The Cult of Doing – Explained (Sort of)


This will make sense shortly.

No secret here – we are doers:

“Just Do It” – Nike


“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” – Walt Disney


“It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.” – Thomas Jefferson

And this is a good thing, since without doing we would likely be incredibly thoughtful and articulate dead people, able to expound on life’s great mysteries but quite incapable of putting together a decent sandwich. This sandwich-free world would be a sad place indeed, and I would want no part of it.


Ridiculous. I love it.


In fact, our affinity to the Action Imperative is pretty obvious. We ask each other, “How are you doing?”, we reward “results delivered”, politicians promise to “get things done” on behalf of their constituents. We are often chastised for “just sitting around” but “busy” people are left to continue their activity uninterrupted. We even expect certain levels of productivity from inanimate objects (heaven forbid your money sits in a non-interest bearing account!). Why this attention to doing? What happened to the pleasure (and I would say necessity, despite the risk of no sandwiches) of just being?


Maybe she has the answer? Read on!!

Enter Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist who in the late 1920s came upon a memory and motivational theory whilst observing the waiters at a Viennese coffee house. She noticed that the waiters could only remember the orders that were “in progress”; that no matter how simple or how recent a completed order was, the waiters had already forgotten it, “making room” for the next order in queue. Studying further (in more controlled, less caffeinated lab conditions), she found that our mind wants to know what is next, it wants to finish the next task, and it will keep working at that “next” task, even when interrupted with new tasks. Later psychologists labeled this the “Need for Closure” – the need to end uncertainty and to resolve unfinished business.

So what’s with the Tetris blocks then? First of all, if you have never played the game, go here and play for a bit: Please set a timer before you go, lest you never come back. Basically, Tetris (and life!) is a series of interrupted tasks which your brain is constantly trying to resolve. The psychological need to complete the task (complete a row of blocks) in Tetris is the same psychological need driving you to complete your “to do” list. It is very powerful and to a certain extent quite fulfilling, and this is where the danger lies.

Doing Things vs. Being Someone

Here’s the rub: if you spend your time doing things, “working” your list, or chasing achievements and you haven’t spent any time defining who or how you want to be while doing those things, you run the risk of quite literally losing yourself in the activity. How many devoted parents “lose” their identities when they enter the cycle of caring for their kids? How many people have “no life” outside of work? How many celebrities or sports figures physically change who they are in order to meet their professional goals, or compromise their ideals in order to be “on top”? How many of us have sold out somewhere in our lives in order to achieve something – literally traded being something for the ability to do something? Most importantly, what are we ready to do in order to be ourselves? Oh the irony!




Article References:

BBC Future

Scientific American

Image Credits:

Tetris Blocks

Bluma Zeigarnik

Big Sandwich

2 thoughts on “The Cult of Doing – Explained (Sort of)

  1. Felix, love all of this the layout, the writing, the thoughts. Thank you. Deborah, it was Bing Crosby.

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