A Fresh Way To Look At Your To-Do List, Inspired By Leonardo DaVinci

In the codex, Leonardo notes for the first time that the center of gravity of a flying bird does not coincide with its center of pressure.  magnified imageFrom Leonardo’s notebooks. And yes, it’s mirror writing.


To-do lists are part of our well-organized lives, right? Or do we just think they should be? The internet throws us so very many apps that will corral and perfect our languishing to-do lists. Some people love them, but many creative minds find them stultifying and tedious. Is it possible to get a to-do list to zero? What would you do then? 

But when keeping all the plates spinning gets complicated, you can find it helpful to write it all down. This can make the craziness seem manageable, at least for a few moments. It forces you to focus your thoughts and set priorities. But, for myself, I am not disciplined enough to review my list every day, crossing things off and adding new ones. Tasks are rarely simple and well-defined enough to stand that kind of scrutiny. They evolve. Projects get delayed or advanced. Workload is dynamic, and what’s on deck often is dependent on other people: team members, clients, leadership, even nowadays, the weather. Keeping the to-do list up-to-date can easily become a burden, not a helper.

So here’s a to-do list strategy you might consider that is not just a project management recitation of tasks. Recently, I stumbled onto a whole other kind of to-do list. It’s one that feeds right into a creative brain like yours, one that’s bursting with curiosity and needs stimulation from all sorts of sources to keep fertile and keep the imagination on the boil.

What I discovered was the to-do lists that Leonardo Da Vinci wrote for himself.  I propose that you consider them a guide on how you might refresh your own to-do list practices. Leonardo’s notes are not just project management items of the order of:

• Finish the Adoration of the Magi

• Send chocolates to Lorenzo di Medici

• Build airscrew model

• Pick out wood panel for La Gioconda.

His lists were often apparently random ideas that he wanted to follow up with, topics that he wanted to learn about, or “shiny objects” that demanded his attention. Some are clearly related to ongoing projects and some are seemingly quite unconnected.

There are to-dos scattered throughout his notebooks. Many of his questions are answered right away. I don’t know whether he looked back and followed up on open issues, though that seems unlikely (he still hasn’t finished “The Adoration of the Magi!”) But I am quite sure that the act of writing it down, of framing the question, would have made it much easier to remember. As it surely will for you.

There are random questions that occur to me all the time, about actors, colors, designs, composers, materials, birds, places — so much. Looking it up is so easy nowadays, but just looking it up and then feeling like you’re done is usually not useful in the long haul. Write it down when you have found the answer, even just writing the question will make much more of the information stick for when you need it. 

So I suggest you take a cue from Leonardo. Everything you are intrigued by does not have to be related to current projects. In fact, the bigger the breadth of your curiosity, the more material you will have in your head — and your notebook — to feed into your next creative challenge or provide the next inspiration.

Here are some examples from Leonardo’s notes:

• “Have two boxes made to go on a pack saddle.”

• “See how the birds are nourished in their eggs.”

• “Inflate the lungs of a pig, and observe whether they increase in width and length, or increase in width while diminishing in length.”

• “Go every Saturday to the hot bath where you will see naked men.

• “Make trial of the actual (flying) machine over the water so that if you fall you do not do yourself any harm.”

• “…it should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds or mud or like places, in which, if you consider them well, you may find really marvelous ideas.”

• “Which tendon causes the eye to move so that one eye moves the other?”

• “What is sneezing? What is yawning?”

• “Christofano da Castiglione who lives at the Pieta has a fine head.”

• “Ask the wife of Biagio Crivelli how the capon nurtures and hatches the eggs of the hen, — he being drunk.”

• “An apprentice to do the models for me.”

So what interests you? What are you wondering about? Put your new style on your to-do list and get it going.


A version of this article by Michael Pollock first appeared on Forbes.com. See if you can spot the difference!