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The da Vinci Pause

Leonardo’s Life Hack

Last month, Walter Isaacson released his big new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. I haven’t read it yet (though it’s inevitable I will). In the meantime, I listened to Brett McKay’s sharp podcast interview with Isaacson.

As the conversation winds down, McKay poses an intriguing question:

“[Leonardo] da Vinci lived 500 years ago, Twitter didn’t exit, Instagram didn’t exist, all these digital things that are distracting us, that make it hard to really observe, didn’t exist. So based on your research and writing on da Vinci: what can we learn from him about staying focused and observing intensely on things even in this crazy digital world that we live in?”

Isaacson, who spent years immersed in over 7000 pages of da Vinci’s brilliant, but also scattered and frenetic notebooks, dismissed the premise: “Yeah, he had distractions too.”

So how did da Vinci end up a creative genius still revered 500 years later? Here’s Isaacson’s explanation:

“What he was able to do is pause, and put things aside, and look at very ordinary things and marvel at them.”

In this observation about a past figure is a powerful suggestion for grappling with the endless information deluging our current moment. Technologies like the internet provide everyone the raw material to become a renaissance person, but to take advantage of this reality it helps to cultivate da Vinci’s ability to pause when something catches your attention, and to then give it the intense, deep concentration needed to transform a fleeting spark into something more substantial.


As a self-proclaimed productivity nerd, I thought I’d seen it all when it comes to discussions of time management. But then my longtime friend Elizabeth Grace Saunders proved me wrong. Her new book, Divine Time Management, tackles personal productivity through a novel lens: Christianity. If you’re both Christian and overwhelmed by all you have to do, check out Elizabeth’s latest. 

25 thoughts on “The da Vinci Pause”

  1. What a coincidence! I am currently reading the “Treatise on Painting”, by da Vinci, and highlighted this quote just yesterday. It is about pausing and taking the time to really understand one thing before moving to the next:

    “A young man, who has a natural inclination to the study of this art, I would advise to act thus: In order to acquire a true notion of the form of things, he must begin by studying the parts which compose them, and not pass to a second till he has well stored his memory, and sufficiently practised the first; otherwise he loses his time, and will most certainly protract his studies. And let him remember to acquire accuracy before he attempts quickness”.

    (I copy here from The Project Gutemberg:

    I am going to look for this biography, thanks for the indication.

    • Brilliant Quote, and especially timely as I’ve just started digging into programming.

      I’m having to fight the temptation to keep working through a tutorial and leave a simple program behind if it doesn’t work properly.

      But if I persist and work out what’s wrong it is inevitably far, far more satisfying and educational.

      Not in the least because it’s usually something trivial.

    • daVinci had a deft hand, but poor focus, (sorry, he may have become fascinated with things enough to study in depth, but he was scattered. Example; The Last Supper was decaying while he was still alive, due to his insistence that he could do an Oil Fresco, which by the nature of the compounds involved, is impossible. How did the genius not know this? What he did best was engineer Machines of War for Cesare Borgia. He carried the Mona Lisa with him till the end of his life, always adding touches to it. He rarely finished his works, most especially the huge Bronze Horse statue he had been commissioned to create. He made a clay model, but got no further. My thought, after having studied he and his contemporaries extensively, is that Leonardo was on the Autistic Spectrum to some degree. The output of his contemporaries was significantly larger than his. What sets him aside is his deeeeeep studies in Science, save for that thing of not knowing oil & water don’t mix.

  2. I’m currently watching “Mad Men” and realized that there were plenty of distractions back in the day as well as now, although it would be curious to know what they were during the Quattrocento period.

    The thing is these distractions weren’t portable and embedded in all-in-one devices. They had a certain separation that allowed for context-switching, which I’ve found, personally, to be helpful with focus.

    • I’m always amazed when people think there were less distractions in pre-cell phone days. People have always been distracted, even creating distractions to please themselves, as many do now with electronic devices. People seem to need to fill their lives with things to focus on, no matter how many tend to intrude on their own.

  3. Thanks for the extreme chunked down, drilled down intuitive help, this is wonderful. We can have target fixation, failure to see the big picture, because focused on one specific target. Yet, we can also have a musical caesura, yet, we seem to fear patience.

    Thanks for the insight. Your friend, Andy Lee Graham, presently in Hait, but from the USA.

  4. Cal, you continue to deliver. Man, you just keep on delivering awesome stuff!!!

    Indeed, your timely essay on Walter Isaacson’s newly-released big biography of Leonardo da Vinci is spot on. As I read your comment—i.e. “I haven’t read it yet (though it’s inevitable I will)”—I realized that that (mostly) makes two of us lol: I’m a bit further ahead in that I’ve read some of Isaacson’s newly-released Leonardo da Vinci biography, but by no means all of it 🙂

    Definitely looking forward to reading it all up; and re-reading your cool essay here!

    When it comes to the domain of productivity nerds, Cal… You, sir, are peerless, and you will always have my support!

    When it comes to the domain of time management, nobody comes even close to my longtime friend and time management coach, Elizabeth Grace Saunders: She is peerless in her domain and will always have my full support!

    I can trace a good part of the reason I’m able to write essays like this one to the amazing work that you two continue to produce…

  5. I listened to the podcast episode Cal referenced last night. Great insight into the life/mind of da Vinci and as always, Brett does a fantastic job on the interview. Cal…when might we see a Deep Work With Cal Newport podcast?

  6. McKay has it backwards. Those “digital” things he mentions are not “distractions”.

    We have been empowered, like the angels, with the speed of thought by the liberating technologies of the Internet and cell phone. I can visit University libraries, see manuscripts and books which would once have been impossible to get to, let alone view.

    I can ask an opinion of someone I last saw 50 years ago, seek out others’ opinions, learn of new things. If anything, the existence of “digital” enhances observation rather than distracts from it.

    The discriminant if focus. If someone is unfocused, then everything, not just “digital”, is a distraction.

  7. Currently reading Isaacson’s Da Vinci – will be with him at Words & Music festival in New Orleans Dec. 6-10 and super excited since Da Vinci has always been a hero… Fascinating read for anyone who hasn’t delved in yet (hint, read on big iPad so you can zoom in on all the little details pointed out in the illustrations)

  8. Oh, c’mon. Distraction is a function of our own brain, not the things around us. Leonardo (none of us should be calling him da Vinci) WAS a genius. He didn’t BECOME a genius.

    The simplest answer is genius can often be the innate ability to NOT be distracted. Sometimes it’s the ability to solve puzzles even THOUGH you’re distracted.

    Leonardo very obviously was fascinated by myriad things, unlike most geniuses who tend to be obsessive. Obsessives tend to be OVERLY focused, there is a very good chance Leonardo was actually pretty scattered. So I’m betting Leonardo’s strength was in accomplishing things DESPITE being distracted.

    It would also appear he had a work ethic, or maybe a natural obsession with seeing things completed.

    The question that I think benefits more people, is how do you avoid being distracted enough to APPEAR MORE like a genius. Because you can’t just stay focused and suddenly BE a genius.

  9. if the world knew of his hidden progeny, and of what they became, one in particular!!!
    curve ball, look back, look forward from his day.

  10. I just finished the book and highly recommend it. My conclusions: Leonardo’s greatest quality was curiosity. He was interested in everything. His greatest challenge was distraction. He was widely known in his time for leaving a trail of unfinished commissions. He was also a perfectionist. He worked on the Mona Lisa for years until right before he died. His greatest skill was his incredible power of observation and his ability to discern minute details.

    Although born with rather incredible artistic talent, he constantly learned and refined is talent by studying optics, perspective and technique. He was clearly better later in life than as a young man, although he was outstanding then. So his genius was the product of both God given ability and his hard work, constantly striving to learn more and to get better.

    There’s a lot of inspiration to be found in Leonardo’s life, and, consequently, in this book.


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