The Da Vinci Method

Illustration courtesy of Wendy MacNaughton for NPR.

By way of Andrew Sullivan, I came across an extremely compelling piece about a to do list found amidst the notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. From the early 1490s, the to do list denotes the activities that Da Vinci had planned for a week.  Along with the article came the illustration that translated the list.  Da Vinci’s activities spanned an exceptional range of subjects, truly showcasing his reputation as the ultimate “Renaissance Man”.

I found the formatting of the list to be of particular interest. Overall, Da Vinci’s list items tended to begin with a verb of some sort, normally one both immediately descriptive of the task and piquing of one’s curiosity.

Words like CALCULATE, FIND and DISCOVER, EXAMINE, DRAW and ASK precede most of Da Vinci’s goals. Some of the tasks obviously tend to Da Vinci’s work. Many surely had some future value in Da Vinci’s wide-ranging work but appear on the surface to be purely whimsical.

Based on this example from Da Vinci, I created a new to-do list method that I have closely followed for the past week, thus far at a good level of success.  At the beginning of each page of a new Field Notes Brand Northerly notebook, I inscribe a header following this template:

Being the Xth Day of [Inser Month], I Shall Accomplish the Following:

I always do this on the preceding evening (Sunday night prior to Monday morning, for example) and follow it with as many tasks as I can fit on that page.  I cheated slightly in the example below, but I try to contain all activities to one page; a list of 15 tasks is more credibly accomplishable than a list of 100.

Each entry begins with a dynamic verb like those chosen by Da Vinci.  RESPOND, REVIEW, CONFIRM, WRITE, READ, RESEARCH, SPEAK, FIND are but a few found on my list for today.  Each of these is followed by a task. Each task is specific and measurable, not to the extent that a GTD list would be, but just enough that it’s quite clear whether or not the task has been completed. When a task is in process that can’t be finished all at once (such as working on a task that requires a response from someone else to complete), I put half a checkmark in the corresponding checkbox.  When it’s complete, the box is checked.

I don’t complete the tasks in order, and I think it’s important not to do so.  If you’re anything like me, you tend to work in rhythms and often have a good idea what kind of task you’d be most effective at completing at any particular moment. The action verbs that start each task make it easy to pick a task, based on which kind of activity sounds most palatable at the moment.

I find it’s also important that, like Da Vinci, certain items be included that may not normally be considered “to-do list” items.  For example, “COMPLETE a dungeon in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” has appeared on my list, because it’s something I’d like to tend to that fills a useful part of the day: the need for a break from time to time.

I have yet to fully complete all of the items on a day’s list in that day.  Tasks left undone carry forward to the next day.  However, I always use the action verb and then direct myself back to a previous day’s page.  For example, “RESEARCH from yesterday.”  This ensures that I will rifle back through old pages each day briefly, an action that contains two benefits. First, it’s encouraging to see how much has been accomplished.  Second, it’s useful to see how long a task has been delayed; if it’s been in the list for too many days, it merits a higher priority.

I’ve never been much of a “list person”, but I’ve found this process useful so far. Especially because I have many tasks to tend to currently in many different areas, it’s often easy to fall into a sense of paralysis when trying to juggle so many things at once. The Da Vinci Method makes it easier for me to switch between tasks based on my working rhythms, as well, capitalizing on the parts of each day where my brain is best suited to particular tasks.

This post was one such task. Perhaps one day I’ll work on putting together an iOS app following this method, but in the meantime, I’d recommend picking up a notebook and trying it out. Keep it with you throughout the day and add tasks to tomorrow as you think them up. Evaluate and add to that list just before bedtime and prepare to be more successful tomorrow.