Leonardo da Vinci’s to-do list

July 4, 2021

In between reading space opera and histories of World War 2, I sometimes like to read biographies. This week, I purchased Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci. The book hasn’t captured my imagination yet, but I did love reading about Da Vinci’s to-do list.

Because yes, Leonardo da Vinci also needed a to-do list, back in the 1400s.

Let’s compare Leonardo’s to-do list with my own. Leonardo’s includes:

  • [Calculate] the measurement of Milan and its suburbs
  • Draw Milan
  • Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle
  • Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner
  • Get the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese, the Frenchman
  • [Examine] the Crossbow of Mastro Giannetto
  • [Talk to] Giannino, the Bombardier, re: the means by which the tower of Ferrara is walled without loopholes

Meanwhile, my own to-do list for this past week included:

  • Set up temporary bedroom for visiting friends
  • Clean the apartment before my friends visit
  • Order new skincare products
  • Fill in COVID vaccination paperwork
  • Figure out where my package went
  • Reserve a time at the spa
  • Clean my scuba gear and put it away
  • Settle up vacation spending

Not quite as impressive. Although one wonders whether Leonardo managed all of his items in one week.

Would Leonardo have enjoyed using a serious task manager like Things 3 or OmniFocus? Perhaps he would enjoy being able to break down his projects: surely “calculate the measurement of Milan and its suburbs” involved a number of steps and he may not have done it in one sitting. He might have marveled at using a computer database to manage to-dos.

Then again, he might also have found computers terribly distracting. He was, of course, fantastically productive without computers, without a smartphone, and without Siri shortcuts. The biographer Isaacson suggests that Leonardo was easily distracted, leaving many projects unfinished. Perhaps having access to modern technology would have exacerbated his scatterbrain, depriving us of his best works.

Leonardo lived in a vastly different time, of course. He may have had an assistant or people otherwise taking care of his daily needs. I don’t know. Either way, comparing his life with our own isn’t fair.

Still, it’s comforting to see how precise Leonardo was with many of his to-dos. Specifying exactly what you want to do apparently worked in the 1400s, just as it does today.

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