For most of us, procrastination is a vice we try to beat, cheat, and cover up: We make lists and micro-lists, set up reminders in our phones, cut out internet connections, play habit judo, and adjust our sleep schedules. All in the name of constant productivity.
But some productive people managed to get a ton of work done in spite of — and in some cases with the help of — the same run-of-the-mill procrastination that plagues the rest of us. Here, five very productive, hard-core procrastinators:
A member of the Algonquin Round Table known for his funny essays and columns in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, Benchley used procrastinating, relaxing, and otherwise not working as material throughout his career. In his essay "How to Get Things Done," from Chips Off the Old Benchley, he wrote:
The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up again pretty soon.
The psychological principle is this: Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment. [Chips Off the Old Benchley]
Also an actor and screenwriter, Benchley won an Adademy Award in 1935 for his short film "How To Sleep," in which he both played the role of the sleeper and narrated information about the causes and methods of sleep, avoiding sleep, and waking up. Benchley later said the project was "not much of a strain, as [he] was in bed most of the time."
German visual artist Gerhard Richter, who once sold a painting for $34.2 million, has completed paintings in a range of styles, including abstracts, paintings of photos, and his famous "blur" photo paintings in which he smudged the work with a squeegee before the paint had dried. In his 2002 profile in The New York Times Magazine, Richter describes to Michael Kimmelman how he spends most of his days:
After lunch, Richter returns to his studio to work into the evening. ''I have always been structured,'' he explains. ''What has changed is the proportions. Now it is eight hours of paperwork and one of painting.'' He claims to waste time — on the house, the garden — although this is hard to believe. ''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.'' As he talks, I notice a single drop of paint on the floor beneath one of his abstract pictures, the only thing out of place in the studio. [The New York Times Magazine]
Like Benchley, Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof spun his procrastination into material for his work.
In his 1991 paper "Procrastination and Obedience," Akerlof describes taking eight months to send a box of clothing to his friend, the economist Joseph Stiglitz. "Each morning for over eight months I woke up and decided that the next morning would be the day to send the Stiglitz box," he wrote.
The paper argued that the behavior "revealed something important about the limits of rational thinking and that it could teach useful lessons about phenomena as diverse as substance abuse and savings habits," wrote The New Yorker's James Surowiecki. "Since his essay was published, the study of procrastination has become a significant field in academia, with philosophers, psychologists, and economists all weighing in."
Over his career, prolific British author Kingley Amis wrote more than 20 novels, six books of poetry, a memoir, TV scripts, and numerous essays, and somehow still found plenty of time to waste.
In The Paris Review in 1975, Amis described his daily routine:
I don't get up very early. I linger over breakfast reading the papers, telling myself hypocritically that I've got to keep up with what's going on, but really staving off the dreadful time when I have to go to the typewriter. That's probably about ten-thirty, still in pajamas and dressing gown. And the agreement I have with myself is that I can stop whenever I like and go and shave and so on. In practice, it's not till about one or one-fifteen that I do that — I usually try and time it with some music on the radio. Then I emerge, and nicotine and alcohol are produced. I work on until about two or two-fifteen, have lunch, then if there's urgency about, I have to write in the afternoon, which I really hate doing — I really dislike afternoons, whatever's happening. But then the agreement is that it doesn't matter how little gets done in the afternoon. And later on, with luck, a cup of tea turns up, and then it's only a question of drinking more cups of tea until the bar opens at six o'clock and one can get into second gear. I go on until about eight-thirty and I always hate stopping. It's not a question of being carried away by one's creative afflatus, but saying, "Oh dear, next time I do this I shall be feeling tense again." [The Paris Review, Winter 1975, via Daily Rituals]
Leonardo da Vinci
No detailed descriptions of da Vinci's daily routine remain, but many have long pointed to signs that he may have been an epic procrastinator. The Mona Lisa took him about 13 years to complete, for example, and The Virgin of the Rocks, commissioned by the Church of San Francesco Grande with a seven-month deadline, took him 25 years, says Piers Steel at Psychology Today. He often only finished paintings after his patron threatened to withhold payment.
Was it procrastination, or extreme perfectionism? Hard to say. But the artist, scientist, and philosopher is also credited with this quote: "It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end."