The humble to-do list; viewed as a staple of modern productivity and an essential component to actually getting things done. Are they actually effective? Well, that’s a little up in the air- it depends on a few different factors… One of those is certainly how you organise your list and how you respond to it. More on that towards the end of this post. Firstly, the reason this came about…
Leonardo Da Vinci has always been somewhat of an idol to me, the pinnacle of human achievement and maximising the limits of potential to excel in a variety of fields. The ultimate renaissance man, as they were known back in the day; what I consider to be the ultimate form of success and certainly something I aspire towards personally. The other day I came across an article that claimed to have one of Da Vinci’s To-Do lists; my interest was immediately piqued.
Leonardo Da Vinci was famous for carrying around a small notebook with him, observing and then noting his observations about the world. I have a copy of the translated version but haven’t fully dived in as of yet. The first few pages give me the sense that my comparatively feeble mind may not be able to fully grasp the extent of the great man’s imagination and thought.
In the notebooks Da Vini kept, he included To-Do lists, just as you or I may do to remind us to complete work tasks, make a call, go shopping etc. Da Vinci’s was slightly more extravagant.. check out the translated version, written around 1490;
- (calculate) the measurement of Milan and Suburbs
- [Find] a book that treats of Milan and its churches, which is to be had at the stationer’s on the way to Cordusio
- [Discover] the measurement of Corte Vecchio (the courtyard in the duke’s palace).
- [Discover] the measurement of the Castello (the duke’s palace itself)
- Get 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.
- Get the Brera Friar (at the Benedictine Monastery to Milan) to show you De Ponderibus (a medieval text on mechanics)
- [Talk to] Giannino, the Bombardier, re. the means by which the tower of Ferrara is walled without loopholes (no one really knows what Da Vinci meant by this)
- Ask Benedetto Potinari (A Florentine Merchant) by what means they go on ice in Flanders
- 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
- Try to get Vitolone (the medieval author of a text on optics), which is in the Library at Pavia, which deals with the mathematic.
Seem pretty standard? Just drawing a city and learning from the foremost experts in fields as diverse as astronomy, engineering, mechanics and mathematics.
Another over-achiever, innovator and renaissance man named Thomas Edison kept a similarly ambitious To-Do list:
- Cotton Picker
- New Standard Phonograph
- Hand turning phonograph
- New Slow speed cheap Dynamo
- New Expansion Pyromagnetic Dynamo
- Deaf Apparatus
- Electrical Piano
- Long distance standard Telephone Transmitter which employs devices of recording phonogh
- Telephone Coil of Fe [iron] by tt in Parafine or other insulator
- Platina Point Trans using new phono Recorder devices
- Gred Battery for Telephones
“ “ “ “ Long Distance
“ “ “ — Phonoplex
“ “ “ Jump Telegraph
“ “ “ Voltmeter
- Improved Magnetic Bridge for practical work
- Motograph Mirror
“ Telephone practical
- Artificial Cable
- Phone motor to work on 100 volt ckts
- Duplicating Phono Cylinders
- Deposit in vacuo on lace, gold + silver also on cotton molten chemical compound of lustrous surfaces to imitate
- silk— also reg plating system
- Vacuous Ore milling Large Machine
- Magnetic Separator Large
- Locking material for Iron sand
- Artificial Silk
- Artificial filiments [sic]
- New [illeg.]
- Uninflammable Insulating Material
- Good wax for phonograph
- Phonographic Clock
- Large Phonograph for Novels, etc.
- Pig Iron Expmts with Electricity + Magnetism
- Malleablizing Cast now in Vacuo
- Drawing fine wire
- Joy phonograph for Dolls
- Cable Motograph….
This was perhaps a third of the whole list. I believe Nicola Tesla had one fairly similar…
Perhaps this is more typical to the ordinary To-Do List, posted by the Murdoch police in Australia;
— Murdoch Police (@MurdochPol) April 30, 2015
Now onto the burning question…
Are To-Do Lists Actually Effective?
Time Management ‘expert’ Ken Kruse recently penned an article that practically described the To-Do List as a complete waste of time. In it he states the key reasons are 1. they don’t account for time and 2. they don’t prioritise importance. So we essentially tick off the easy tasks first and leave the harder, more time consuming and likely more important tasks fall by the wayside. In the article, he also claimed that ultra-productive people such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson never kept to-do lists themselves. Well, Sir Richard had a response to this;
“I can assure him that I do indeed write to-do lists and prioritise items. I live my life by writing lists – there is one next to me right now. Without to-do lists, I would use my time far less effectively, and have a lot less fun.”
“The crucial part of a to-do list is in the name – you need to actually DO the things on your list. The act of writing your tasks and thoughts down is useful in and of itself, as it helps to organise your thoughts and give you focus. However, if you then ignore your own advice and don’t follow up, the lists will lose most of their power.”
So what makes a to-do list effective? Prioritising and scheduling. You don’t have to get all the items done on your list, so long as you complete the most important. My scheduling as well, you’re allocating a time slot to each task that means you know exactly when it has to be done. It’s not something that can be put off until later. From both Da Vinci and Edison, I think we can glean that our lists, which represent our daily lives, need to be captivating. If the tasks actually pique our interest, we’re far more likely to get them done.
Do you keep a to-do list? How do you organise it? Do you find it effective? Let me know in the comments…