One of my favorite Internet offerings is The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, a daily radio and online podcast of poems and snippets of history, usually involving literary figures whose birthdays or significant milestones occurred on the same day as the program.
On Wednesday, the income tax filing deadline missed by some 15 million individuals and businesses, the Writer’s Almanac noted that April 15 was also the birthday (in 1452) of Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance Man who gave us two of the world’s most famous paintings: the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. But how many people know that da Vinci was a chronic procrastinator?
It took him 16 years to finish the Mona Lisa. To complete The Last Supper, he needed his patron to threaten to cut off his funding. As with many procrastinators, da Vinci was a perfectionist, too. Just before he died, he apologized “to God and Man for leaving so much undone.”
Leonardo, you’re forgiven. And thank you for reminding me I’m in good company in the world of procrastinators.
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One morning last week, I woke up to a slightly frozen back pasture and the sun starting to filter through a budding big-leaf maple tree. But what really caught my eye was a smattering of small Douglas fir branches that have been sitting on the roof of the barn for at least two or three years. All I need to do is fire up the leaf blower, climb up on the roof and they’d be on the ground in a blink of an eye. But no, I procrastinate.
Then there’s the front pasture gate post that broke off below ground level years ago. I bought a new post and bag of cement mix four years ago to replace the broken post. They both sit in the barn. The pressure-treated 4-by-4 post is still good to go, but the bag of cement is as hard as a rock.
I believe some of my project procrastination is triggered by the fear and frustration of failure. The light fixtures that would look good in the master bedroom and home office sit instead in the basement year after year. Where are my electrician friends when I need them?
But some of my dilly-dallying has nothing to do with home improvement projects. I checked the mileage gauge on my sports utility vehicle last week. I’m 2,000 miles overdue for an oil change. This is not the first time. Do you think I’ll make an appointment with my mechanic next week? Maybe. Maybe not.
I even have a sign in my garage that reads: “Do it Tomorrow, You’ve Made Enough Mistakes Today.” Doesn’t that sound like a motto fit for a procrastinator?
I could go on, but I’d rather write about others who join da Vinci as world-famous procrastinators. They all make me feel better. Here are some examples from the website procrastinus.com:
Most fans of fiction know that Herman Melville wrote “Moby Dick,” one of my five favorite novels of all time. But did you know that the famous American author reportedly had his wife chain him to his desk in 1851 to force him to finish the epic novel?
Here’s another cure for writer’s block — a form of procrastination — used by the French novelist and poet Victor Hugo, who wrote such epic novels as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Les Miserables.” He had his servant strip him naked in his study and leave him there to write sans clothes to an appointed hour.
I haven’t resorted to such drastic measures to finish the book I’m writing, but I may need to before all is written.
Politicians, not just artists, are prone to procrastination, too. One year into his first term as president, Bill Clinton was described by Time magazine as a chronic procrastinator. His own vice-president, Al Gore, called him “punctually challenged.” Hillary Clinton, his wife and a presidential candidate herself, conceded that it used to be “maddening to try to keep him on any kind of schedule.”
So is procrastination a mental disorder? Well, if it is, 95 percent of the human race is afflicted to some degree or another with a tendency to put off chores, assignments, maintenance projects and other tasks.
“Putting things off is part of our DNA,” suggests Piers Steel, a doctor of industrial and organizational psychology and — how apt it this? — a professor of procrastination at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Writing in Psychology Today, Steel said: “It may not be one of our better traits, but it is human.”
I guess I could ask my partner what she thinks — she happens to be a clinical psychologist. But I might have to wait quite a while for an answer. You see, she’s a procrastinator, too.