Home / Notes / Actually Do Things

Actually Do Things

An important mental model for making progress on work to be done



It doesn’t matter how good you are at doing things, if what you’re doing is crap. But it also doesn’t matter how good my plan is if I never act upon it. -Neel Nanda

Key Takeaway(s)

  • There are two kinds of people in the world: People who actually do things, and people who don’t.
  • To achieve a goal, this breaks down into two parts: figure out what needs to be done, and actually do it.


  • Notice the small problems, and fix them. Notice when everyone isn’t enjoying what they’re doing, and be the first person to voice this. Notice when the jug of water is empty, and be the one to fill it. Notice when you say “oh, I can do this tomorrow” and do it today. Notice when you think “I should get round to this some time” or “I’ve always wanted to learn juggling” and actually do it. Notice when something is inefficient, notice the thing nobody is doing, and be the person who does it!
  • The point of this, is that I avoid the paralysing perfectionism and uncertainty by changing the question I am answering. It doesn’t matter if I’m not doing the right thing, because what I’m doing isn’t that important. I can close off the paralysing thoughts, not by answering them on their own terms, but by realising that the choices I make today affect the kind of person I’ll be for the rest of my life.

“You have been asking what you could do in the great events that are now stirring, and have found that you could do nothing. But that is because your suffering has caused you to phrase the question in the wrong way... Instead of asking what you could do, you ought to have been asking what needs to be done.”
—Steven Brust, The Paths of the Dead

  • When you ask “What can I do?”, you’re trying to do your best. Your best is whatever you can do without the slightest inconvenience. It is whatever you can do with the money in your pocket, minus whatever you need for your accustomed lunch. What you can do with those resources, may not give you very good odds of winning.
  • But what needs to be done? Maybe what needs to be done requires three times your life savings, and you must produce it or fail.
  • So trying to have “maximized your probability of success”—as opposed to trying to succeed—is a far lesser barrier. You can have "maximized your probability of success" using only the money in your pocket, so long as you don't demand actually winning.
  • Only when you want, above all else, to win will you put in the effort to actually maximise the probability of a successful outcome.
  • But if all you want is to “maximise the probability of success using available resources", then that's the easiest thing in the world to convince yourself you've done. The very first plan you hit upon, will serve quite well as “maximising”—if necessary, you can generate an inferior alternative to prove its optimality. Any tiny resource that you care to put in, will be what is “available”.
  • Doing the right tasks is more important than doing your tasks efficiently. In fact, too much concern for efficiency is a leading cause of procrastination. Say "no" more often, and use your time for tasks that really matter.
  • Delegate responsibility as often as possible. Throw away unimportant tasks and items.
  • Keep a record of your time use. (Quantified Self can help.)
  • Write down your goals. Break them down into smaller goals, and break these into manageable tasks. Schedule these tasks into your calendar.
  • Process notes and emails only once. Tackle one task at a time, and group similar tasks together.
  • Make use of your downtime (plane rides, bus rides, doctor's office waitings). These days, many of your tasks can be completed on your smartphone.


Make it a point of principle to do things, not because the thing is necessarily the perfect action, but because I choose the life where I do things, over the life where I always wait for the perfect opportunity.