or doesn’t get done—in today’s gig economy.
It wasn’t that Leonardo was lazy. His to-do lists suggest just how intellectually ambitious he could be. “Draw Milan,” was one small chore he set for himself. “Describe the jaw of a crocodile,” was another. Leonardo’s intellectual curiosity was always carrying him into new enthusiasms—even when it meant putting off work that his patrons were waiting for. It’s no wonder he acquired a reputation among his peers as a man who couldn’t get things done. His rival Michelangelo loved to needle him about his uncompleted projects. Pope Leo X, fed up with Leonardo’s delays, is supposed to have declared: “This man will accomplish nothing.”
Maybe you have come to a similar conclusion about a procrastinating colleague. Or maybe, in a particularly low moment, you’ve even thought this about yourself. I belong to a tribe of independent workers—writers, editors, coders, graphic designers, tens of millions of us in the United States alone—who can claim kinship to Leonardo. We may not share his intellectual and creative powers, but like him, we allow ourselves to be distracted. Given the freedom to work at home, or at the corner coffee house, or at that fancy new coworking space, we can choose to do what we want with our time. And often we choose to do just about anything but what we are supposed to be doing. Maybe we’ll sit around nursing an overpriced Americano, or maybe we’ll reorganize our Spotify playlists. If we have to, we might even work out. Anything to put off an obligation.
There is no denying that all this task avoidance comes with a price. It drives coworkers crazy, for one thing, and it may set us back in our climb up the greased pole of career success. Like many procrastinators, I am always alert to the things I haven’t gotten around to doing—the books not written, the Internet start ups not started up. I’m always doing a kind of existential calculation, weighing what I do against what I might have done, or against what I have not yet done.
On the other hand, Leonardo’s example also reminds us that the path to accomplishment is not always a perfectly efficient one. What Leonardo learned from his “detours” into anatomy, for example, probably informed his work on the Mona Lisa. So can Leonardo’s procrastination really be separated from his genius? Isn’t it possible that a more rigid Leonardo, one who cared only about pleasing his patrons and meeting deadlines, would have done nothing worth remembering? Maybe the ultimate lesson that Leonardo teaches is that there is no single way to get things done. Some successes, it seems, are worth a wait.
Andrew Santella is the author of Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me, out now.