Do Something Syndrome: Stop Doing the Wrong Things

08.03.2019 |

Episode #8 of the course Mental models: How to make better decisions by John Robin


Welcome back!

Today’s mental model might sound similar to Day 6’s Say Something Syndrome. However, it’s quite different.

Do Something Syndrome helps us appreciate another tendency that wastes time and energy and teaches us how to avoid this outcome.


What Is Do Something Syndrome and Why Is It True?

“Don’t just sit there, do something!”

How many times have you heard that before?

The next time you do, you can think of today’s mental model, which is the reverse:

“Don’t just do something, sit there!”

Do Something Syndrome embodies how we often feel that once we invest a significant amount of time in an endeavor, we must finish.

But getting results requires constant refinement, and whatever course of action we commit to, we’ll often get it wrong. We’ll need to reevaluate if the work we’re doing is accomplishing the results we’re after.

This is why it’s not wise to assume that simple repetition will lead to eventual success. Under the Do Something Syndrome mental model, we usually fail to see this reality. We feel the reward of committing to a process, rather than the objective benefit.

The only way beyond this is to objectively assess our work and be willing to make modifications.

After Stan Lee returned from fighting in World War II, he wanted to write the Great American Novel. He resented that he was stuck in his comic writing gig, but he was smart with his time and didn’t get stuck in Do Something Syndrome. Instead of investing wholly in that novel goal, he invested in improving himself as a writer, based on reality and objective results. The process of writing that novel evolved into something else: Marvel Comics.

He never wrote the Great American Novel, but if history is any witness, we can all agree that he achieved an even more important goal.


Applying Do Something Syndrome

Take anything you might have put a lot of time into. It might be a particular kind of workout, a weekly volunteer commitment, or a big project at work. What is the actual benefit?

There’s a good chance you’ll discover that many of the things you do, you’re doing just to do them. Do Something Syndrome pushes us to do, and we are rewarded with our own sense of accomplishment for doing. That reward can be misleading.

The goal is to see past Do Something Syndrome.

How do you actually spend your time?

This can be something small. You might have a particular game you play on your break time, which often sucks you in. This game might nag you with notifications, to the point that you have it open while eating dinner with your family.

Cut it out altogether, just as an experiment.

Instead of doing that activity on your break time, you can now do something else. It can be anything!

For example, I take Highbrow courses and subscribe to educational newsletters. Instead of reading them when I get them, I star the email. Whenever I have a break (e.g., waiting in line for coffee), I open my starred email folder and work my way from the bottom up, always picking up where I left off.

Before this, I used to play chess games on my phone. It felt like it was important to me, because that’s how Do Something Syndrome works. When I realized that I can probably do something better with that time, it opened a whole new door of possibilities.

The point of invoking the Do Something Syndrome model is to give you the power to recognize how many of your habits are defaults. You can see that just because you’re doing them, it doesn’t mean you have to keep doing them.

The only reason you should keep doing them is if you think they have maximum benefit to you. You can apply Bayesian Updating continually to reassess them and keep improving how you spend your time.



Do Something Syndrome helps us understand how we personalize the value of an action, rather than assessing its actual value. Using Bayesian Updating, we can always improve the accuracy of how we work. Mindlessly doing without thinking about why doesn’t allow us to be critical about if what we’re spending our time on is bringing about the results we want.


Step 1: Pick one small habit or activity you repeatedly do each week.

Step 2: Stop doing it for the week.

Step 3: Pick something to do in its place. Ideally, pick something that helps further other goals (especially ones you might have already identified in previous days’ homework).

Step 4: Repeat this weekly.

We’re getting close to the end of our course! Tomorrow, we’ll explore the power of fixing the weakest link, aka Multiplying by Zero.


Recommended book

The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business by Josh Kaufman


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