Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, if someone postpones an assignment until right before its deadline, despite the fact that they intend to work on it, that person is procrastinating. This is a common phenomenon, which chronically affects approximately 20% of adults and 50% of college students.
Throughout history, many important figures have been known to procrastinate, including artists, academics, musicians, philosophers, leaders, and writers. Below, you will find a list of some of these famous procrastinators, including people like J.K. Rowling, Mozart, Bill Clinton, Frank Lloyd Wright, Douglas Adams, Leonardo da Vinci, Victor Hugo, and Steve Jobs.
When reading this list, keep the following caveats in mind:
- For some of these people, the claims that they’re procrastinators are based on reports that may be inaccurate.
- For some of these people, what they or others are calling procrastination is actually something else, like purposeful delay.
- Some of these people only procrastinated during parts of their life (e.g., childhood) or on specific things (e.g., their studies).
- Many of these people were able to become successful despite their procrastination, rather than because of it, and many were able to overcome their procrastination for long enough to still get substantial amounts of work done.
- Though procrastination may have had some benefits for some of these people in some cases (e.g., by helping them find artistic inspiration), many would have also been better off without procrastinating, or without procrastinating as much, since procrastination caused them many issues, like interpersonal conflicts, negative emotions (e.g., guilt), and worse health (e.g., due to stress).
Accordingly, some of these procrastinators criticized their own procrastination, and cautioned others against procrastinating. This means that although this list shows that it’s possible to procrastinate and still be successful, this doesn’t mean that procrastination is responsible for people’s success, that it doesn’t have any downsides, or that it should be glorified.
J. K. Rowling
J. K. Rowling is an English author, best known for writing the Harry Potter book series. She has talked about her procrastination several times, for example by saying on social media that she’s “rather good” at procrastination, and by saying the following:
[In response to a Tweet asking “How are you doing?”]
Rowling: “I’m well, thank you. Fighting with a tricky chapter and procrastinating by making tea and looking at Twitter. How are you?”
[Then, in response to a follow-up Tweet saying “social media is the root to all procrastinating”]
Rowling: “Along with books bought for research that are too interesting to put down, 24 hour news and, of course, Minecraft.”
She also shared similar sentiments, such as that “You can waste a lot of time on a plan while feeling vaguely productive” (in reference to her writing), and one interview states that she often spends her evenings procrastinating and wandering around the house.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was an Austrian composer, generally considered to be an artistic genius and one of the greatest composers of all time.
A common anecdote that’s shared about his procrastination describes how he composed the overture for one of his best-known works—the opera Don Giovanni—the night before it premiered:
The people of Prague were charmed by his affability of manners and unassuming demeanour. Niemtschek, his biographer, who remembered him well, says, “His friends at Prague think with joy on the delightful hours they have passed in his society, and can never sufficiently extol his kind, innocent heart. They might have entirely forgotten that they were in the presence of Mozart, the great composer.”
The time passed in festivities of various kinds, and the composition of the overture to “Don Giovanni” was entirely neglected until the night of the 3rd of November 1787. This was the eve of his great triumph. A large party was assembled at Dussek’s, and Mozart was enjoying himself with them, apparently thoughtless of the overture. As usual overflowing with ideas, he had that day been at work for his hostess, Madame Dussek, and had produced for her the exquisitely scientific scena, “Bella mia fiamma:” a composition by which her style and attainments as a singer are effectually characterised.
His friends, however, became uneasy, and one of them said to him, “Mozart, the first performance of ‘Don Giovanni’ is tomorrow, and you have not yet written the overture.”” He appeared to consider awhile, and about midnight retired to his apartment, desiring his wife to make him some punch, and to stay with him to keep him awake.
The overture was ready by the morning; but the copyists were less diligent or less successful with their work. The opera should have commenced at seven in the evening; but there was no overture, and the crowded theatre was kept waiting until a quarter to eight, when the parts were hastily brought into the orchestra covered with sand, and with them entered Mozart to take his place as conductor.
His appearance was greeted by the general applause of the theatre, and the un-rehearsed overture was then commenced. During its performance the audience gave many signs of repressed pleasure, which at length broke out into a loud exclamation. When the curtain rose, and the first scene of the opera was going forward, Mozart said to some of the musicians near him, “The overture went off very well on the whole, although a good many notes certainly fell under the desks.”
He was well acquainted with the talent of the orchestra of Prague, and it is not unlikely that this most unusual exhibition of an overture played without rehearsal was a designed compliment to it.
— From “The Life of Mozart” by Edward Holmes (1845)
The following is another anecdote about Mozart’s procrastination, which gives more insights into his perspective on this behavior:
“L. Mozart [Mozart’s father] was not altogether displeased at the turn of affairs; what really angered him was to hear from Wolfgang (February 4, 1778): ‘I am getting on at my ease with the music for Mons. de Jean, for which I am to have 200 florins; I can stay here as long as I like, for neither my board nor lodging cost me anything.’ His father had warned him before (December 11, 1777): ‘If you examine your conscience you will find that you have a strong tendency to procrastination’; and now he writes (February 12, 1778): ‘I am astonished to hear that you are finishing Mons. de Jean’s music at your ease. Can it be that you have not already completed it!…’
The information which Wolfgang furnished (February 14, 1778) was not consolatory:—
‘Herr de Jean, who also goes to Paris to-morrow, has paid me only ninety-six florins (miscalculating the half by four florins) because I had written only two concerti and three quartetti. But he will be obliged to pay me the whole, for I have arranged with Wendling to send the music after them. It is not extraordinary that I should not have been able to finish it. I never have a quiet hour; night is my only time for writing, for I cannot even get up early. Besides, one is not always in the humour for writing. I could certainly scribble away the whole day; but when a thing is to go forth to the world bearing my name, I am determined that I will not be ashamed of it. You know how stupid I am when I have always to compose for one instrument (and that one which I dislike). I have written other things from time to time for a change, such as clavier duets and portions of masses. But now I have set to work in earnest on the clavier duets, so that I may have them printed.’”
— From “Life of Mozart” by Otto Jahn (1882)
Nevertheless, Mozart was considered prolific, as he composed hundreds of works of music during his relatively short life, many of which are still well-known.
Bill Clinton is an American politician who served as the President of the United States. He has been described by Time magazine as a “chronic procrastinator” and by his vice-president Al Gore as “punctually challenged”.
Descriving his behavior in more detail, his wife (Hillary Clinton) said:
“He cares about every day – he wants to jam-pack it with more than the day can hold. It’s maddening to try to keep him on any kind of schedule because he wants to listen to everybody. It’s not that he doesn’t want to go on to the next event; it’s just that he doesn’t want to leave where he is until he’s had a chance to see everybody there.
In addition, Time magazine reported that his major speeches often involved “harrowing last-minute cut-and-paste sessions”, and similar behaviors of his have been discussed by many officials, who said things such as:
“The big challenge for him is to try to stay away from the things he doesn’t need to think about.”
“He can have a 10-minute meeting in two hours.”
Furthermore, while his work process sometimes yielded positive results, it also led to various issues, and as one official said about this process:
“The danger is that sometime it is going to take too long.”
Gerhard Richter is a German visual artist, who is best known for his paintings, which have set record prices in auctions. He described his artistic process as one that involves substantial delays:
“I go to the studio every day, but I don’t paint every day. I love playing with my architectural models. I love making plans. I could spend my life arranging things. Weeks go by, and I don’t paint until finally I can’t stand it any longer. I get fed up. I almost don’t want to talk about it, because I don’t want to become self-conscious about it, but perhaps I create these little crises as a kind of a secret strategy to push myself. It is a danger to wait around for an idea to occur to you. You have to find the idea.”
— From a 2002 interview with Gerard Richter (in The New York Times)
Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson was an American journalist and author, known for founding the gonzo journalism movement and writing the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, among many other things.
In interviews conducted with Thompson that are shared in the book Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, Thompson describes his need to have an upcoming deadline in order to be able to write, which he says is both a struggle and something that helped him be successful. For example, in response to the question “Are the best things written under deadlines?”, Thompson said:
“I’m afraid that’s true. I couldn’t imagine, and I don’t say this with any pride, but I really couldn’t imagine writing without a desperate deadline.”
He also expressed similar sentiments elsewhere in the book, saying, for example:
“I wouldn’t write much without a deadline.”
“I’m really an adrenaline junkie; I never get anything done without the pressure of some impossible deadline.”
In addition, in the book he shares a story of how he wrote one of his best-known works in such a situation:
“[Gonzo journalism] is something that grew out of a story on the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s magazine. It was one of those horrible deadline scrambles and I ran out of time. I was desperate. Ralph Steadman had done the illustrations, the cover was printed and there was this horrible hole in the interviews. I was convinced I was finished, I’d blown my mind, couldn’t work. So finally I just started jerking pages out of my notebook and numbering them and sending them to the printer. I was sure it was the last article I was ever going to do for anybody. Then when it came out, there were massive numbers of letters, phone calls, congratulations, people calling it a ‘great breakthrough in journalism.’”
The 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) is a spiritual leader, head of state of Tibet, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. He is sometimes given as an example of a procrastinator, and reported as saying the following about his days as a young student:
“Only in the face of a difficult challenge or an urgent deadline would I study and work without laziness.”
Though this statement is attributed to the Dalai Lama without a source, it’s supported by other statements that the Dalai Lama made, for example in the following interview:
Interviewer: What was your dream when you were young?
Dalai Lama: Playing, not studying. [Smiles]
Interviewer: You played around?
Dalai Lama: Oh yes. When I was young I had no interest in learning… [Laughs] I usually describe myself as a very very lazy student.
— An edited transcript from a 2014 interview with host Larry King
However, despite describing himself as a lazy student at first, the Dalai Lama also says that eventually he grew to become more industrious. For example:
“Question: How about when you just entered adolescence? Many people have a difficult time defining themselves as an adult. Did this happen to you?
Answer (by Dalai Lama): No. My life was very much in a routine. Two times a day I studied. Each time I studied for an hour, and then spent the rest of the time playing (laughter). Then at the age of 13, I began studying philosophy, definitions, debate. My study increased, and I also studied calligraphy. It was all in a routine though, and I got used to it…”
— From biographical “Questions & Answers” by the Dalai Lama
Question: What kind of student were you?
Answer (by Dalai Lama): I was quite lazy! [Laughs] My tutor sometimes threatened to show whips! But gradually, my mind, my brain [grew] quite sharp. Certain subjects scholars find difficult, for me [were] easy. So I believe that [in] my previous life that subject [was] familiar.
As an adult, the Dalai Lama still says that he is lazy, though he also cautions against the dangers of procrastination, as in the following message in one of his books:
“From beginningless time we have been under the influence of an illusion of permanence, so we think there is always lots of time remaining. This puts us in great danger of wasting our lives in procrastination. To counteract this tendency; it is important to meditate on impermanence, on the fact that death might come at any moment…
Not only must you die in the end, but you do not know when the end will come. If you did, you could put off preparing for the future. Even if you show signs of living to a ripe old age, you cannot say with one hundred percent certainty that today you will not die. You must not procrastinate. Rather, you should make preparations so that even if you did die tonight, you would have no regrets. If you develop an appreciation for the uncertainty and imminence of death, your sense of the importance of using your time wisely will get stronger and stronger.”
— From “Advice on Dying: And Living a Better Life” (by the 14th Dalai Lama, translated and edited by Jeffery Hopkins)
Nassim Taleb is a Lebanese-American author and statistician, known for writing bestselling books such as The Black Swan and Antifragile. He extensively discusses his own procrastination as a positive behavior that helped his writing. One example of this is the following statement that Taleb made during a speech:
“I hesitate to give advice because every major single piece of advice I was given turned out to be wrong and I am glad I didn’t follow them… I was told to never procrastinate and I waited 20 years for The Black Swan and it sold 3 million copies.”
— Nassim Taleb, in a Commencement Address at the American University in Beirut (2016)
Another example of this is the following statement that Taleb makes in one of his books:
“Few understand that procrastination is our natural defense, letting things take care of themselves and exercise their antifragility; it results from some ecological or naturalistic wisdom, and is not always bad—at an existential level, it is my body rebelling against its entrapment. It is my soul fighting the Procrustean bed of modernity. Granted, in the modern world, my tax return is not going to take care of itself—but by delaying a non-vital visit to a doctor, or deferring the writing of a passage until my body tells me that I am ready for it, I may be using a very potent naturalistic filter. I write only if I feel like it and only on a subject I feel like writing about—and the reader is no fool. So I use procrastination as a message from my inner self and my deep evolutionary past to resist interventionism in my writing…
Actually I select the writing of the passages of this book by means of procrastination. If I defer writing a section, it must be eliminated. This is simple ethics: Why should I try to fool people by writing about a subject for which I feel no natural drive?”
— Nassim Taleb in his book “Antifragile”
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright was an American architect, who was recognized in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time”, and who designed over a thousand architectural works during his career. He is reported to have procrastinated on his most famous work—a house called Fallingwater—until his client called to say that he’ll be visiting Wright’s office to see the design in around two hours. At that point, Wright rushed to finish the design, which ended up being of excellent quality, despite being hastily drawn.
Furthermore, later stages of Fallingwater’s construction were characterized by associated issues, such as Wright taking a long time to complete the first set of construction drawings, which led to many delays and re-works throughout the construction process.
Margaret Atwood is a Canadian author and poet, known for works such as The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s also a self-proclaimed world expert on procrastination, as she shared in a podcast interview with host Adam Grant:
Margaret: Yeah, I’ve racked up, you know, years and years of it [procrastination].
Adam: Because Margaret doesn’t do anything halfway.
Margaret: If you’re going to do something, might as well be good at it, right? I’d hate to be a failed procrastinator.
Adam: She can procrastinate anywhere with the greatest of ease. At home, in a coffee shop, even up in the air.
Margaret: I think it’s always more fun to watch movies on planes than to work.
However, despite her procrastination, she is prolific, and has published dozens of works of various types (e.g., non-fiction and fiction books, graphic novels, and poetry collections), many of which were commercially successful, critically acclaimed, and won prestigious literary awards. Furthermore, she said that despite her procrastination, she always makes her deadlines:
Adam: But here’s the thing. Despite being a world-class procrastinator, Margaret does not turn manuscripts in late.
Margaret: No, no, no, no, no. I do not miss deadlines. I would consider it dishonorable to miss a deadline.
John Perry is an American philosopher and professor at Stanford University. He wrote the book The Art of Procrastination, and won the 2011 Ig Nobel Prize in Literature for his theory of structured procrastination, which he discussed in relation to his own extensive procrastination:
“I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things…
All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. 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.”
He also wrote about perfectionism as a cause of procrastination:
“…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 referee’s report. I imagine giving the manuscript an incredibly thorough read and writing a report that helps the author to greatly improve his or her 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…
How does the fantasy of perfection feed procrastination? Well, it’s not so easy to do things perfectly. At least I assume that it is not. Perhaps some day I’ll do something perfectly, and then I’ll know for sure. But I assume that it is not. One needs time. And the proper setting. Clearly to referee this manuscript, I’ll need to read it carefully. That will take time. I will no doubt want to go beyond the manuscript itself and read some of the material that the author cites, to make sure the author is accurate and fair in what she says about it. I’ve read book reviews by philosophers I admire, and they obviously have done this. It’s very impressive. But I’ll need to be over in the library to do that properly. Well, in today’s world, one doesn’t need to be in the library. One can find a lot of this stuff on the web, if one knows how. Well, I don’t know how. I know that there is this thing called ‘J-store’ that allows one to access lots of philosophy journals online. If you are working at Stanford you can access it through the library. But it would be nice to be able to access it at home. I may want to work late into the night on this referee job. To access J-store at home you need to set up something called a proxy-server. I’d better figure out how to do that.
Well, seven or eight hours later I am done setting up the proxy server. Maybe I am done because I have managed to do it. More likely I have given up because every time I think I have done it, it doesn’t work, or my screen goes blank. But one thing I won’t have done is start on the referee job. I will have invested enough time to give the book a quick read and form an opinion of it, but I won’t have actually done this, or even gotten started. I feel like a schmuck, and of course I am.
Then what happens? I go on to other things. Most likely, the manuscript slowly disappears under subsequent memos, mail, half-eaten sandwiches, piles of files, and other things… I put it on my to do list, but I never look at my to do list. Then, in about six weeks, I get an email from the publisher, asking when she can expect the referee report. Maybe, if she has dealt with me before, this email arrives a bit before I promised the report. Maybe if she hasn’t, it arrives a few days after the deadline…”
— From “Procrastination and Perfectionism” by John Perry (this is essay II in “On Procrastination”, published in 2009 in Writing on the Edge, Volume 9, Issue 2, pages 17–22)
Samuel Johnson was an English writer, who produced many important works, such as one of the most influential English dictionaries ever written. He was known to often procrastinate on his writing. For example, a close friend—Hesther Lynch Piozzi—stated in her book about Johnson that:
…this dilatoriness ever to write, Mr. Johnson always retained, from the days that he lay abed and dictated his first publication to Mr. Hector, who acted as his amanuensis, to the moment he made me copy out those variations in Pope’s “Homer” which are printed in the “Poets’ Lives.”
…numberless are the instances of his writing under immediate pressure of importunity or distress.
Johnson himself was aware of this issue, stating that:
My reigning sin, to which perhaps many others are appendant, is waste of time, and general sluggishness, to which I was always inclined…
Thus life is languished away in the gloom of anxiety, and consumed in collecting resolution which the next morning dissipates; in forming purposes which we scarcely hope to keep, and reconciling ourselves to our own cowardice by excuses which, while we admit them, we know to be absurd. Our firmness is by the continual contemplation of misery hourly impaired; every submission to our fear enlarges its dominion; we not only waste that time in which the evil we dread might have been suffered and surmounted, but even where procrastination produces no absolute increase of our difficulties, make them less superable to ourselves by habitual terrors. When evils cannot be avoided, it is wise to contract the interval of expectation; to meet the mischiefs which will overtake us if we fly; and suffer only their real malignity without the conflicts of doubt and anguish of anticipation.
However, he struggled to overcome his own procrastination, and this article about procrastination is reported to have been hastily written at the parlor of his friend (Sir Joshua Reynolds’s parlor), while a messenger boy waited to carry it to press.
Douglas Adams was an English comedic writer, known for his franchise The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As noted in his biography, he had a reputation for repeatedly missing deadlines, and was famously quoted as saying “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by”.
Accordingly, there are many stories about his procrastination. For example, one article reported that Adams’s editors had to trap him for three weeks in a hotel suite to get him to write the book So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, and stated that “Douglas Adams had grand ideas, and the procrastination necessary to put off their completion”. Similarly, Steve Meretzky, who collaborated with Adams to create a video game, called him “the world’s worst procrastinator” and said that he “certainly raised procrastination to an art form”, and that Meretzky was sent with instructions to camp out on Adams’s doorstep until the game design was done.
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian artist, engineer, and scientist, known for many famous works, such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. He is often said to have been a procrastinator, who delayed getting started and finishing things, and who often spent much longer than expected on projects that he frequently left unfinished.
However, he is also described as industrious in his work, and it appears that much of his behavior can be attributed to a comprehensive and creative work process, which resulted in many important works, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, architectural designs, inventions, and scientific writings, across many different fields, such as anatomy, botany, geology, and engineering. As such, his behavior should not necessarily be characterized as procrastination, and even the parts of it that can be considered procrastination may be characterized as productive procrastination. As noted in one of his biographies:
“…procrastinating like Leonardo requires work: it involves gathering all the possible facts and ideas, and only after that allowing the collection to simmer.”
— From “Leonardo da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson
For example, the following story describes the process that da Vinci used while working on The Last Supper:
“According to the account of a priest, Leonardo would ‘come here in the early hours of the morning and mount the scaffolding,’ and then ‘remain there brush in hand from sunrise to sunset, forgetting to eat or drink, painting continually.’ On other days, however, nothing would be painted. ‘He would remain in front of it for one or two hours and contemplate it in solitude, examining and criticizing to himself the figures he had created.’ Then there were dramatic days that combined his obsessiveness and his penchant for procrastination. As if caught by whim or passion, he would arrive suddenly in the middle of the day, ‘climb the scaffolding, seize a brush, apply a brush stroke or two to one of the figures, and suddenly depart.’…
At first Leonardo’s procrastination led to amusing tales, such as the time the church prior became frustrated and complained to Ludovico. ‘He wanted him never to lay down his brush, as if he were a laborer hoeing the Prior’s garden,’ Vasari wrote. When Leonardo was summoned by the duke, they ended up having a discussion of how creativity occurs. Sometimes it requires going slowly, pausing, even procrastinating. That allows ideas to marinate, Leonardo explained. Intuition needs nurturing. ‘Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,’ he told the duke, ‘for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.’
Leonardo added that there were two heads left to paint: that of Christ and of Judas. He was having trouble finding a model for Judas, he said, but he would use the image of the prior if he insisted on continuing to hound him. ‘The Duke was moved to wondrous laughter, saying that Leonardo had a thousand reasons on his side,’ Vasari wrote. ‘The poor prior was confounded and went back to worrying about his garden, leaving Leonardo in peace.’
The duke, however, eventually began to get impatient…”
— From “Leonardo da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson
Similarly, the following anecdote also demonstrates da Vinci’s process, while working on a statue for Ludovico Sforza (his patron and the Duke of Milan):
“Since his power was not based on long dynastic heritage, Ludovico sought monumental ways to assert his family’s glory, and Leonardo’s design for an equestrian statue catered to that desire. It was intended to be a bronze horse and rider weighing seventy-five tons, which would have been the biggest one yet made. Verrocchio and Donatello had recently created large equestrian monuments that were twelve or so feet high; Leonardo planned to build one at least twenty-three feet high, three times larger than life.
Although the original purpose was to honor the late Duke Francesco by glorifying him atop a steed, Leonardo focused more on the horse than the rider. In fact, he seemed to lose all interest in the Duke Francesco component, and the monument soon was being referred to, by himself and others, as il cavallo (the horse). In preparation, he threw himself into a detailed anatomical study of horses that included making precise measurements and, later, dissections.
Even though it was typical of him, we still should marvel that he would decide that before sculpting a horse he had to dissect one. Once again his compulsion to engage in anatomical investigations for his art eventually led him to pursue the science for its own sake. We can see this process unfold as he worked on the horse: careful measurements and observations are recorded in his notes, which lead to scores of diagrams, charts, sketches, and beautiful drawings in which art and science are interwoven. This eventually leads him into comparative anatomy; in a later set of drawings of human anatomy, he renders the muscles, bones, and tendons of a man’s left leg next to those of a dissected back leg of a horse.
Leonardo got so deeply immersed in these studies that he decided to begin an entire treatise on the anatomy of horses. Vasari claimed that it was actually completed, though that seems unlikely. As usual, Leonardo was easily distracted by related topics. While studying horses, he began plotting methods to make cleaner stables; over the years he would devise multiple systems for mangers with mechanisms to replenish feed bins through conduits from an attic and to remove manure using water sluices and inclined floors.
When Leonardo was studying the horses in the royal stables, he became particularly interested in a Sicilian thoroughbred owned by Galeazzo Sanseverino, the Milanese commander who was married to Ludovico’s daughter. He drew it from a variety of angles, and in one detail of its foreleg included twenty-nine precisely diagrammed measurements, from the length of its hoof to the width of its calf in different places…
As was often the case, Leonardo’s mix of diligence and distraction, focus and delay, made his patrons nervous… Apparently Ludovico did not trust Leonardo to complete the task.”
— From “Leonardo da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson
Victor Hugo was a French author, poet, and playwright, known for works such as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables. When he struggled to focus on writing the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Hugo is reported to have bought himself a huge knitted shawl and locked away all his formal clothes, so that he wouldn’t be tempted to go out. This story is sometimes embellished with additional apocryphal details, such as that Hugo had his valet lock away all his clothes so that Hugo had to be naked.
Hamlet is a fictional character in a famous play of the same name by Shakespeare. After Hamlet was told by his father’s ghost to avenge his death, Hamlet delays doing so for a long time, until the end of the play. His delay is often interpreted as procrastination, though some alternative explanations have been proposed, such as that he was purposely delaying in some cases in order to identify the best way to carry out his task.
Henry Melville was an American author, best known for writing the book Moby Dick. He is reported to have had his wife chain him to his desk while he was writing Moby-Dick, as a way to avoid temptations that could pull him away from his book. However, this attribution is unsupported by a source, and contradicts the following excerpt from a biography of Melville, which says that he worked hard on the book of his own accord:
As he carried forward his all-comprehending book—or was carried by it—toward its apocalyptic conclusion, he was angered by the smallest interruptions…
And while those around him savored the renewed warmth and light as “spring begins to open upon Pittsfield,” Melville, unused to the sun and habituated to daytime reclusiveness, wrote to Duyckinck that “like an owl I steal about by twilight, owing to the twilight of my eyes.” During the days, he sat alone, as Hawthorne wrote of him, “shaping out the gigantic conception of his white whale, while the gigantic shape of [Mount] Greylock looms upon him from his study window.” Arrowhead—a low-ceilinged house of modest proportions inhabited by wife, baby, and, often, by mother and sisters—felt crowded and noisy; the second-floor study was Melville’s sanctuary, a bright corner room filled with morning light streaming through its eastern window and affording a view of Mount Greylock framed in a second window that looked north over an expanse of fields. Despite her best efforts, Lizzie [Melville’s wife] later recalled, he [Melville] sometimes worked on the book “at his desk all day not eating any thing till four or five o clock,” and then, according to his own account, retired for the evening “in a sort of mesmeric state.”
His furnace intensity was coupled to anxiety—a mixture so unstable as to be explosive. There are hints that for the first time (but not the last), his family feared him, or at least that they learned to cut him a wide berth so as to avoid collisions when he was hellbent on his work. To ensure that he would keep himself fed, he arranged with Lizzie that she should come upstairs in the midafternoon and knock on his study door for however long it took till he was roused from his desk, but that she should never enter unbidden.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“This evening, and indeed all this day, I ought to have been reading and filling the margins of Malthus. I had begun and found it pleasant. Why did I neglect it? Because I ought not to have done this. The same applies to the reading and writing of letters, essays, etc. Surely this is well worth a serious analysis, that, by understanding, I may attempt to heal it. For it is a deep and wide disease in my moral nature, at once elm-and-oak-rooted. Is it love of liberty, of spontaneity or what? These all express, but do not explain the fact.”
He also wrote the day after his 32 birthday:
“… so completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month.—O sorrow & Shame! I am not worthy to live—Two & thirty years.—& this last year above all others!—I have done nothing!”