Use the Cult of Done Manifesto to Avoid Procrastination and Perfectionism

The Cult of Done Manifesto offers thirteen principles for getting things done. I found them useful for avoiding procrastination and perfectionism. Here are the principles along with my commentary and suggestions for entrepreneurs.

Cult of Done Manifesto

Use the Cult of Done Manifesto to Avoid
Procrastination and Perfectionism

Bre Pettis authored the “Cult of Done Manifesto“in collaboration with Kio Stark in March 2009. What follows are my suggestions for where and how to apply the 13 elements of the Manifesto. The original numbering has been preserved as section headings. The comments are my observations, extensions, and elaborations.

1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action, and completion.

For “Not Knowing” I sometimes substitute

  • anxiety
  • repeatedly making lists
  • imagining how good it will be when I am done
  • (repeatedly) making excuses
  • confusion
  • embracing the fertile void of sleepless nights (h/t Cecily Drucker)

Your mileage may vary.

2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.

This fantastic insight helps to inhibit your latent–or sometimes all too active–perfectionism. Think about who you will ask to review your draft and just show it to them as a way of lessening anxiety. A shortlist of potential reviewers is better than just one person. Feedback from any of them can trigger new insights and revisions while waiting for a single person can take forever. Subsequent drafts can go to larger audiences.

3. There is no editing stage.

I disagree with this one. I think you do your audience a disservice if you don’t spend some time revising and polishing what you have done. You don’t want obvious mistakes to put potential audience members (or customers) off. And you want to avoid inadvertently communicating a lack of care that may mean your work never finds an audience. Ed Batista offers his interpretation of the implications of this item:

“But this leads to a paradox: “Everything is a draft,” and yet “there is no editing.” So even if we look at life as a series of experiments, there are no rehearsals–we’re live, every moment of every day, and we never truly get a moment back. We only have one shot at it. This creates a tension that can be exhilarating or paralyzing, and coaching is about how to live productively within this tension.”
Ed Batista “Coaching and the Cult of Done

OK, now I get it. There is synchronous and asynchronous work. A live presentation can benefit from rehearsal (the asynchronous part is not in front of the audience) but is fundamentally synchronous: it is presented in real-time in front of a live audience. An impromptu presentation would have no specific rehearsal but might be assembled from well-rehearsed (and therefore well-edited) building blocks. An improvised presentation, for example, answering questions during a talk or a jazz solo, is synchronous and would only allow for iterations or revisions (“Wait, did I just say…What I meant was…”).

4. Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.

Act as if you know what you are doing and be willing to accept a lot of feedback and course corrections as you go. The challenge is maintaining humility and openness to criticism, even as you project a certain amount of confidence. At some level, we only learn from intentional mistakes, where the surprise of failure forces us to update our mental model of the situation or what constitutes a viable solution.

5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.

I think writing a file of good ideas or nurturing projects for longer than a week is okay. I am not sure at what point this becomes procrastination, but I find I often have half a good idea that has benefited from waiting a year or two.  On the other hand, “Rome wasn’t built without deadlines,” as my brother likes to say. So, if you are working on a first effort, then setting a deadline of a week to have minimal progress to show for your efforts is a reasonable rule of thumb. It limits the amount of time you spend working without any interim feedback.

“Always set a deadline. A deadline weeds out the extraneous and the ordinary. It prevents you from trying to make it perfect, so you have to make it different. Different is better.”
Kevin Kelly in “68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice

6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.

I suppose one damned thing after another beats the same damned thing over and over. More positively, ends become means to new ends, and most summits are just stepping stones.

7. Once you’re done you can throw it away.

I find this very hard. I was in a workshop once where I had to generate many ideas and write them on index cards. We then had to separate them into two equal piles, the one being the “better” ideas we would continue to work with and the “not as good” ideas that we would no longer pursue. To drive this priority home, the instructor asked us to tear the index cards with the”less good ideas” into small pieces. The thought of tearing up the “less good ideas” was so painful that I slipped the bad ideas into my pocket without tearing them up. I suppose if I cannot let go of some of my ideas, preferably the lower quality ones, I can’t make progress on the better ones. I still hang onto most of them because they can “return from the dead” as I learn more.

8. Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.

Where to draw the line between perfection and excellence is a tricky question. I often struggle to separate the inadequate from the barely good enough. In a startup, you must pick the “best bad plan” and move forward.

9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.

This is another tricky one: in the end, you must take action. But sometimes, a conversation with people whose hands are not currently dirty but who have done it before can allow you to make a better start. Or at least with a better understanding of the constraints and challenges you face without stumbling onto them directly. You can even consult the dead–if they’ve written down their experiences and insights. Effective research can be like time spent sharpening your saw before cutting down the tree.

“A month in the laboratory can often save an hour in the library.”
Frank H. Westheimer

10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.

A documented and well-understood failure, or an intentional mistake, offers much insight into what’s possible- sometimes called  “the feasible region.” Your mistakes and failures explore beyond that and can verify where the real constraints are real constraints and where they aren’t. But your failure has to be intentional and understood to be counted as progress or done. On the other hand, some accidents can make you think, “that’s interesting,” and lead to new opportunities.

Most of the really interesting experimental results are unanticipated: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny …” (an insight attributed to Isaac Asimov). It’s not A or B but the realization that you should be asking a different question.
Sean Murphy in “Market Discovery and Exploration Requires Models from Physics, Biology, and Psychology

11. Destruction is a variant of done.

The explicit decision to discontinue efforts on a project or initiative can allow you to mark it “done.” In many ways, this is cleaner than leaving it at the bottom half of a list of items you never even start. Posteriorities–deciding what not to do–are as important as priorities, especially when it comes to organized abandonment: the decision to stop doing things that are no longer working instead of continuing due to force of habit and organizational inertia. For more on this, see “Discovery, Invention, Growth, and Renewal” and “Ebb and Flow.”

The secret of every amazingly productive individual or team is the endless pile of work they decide not to do.
Steve Purcell (@sanityinc)

12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.

Here is a second one that I take exception to. Writing down your idea, preliminary specification, plan of attack, or problem outline at least gets it out of your head and onto paper. It moves you beyond the limits of “I’ll know it when I see it.” It allows others who are so inclined to pick up the baton and carry the idea forward. For me, the ghost of done is a 90% finished blog post in my draft folder that I have yet to publish. Unfortunately, this is something I am very familiar with. I have now published over 2,000 blog posts but have another thousand or so “ghosts” in my draft folder. I am attacking this problem by forcing myself to recycle a draft post into a new one instead of creating a post from scratch. At my current rate of progress, I will clear this backlog about the time we reach the Singularity in 2033.

13. Done is the engine of more.

I think you have to be intentional in your efforts to promote, remix, and re-purpose older works into your new endeavors. There is a certain amount of serendipity in getting your work done and showing it to others. But I’ve learned that it’s not enough. No product sells itself. No article promotes itself. I now know I have to be intentional about distribution and promotion; scheduling time for this effort or being done will not be enough.

SKMurphy Take

Perfectionism and procrastination are common afflictions for entrepreneurs, certainly among the less successful. But this list neglects any discussion of the audience or the customer. They determine what “done” means. If you can get your ideas out of your head, then you can complement your high standards with a conversation with customers about what would constitute “good enough” or “minimum viable” (to coin a phrase). This will give you a useful definition of  “done.” Even efforts based on the best information you have may still fail. But they will provide a lot of value as probes into the unknown. They will allow you to map your ignorance and mistaken assumptions–if you are willing to uncover and acknowledge where your mental map did not match reality. If you can persist, you can refine your approach and goals in a sequence of better and more informed efforts.

“Rome wasn’t built without deadlines.”
Kevin Murphy

A Link to the Original Cult of Done

Here is a link to the original version Cult of Done (2009)[] which prefaces the list with

Dear Members of the Cult of Done,
I present to you a manifesto of done. This was written in collaboration with Kio Stark in 20 minutes because we only had 20 minutes to get it done.

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Image Credit: “Cult of Done” by Martha Hardy

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