Do Something Syndrome: Why We Feel Compelled to Act


“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams we would be
reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing,
and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress
while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

— Roman satirist Petronius Arbiter


I was flipping back through one of my favorite books, Seeking Wisdom, when I came across this quote in the section where Bevelin talks about ‘Do Something Syndrome.’

There is something almost poetic in the way that Petronius (27 AD — 66 AD) so succinctly captures a phenomenon that most of us have been through.

There are numerous reasons why someone may choose action over the more logical course of inaction — some conscious and others subconscious. We may, for instance, act on bad advice when we haven’t done the work to understand a problem, we may succumb to peer pressure, the idea that ‘everyone is doing it,’ we may follow our hearts (and buy that fancy car we really want instead of keeping the reliable one we have), blindly follow the lead of an expert, or, perhaps most dangerously, we may simply want to appear like we are doing something.

Maybe we just can’t sit still. This idea isn’t new.

We all have moments where we fall victim to the curse of Do Something Syndrome. In fact, the modern organization is full of do something syndrome. The key is to try and realize when we are doing it and back away.

So next time you feel the urge to do something for the sake of doing something remember what Thoreau said: “It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Don’t confuse activity and results. They are not the same thing. There is no point working hard at something you shouldn’t be doing in the first place.

One of the great advantages in decision making is the ability not to do something just to be active.

Still curious? Most of what you’re going to do today is not essential.