Wouldn’t it be nice to be pretty good at a lot of different skills and hobbies?
Take Leonardo da Vinci. He was more than pretty good at a lot of things. But the renaissance man - who somehow had enough time to master engineering, design, anatomy, painting, sculpture, journaling, mirror journaling, mathematics, literature, geology, astronomy, botany, cartography, sketching, invention, music, and architecture, just to name a few - might not always be the perfect individual to model ourselves after.
Some of us need something different than the renaissance approach. If you find yourself struggling to balance work, leisure, family, friends, learning, reading, writing, and art, maybe the problem isn’t that you need to work harder. Maybe you need more creative focus.
On the Perils of Doing Too Much at Once
Da Vinci, the quintessential “renaissance man,” could do a little bit of everything. Genius though he was, even he suffered from the downsides of multi-tasking.
Bill Gates, who now owns many of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous journals, writes that da Vinci “often switched his focus to new domains right in the middle of a project, leaving works unfinished.”
In one famous example, da Vinci received a commission to create a statue of a nobleman on a horse. He researched and researched. He went off on tangents like creating new horse-feeding systems, or cleaner stable designs for horses.
But he never finished the statue.
If even da Vinci struggled with the issues that come from multi-tasking, how much worse is it for the rest of us? He didn’t have even access to the plentiful distractions of the modern digital world! We do. With that challenge in mind, maybe we should re-evaluate our need to be a somewhat-good at too many things.
Overcoming the Concentration Problem
Our struggle is often wanting too much. In turn, we try to be like da Vinci (whether we realize it or not). There’s the tendency to tackle too many different things at once. This can lead to some challenges along the way:
Too many devices. A recent study found that people who regularly switch between modern devices are more likely to struggle with problems of self-control.
Too little mindfulness. A 2012 study put some participants through mindfulness training and found they were better able to manage the stress of work and stay on each task longer. They even recalled what they did throughout the experiment better than the other participants.
Too much internal focus. It’s OK, and even productive, to focus on external things once in a while. Research suggests that external focus exercising led to better athletic performance and reaction times.
The “renaissance” approach didn’t preclude intense creative focus, either. Instead, figures like da Vinci had a propensity to focus intensely - maybe too intensely - on one subject at a time. Rather than trying to add a new app to manage your workflow, what if the answer is less instead of more? You need to cut, rather than add.
How to Avoid Doing Too Much
The simplest way to avoid doing too much is to cut out what doesn’t matter and what doesn’t work. Here’s how to tell what that might be in your situation.
Use the KonMari Method - with your time. Marie Kondo famously beseeches us to declutter our lives by asking whether a particular object in our homes sparks any joy. Why can’t it be the same with our time? If spending 15 minutes a day on DuoLingo to halfway learn a language you’ll never use is getting in the way of more productive time, no one will fault you for abandoning it in favor of what really matters to you.
Put your focus where it counts. It’s one thing to cut away at the habits that eat into your time. But do you make time for the habits that really matter? Da Vinci’s journals aren’t the logs of someone with no attention span. They’re the logs of a man who didn’t know how not to focus on the things that fascinated him.
Force yourself to do the practice that matters. That’s right: you’ll have to do the hard stuff. Deliberate practice is the difference between shooting basketballs for fun and Kobe Bryant’s habit of trying to make 800 shots per session. Avoid aimless practice and arrive at your creative focus every day with a purpose in mind.
Lessons from the “Renaissance” Approach to Creativity
While there are unquestionable benefits to creative focus, we can’t ignore the obvious: da Vinci’s methods worked for him.
The renaissance approach helps us build the skills essential to our primary focus. In one example, da Vinci once spent 72 pages on the subject of the flow of water, detailing river movements and observing how water cascaded into itself when coming down a fall. Sounds like a pointless exercise for an artist - unless you really, really like water.
But da Vinci used it. He incorporated that view of water into the cascading curls of Jesus in his painting “The Savior of the World,” even writing himself that “water resembles the behavior of hair.” Without da Vinci’s eclectic approach to the world, his paintings would have looked different - and less distinctly his.
One method is to use disparate interests to reframe old ideas in fresh ways.
Take Andy Weir’s novel “The Martian,” which engages us on multiple levels. Foremost among them: the science of botany, which is thickly layered into the novel’s construction and keeps us engaged while Mark Watney narrates the details of how he survives. This is a fresh take on a tale that goes back to Robinson Crusoe and beyond.
The balance between intense creative focus and a renaissance approach to life is still an unsolved riddle. Its answer is different for everybody. But if you find yourself doing too much and accomplishing too little, consider what you might cut from your life to make yourself more effective at what counts.
Dan Kenitz is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. He’s previously written for Grasshopper and GoToMeeting. You can follow him on Twitter.