Research on resolutions is very instructive when it comes to traditional to-do lists. It turns out that motivation to fulfill a resolution such as losing weight or getting in shape goes down after we look into diets or check out gyms. The act of doing something–anything–relieves the anxiety that moved us to make the resolution in the first place.
I was familiar with this phenomenon when I counseled anxious clients. One exercise I often assigned was to write down everything that brought on fear or worry. Next to each item clients were to write down one thing they planned to do about it. Next to "afraid I'll get colon cancer" might be "schedule colonoscopy" or "pray about it tomorrow." Even if no action were taken, anxiety often disappeared simply because it was written and a plan made.
How does this apply to to-do lists? I bet you already know. Many of us use a to-do list like the anxiety exercise I used in psychotherapy. We write down what we plan to do and we feel less anxious. Because we feel less anxious, we may be less likely to do the tasks. As I've continued to do life without my trusty to-do list, I've noticed that I feel tempted to write things down when I am anxious. Instead of succumbing to this habit, I've forced myself to simply do the tasks that occur to me in the moment. In this way, I use the tension for my benefit. How many times have you written things down only to forget about them? Because I fear that I may not remember them later, I do them right away.
Would you rather be less anxious and not productive or a little more tense as you get things done?