Innovation Now Presented by

How to Master the Leonardo da Vinci To-Do List Code

The genius artist and thinker's to-do list system can organize and motivate you at the same time.
How to Master the Leonardo da Vinci To-Do List Code
Image credit: Photo Josse | Leemage | Getty Images
6 min read
This story originally appeared on Calendar
Presented by

Take a look at your to-do-list. If it’s like mine, it's fairly simple and straightforward. My to-do list is just a Post-It Note. But I know people who use a bullet journal, an app or have replaced their to-do-list with block scheduling.

There’s really no right or wrong way when it comes to your to-do-list. If there is one common trend, however, it’s that most to-do-lists are benign. Do they keep you organized and productive? Sure. But, they’re not ambitious enough to keep you motivated when you need a boost.

Related: Genius Quotes From Leonardo da Vinci That Will Inspire Creativity

How to turn your to-do list into a motivator.

According to historian and author Toby Lester, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook contained a marvelous to-do-list that demonstrates just how motivated and driven he was. It also shows how dedicated he was to learning and creating — even if it seemed impossible.

Robert Krulwich of NPR translated one of Leonardo da Vinci’s lists from the early 1490s. It’s impressive, to say the least. Here are just some of the items on that list:

  • [Calculate] the measurement of Milan and Suburbs
  • Have the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.
  • Get Messer Fazio (a professor of medicine and law in Pavia) to show you about proportion.
  • Ask Benedetto Potinari (A Florentine Merchant) by what means they go on ice in Flander
  • Draw Milan
  • Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night.
  • [Examine] the Crossbow of Mastro Giannetto
  • Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner
  • [Ask about] the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese

Instead of being intimidated by his genius and ambition — get inspired by da Vinci’s to-do-list. Just think if you had just a fraction of his drive and curiosity. You probably would be one of the most productive people around. Of course, that’s easier said than done. But, here’s a couple of ways that you can get started on creating your own da Vinci-like to-do-list.

Related: 7 Secrets for Tackling Your 'To-Do' List Every Day

1. Always carry a notebook.

Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t the only successful person to carry around a notebook. Isaac Newton, Beethoven, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson are all known for carrying with them a pocket notebook. The reason? Aristotle Onassis, the famous Greek shipping tycoon, explained it best:

“Always carry a notebook. Write everything down. When you have an idea, write it down. When you meet someone new, write down everything you know about them. That way you will know how much time they are worth. When you hear something interesting, write it down. Writing it down will make you act upon it. If you don’t write it down you will forget it. That is a million-dollar lesson they don’t teach you in business school!”

But, your notebook isn’t just for remembering things and jotting down your thoughts. Sheryl Sandberg uses her notebook as a daily planner where she scribbles her to-do-lists. After she’s completed each item on her list, she rips the page out. It motivates her to stay on track.

My suggestion would be to use a bullet journal, which is what da Vinci was kind of doing. This way you have once notebook to write down your ideas and keep track of your tasks and events for the day.

2. Embrace random thoughts and doodling.

As noted by NPR, letting your mind “let go, float free,” is essential for creative minds. In fact, when we stop focusing and let our minds wander can be beneficial.

Research has found that people with ADHD tend to be very creative. Because their minds are inhibited or restrained, Scientific American reports that people with ADHD can, “reach higher levels of creative thought and achievement than people without these characteristics,” such as “higher levels of spontaneous idea generation, mind wandering, daydreaming, sensation seeking, energy, and impulsivity.”

Even if you don’t possess these characteristics, don’t hesitate in letting your brain break free by doodling or inquiring about seemingly random thoughts in your notebook and to-do-lists. You never know where that journey will take you.

3. Never stop being curious.

In Walter Isaacson’s biography, Leonardo da Vinci, the author notes: “Over and over again, year after year, Leonardo lists things he must do and learn. Some involve the type of close observation most of us rarely pause to do, such as ‘Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.'" Another gem from da Vinci's notebook: “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.”

Like da Vinci, you should always be curious. Science has found that being curious can help you learn and retain knowledge, grow personally, and become more open to new experiences, which can squash stereotypes.

So, the next time you’re curious, jot that thought down into your to-do-list so that you can learn more about the thoughts and ideas occupying your mind.

Related: The Amazing Side Benefit of Writing a Daily To-Do List

4. Don’t be afraid to set big goals.

“Draw Millan” is an incredibly large and ambitious goal. But, there’s nothing wrong with setting goals of this magnitude. That’s because setting big goals gives you a chance to:

  • Dream. When we dream big, we get excited about the prospect of achieving that dream. 
  • Make long-term improvements. We must realize the structural changes may be needed to make big goals a reality.
  • Become more resilient in the short term. In order to achieve a big goal, you can’t waste time. This makes you more resilient in the short term. For example, you may not feel like working today, but if you don’t, your business will fail. That may help you get out of bed and get to work.
  • Confront reality. Setting big goals makes you get real with yourself. You have to realize what you need to do to make the goal a reality. Sometimes it works, but maybe you realize that it’s best to cut your losses and move on.
  • Develop powerful habits. If you want to achieve a goal, then you’ll need to form new habits to actually accomplish your goal. Without effective systems and processes, you won’t be able to reach your goals.

More from Entrepreneur

Get heaping discounts to books you love delivered straight to your inbox. We’ll feature a different book each week and share exclusive deals you won’t find anywhere else.
Jumpstart Your Business. Entrepreneur Insider is your all-access pass to the skills, experts, and network you need to get your business off the ground—or take it to the next level.
Are you paying too much for business insurance? Do you have critical gaps in your coverage? Trust Entrepreneur to help you find out.

Latest on Entrepreneur