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The To-Do List: We've Got It All Wrong!

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

by Ulises Pabon

Take a look at your to-do list. If it looks anything like mine, it's probably packed with:

  • Complete report on …

  • Call so-and-so

  • Write an email to …

  • Schedule an appointment with …

You get the idea. It’s a to-do list. It’s a list of stuff we need to do.

I started writing to-dos in a pocket-size DAY-TIMER planner when I was in college. I got hooked and became a time-management junkie. I eventually moved from DAY-TIMER to the Franklin Planner. Then the Palm Pilot appeared and I mastered writing my appointments and to-dos in Graffiti (a single-stroke shorthand handwriting recognition system for the Palm OS). I read all the classics in time management - Alek Makenzie, Hyrum Smith, Stephen Covey, and David Allen, to name a few. Fast forward a couple of years and the iPhone enters the scene. I got onboard and experimented with a dozen or so to-do Apps. Today, I use Todoist as my task manager, with my iPhone, my iPad, and my Windows PC all synced.

Bottom line, if you need advice on managing your to-dos, ask me. I'm an expert!

Or so I thought until I started to read Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson about a month ago. Four pages into the Introduction of this thorough, entertaining, and insightful biography, was all I needed to realize I had it all wrong.

Da Vinci left over 7,000 pages of notes. They are packed with sketches, math calculations, anatomical drawings, tips for painters, notes on the eye and optics, drawings of inventions, and, violà, his to-do lists!

In the Introduction, Isaacson gives us a quick glimpse into Da Vinci’s insatiable curiosity by sharing his to-dos for a specific day in 1490s Milan. Take a look:

  • Learn the measurement of Milan and its suburbs.

  • Draw Milan.

  • Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.

  • Ask Giannino the Bombardier about how the tower of Ferrara is walled.

  • Ask Protinari by what means they walk on ice in Flanders.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?

  • Inflate the lungs of a pig and observe whether they increase in width and in length, or only in width.

  • Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.

Da Vinci's to-dos are all about observing, exploring, and learning. They span a broad variety of disciplines (Describe the tongue of a woodpecker! Seriously?!). The breadth of topics is crazy and the specificity of his to-dos is mind-boggling! They evidence an openness to consult and learn from others. Some to-dos are outright questions. His insatiable appetite for knowledge is evident and indisputable. This list wasn't written by a knower; it was written by a learner.

I was reading the book on my iPad Kindle App and I couldn't help but switch to Todoist. My to-dos looked pathetic. Yeah, they covered important tasks, commitments I had made, and stuff I had decided to do. I had all the right arguments to justify each and every one of them. Yet, I couldn't avoid feeling like I was wasting my time. Next to Da Vinci's list, my to-dos read like a litany of inconsequential chores.

I caught my ego digging into my lists, fishing for curiosity and learning to-dos. I found a few; but nothing close to observing a goose's foot!

I discovered that none of my to-dos were questions. Why would they be? I had learned and accepted that to-dos were… well, things to do.

As I continued to study my to-dos, a thought crossed my mind: when the expediency of doing shuts down the curiosity for learning, you’ve lost it, you're done, game over. Was that me or was it Da Vinci whispering in my ear? I don’t know.

I jumped back to the Kindle App which, somehow, made me think about Da Vinci and the internet. Would his to-dos be so fascinating had he had Google a couple of keystrokes away? A glimpse of his list gave me the answer. Of course, they would; perhaps even more so. Google provides answers; it doesn’t formulate questions.

Knowing and learning are two different things. Knowing is a state. Either you know or you don’t know. Learning, on the other hand, is a process you engage in. It has its roots in curiosity and it’s driven by experimentation (doing) and reflection (thinking).

In the television series Star Trek, Captain Kirk and Spock would travel instantaneously between locations, using the ship's teleportation technology. "Beam me up, Scotty" became the catchphrase that captured this sci-fi dream.

You can be "beamed" into Santiago de Compostela, Spain, a la Captain Kirk. What you'll miss, I’ve been told, is the self-reflection, learning, and spiritual growth you would have gained if you had walked the 300-kilometer peregrination of Camino De Santiago to get there. When the expediency of doing shuts down the curiosity for learning, you're done.

To be clear, doing and learning are not opposites. In fact, doing is an essential component of learning. You validate or invalidate a hypothesis with action. And expediency is not a vice. Get things done; meet your commitments; deliver results.

The vice is expediency without purpose; doing without reflection. The larger lesson to be distilled from Da Vinci's to-dos and from his life is the importance of nurturing curiosity and learning as much as we emphasize execution.

My to-dos look a lot different since I read his biography. I’ve added categories in Todoist to capture stuff I want to learn about and explore. I've overcome my learned resistance to add questions, making How can I... and Why... a lot more common among my to-dos. I’m asking, “Who can help me with this?” more often. Therefore, names appear more frequently on my to-dos. I've rekindled old interests, like astronomy, that had fallen off my radar screen. And, most importantly, my whole approach to this management tool - the to-do list - has changed.

By the way, there’s one to-do in my list that unmistakably carries Da Vinci’s trademark. It’s a question to myself and it reads: What’s your Mona Lisa?

Hey, it’s just a figure of speech, a provocation to make me think and keep me on my toes. I’m not presuming to be a Da Vinci. Now... if only I could figure out how to get my hands on that goose …


Note: None of the brands mentioned in this article were sponsored mentions.

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