Editorial

Dabbling in the Cult of Done

Can a succession of ephemeral, throwaway accomplishments add up to a worthwhile, enduring project?

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 12, 2009

this article has been updated

File this one under Miscellaneous. This morning, I came across the (hastily prepared) manifesto for a new movement called "The Cult of Done" - as in, git er done. I had to read it a few times to decide whether it's even meant to be taken seriously. (I'm still not certain.)

Essentially, the Cult of Done sacrifices everything else for expedience. Don't wait until you know what you're doing - just pretend you know and get on with it. Don't waste time editing - just publish. If something takes too long to do, abandon it and move on to the next thing.

The Cult of Done is an infinite regress, à la rules #6 and #13 of the manifesto. The point of getting something done is not to get it done but to get the next thing done faster, the purpose of doing which is to get the next next thing done, et cetera, ad infinitum.

The Cult of Done is not interested in endurance or even, apparently, improvement. Rule #7 reads, "Once you're done you can throw it away." It's a disposable philosophy for a disposable culture.

It is to major projects what Twitter is to essays: provisional, ephemeral, and dashed off the cuff. It looks like a recipe for a succession of pointless, meaningless outbursts that sparkle briefly and then evaporate.

It seems almost perversely to assert, If something's worth doing well, it's not worth doing. Call it the Twitterization of accomplishment.

In Defence of Done

Yet the Cult of Done does address some real problems most people have getting things done. As a lifelong procrastinator, I have long struggled with the temptation, "Why put off until tomorrow what you can put off until next week?"

That I accomplish anything at all is the result of constant tension between what I would like to get done and what I actually want to be doing at any given time.

The Cult of Done also invokes, at least for me, what we might call the Wikipedia Effect.

Back in 2000, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger tried to launch an online collaborative encyclopedia called Nupedia, with articles written by experts and peer reviewed by an expert panel.

Clay Shirky has a great take on this in his book Here Comes Everybody, but to summarize: the results were disappointing. The writers spent months trying to prepare documents that would be well-researched, well-written, informative, robust, and defensible; and the minimal accomplishments they made were further stalled by the complicated review process.

Around the same time, Sanger or maybe Jeremy Rosenfeld, an employee at Bomis, Wales' former business, introduced Wales to the concept of a wiki (named after the Hawaiian word for "fast"): a fully user-editable website that stores previous versions of every article.

At the start of 2001, Sanger and Wales decided to launch an online encyclopedia following the wiki model, in which anyone could create or edit articles, rather than the panel of experts and their elaborate review process. That project was called Wikipedia.

The results were immediate: freed from the constraints of creating an industrial-strength encyclopedia article on the first draft, users started filling the site with simple pages - often little more than placeholders, or "stubs" as Wikipedia calls them - that other users happily edited, expanded and corrected.

The Nupedia panel were outraged that their expertise had been marginalized, but the simple fact was that their cumbersome process and role as gatekeeper/bottleneck was a major obstacle to, er, getting anything done.

Aggregating Done

What is most amazing about Wikipedia is not that the uptake was so rapid and its growth so exponential, though that also warrants considerable attention: what is most amazing is that a collection of articles written and edited incrementally by a large and growing set of nonspecialists has matured into a genuinely useful, informative, and generally accurate reference.

In other words, by adopting the Cult of Done, Wikipedia has managed to aggregate a bewildering number of small, disposable accomplishments into a major, enduring accomplishment.

What this suggests, also, is that the Cult of Done works best when the scramble of small, discrete accomplishments can be aggregated effectively.

The Wikipedia article on Oil was created on Feb. 26, 2006, and read:

Oil is a generic term for a chemical substance that is not miscible with water, and in its liquid state at common ambient temperatures. Such substances are also called hydrophobic or lipophile.

Oils are composed of one or several liquid hydrocarbon compounds. They differ from other hydrocarbons, such as alcohols xetones and ethers by their non-polarity. Their difference from solid fats is given by the length of their molecule chains.

Emulgators allow to mix oils with water.

Not bad, but a bit dry and technical for the lay reader and not very useful. Today, after a succession of mostly tiny, incremental revisions (add a comma here, fix a typo there), the same article is over 900 words and goes into detail on types of oils, applications, and numerous links to other pages.

The Nupedia/Wikipedia story exemplifies Voltaire's famous quote, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." Nupedia, by aiming for the perfect, got nothing done; while Wikipedia, aiming only for the good (and sometimes not even that), grew and improved so rapidly that it now justifiably ranks among the most useful, informative information compendia in human history.

Done in Action

Could there be an important lesson in there even for people interested in enduring accomplishments? What if we apply the Cult of Done not to a large project but to the bite-size components that collectively make up a large project?

Assuming it's easy for you (or others) to go back and improve provisional accomplishments, the Cult of Done is a very effective way to aggregate individual contributions into a more significant project.

It's probably not a coincidence that the Cult of Done fairly describes many open-source, collaborative projects, from Wikipedia to the Linux operating system, which was developed mainly by volunteers but runs most of the servers that make up the internet.

More locally, I have experienced the tension between the perfect and the good with regards to the RTH website, which I have been trying to rebuild using newer programming technologies than the Classic ASP code in which the site was originally written.

While working on the new code, I have tended to abandon improvements to the old code, which has served to perpetuate a certain amount of frustration with small, nagging problems that need to be fixed.

In the past week or two, I have decided to go back into the old code and address some of the smaller problems: publishing articles as they come instead of in an issue, adding full Newsfeeds instead of just summaries, even whipping up a quick text editor so I can easily convert the special punctuation characters in MS Word documents to their web-friendly counterparts.

I have couple more improvements in mind: finally creating a user profile update page (it's shameful that the site doesn't currently have one - it's really a basic user interface), and fixing the link to issue archives so that it displays a list of articles from that date instead of just the "lede" from that issue.

If I approach these goals from a Cult of Done perspective, they will be quick fixes I can implement during bits of downtime and will start to make life easier for RTH readers as soon as they're done, rather than in some hypothetical future. Doesn't that make sense?

I'm still going to keep working on the redesign, since the current site has other problems (like sporadic server errors) that are too structural to fix with a quick patch, but I'm going to try not to let the perfect - a redesigned site running smoothly on a reliable hosting provider - be the enemy of the good - today's site working just a bit better for its users.

On the other hand, I'm still going to edit articles before publishing them...


Update - This piece originally wrote that Larry Sanger introduced Jimmy Wales to the concept of wikis. However, I just received the following email from Wales: "It is an urban legend that Larry introduced the concept of wiki to me. It was introduced to me by Jeremy Rosenfeld." There seems to be some uncertainty about this point, as explained in a related Wikipedia article, but ... I'm done. :)

You can jump to the changed paragraph.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Younion (anonymous) | Posted March 12, 2009 at 10:43:13

Ha ha I saw this too, we must read the same newsfeeds. I must admit when I saw it I thought, what a crock of B.S. but you're take on how to apply the CoD makes me wonder. I think it can only work if you couple it with real easy collaboration so a bunch of little git-er-dones can add up to a big deal. Otherwise it's just pissing in the wind.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted March 12, 2009 at 13:34:31

Must admit I didn't expect this article to go in a positive direction at first. But I'm surprised Ryan didn't talk about Hamilton and the Cult of Done.

Good observation about wikipedia, how useful and accurate the incremental improvements by laypeople can be. It's participatory democracy in action.

The benefits of tapping into this vast knowledge is just obvious, so when it doesn't happen (Hamilton politics is a prime example of snuffing out participatory democracy) it is just so sad, so much wasted potential.

But Hamilton politics is also a good example of the cult of done, writ by 'elites' (referring to position, not ability!) and resisted by a few enlightened councilors and the public. If you can't do it right, it's better to stall it so it doesn't get done.

What's so fascinating about CoD is how functional and high quality it is on a wide scale, and how dysfunctional and crappy it is when applied to a few.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 12, 2009 at 14:17:05

Ted Mitchell wrote:

What's so fascinating about CoD is how functional and high quality it is on a wide scale, and how dysfunctional and crappy it is when applied to a few.

Right on! I didn't get into this because the article was already running over 1,000 words (though at Mark Twain famously wrote, "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter" - the dark side of CoD?), but you're quite correct.

CoD works only if large numbers of people are given the opportunity to participate. If not, you end up with a lot of disjointed, mismatched, half-finished crap - imagine Wikipedia if every article was created as a stub and left that way.

If I can be permitted to stretch the metaphor, Hamilton is a bit like Nupedia - if its expert panel was self-appointed based on insider connections to the project managers.

In other words, it combines the worst of both worlds: narrow participation, and by people who don't necessarily know what we should be doing.

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By O_o (anonymous) | Posted March 12, 2009 at 15:03:37

Well you certainly wouldn't find stuff like this in the Spectator...

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By The Red Pill (anonymous) | Posted March 12, 2009 at 15:14:10

This totally reminded me of Gil Penalosa, the freewheeling planner from Colombia who now runs Walk and Bike for Life. He says the way cities make planning decision is, "Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim......" Penalosa says it's better to do something quickly that makes an improvement even if it isn't perfect and to adjust as necessary, rather then waiting until you have an exact blueprint to follow. I'd add that sometimes civic leaders deliberately wait to have an exact blueprint as a stalling tactic because deep down, they really don't want to change things at all and waiting for more consultant studies yadda yadda yadda gives them the excuse they need for perpetual inaction.....

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By BluePill (anonymous) | Posted March 12, 2009 at 15:45:58

@The Red Pill, Same here. Penalosa's the first thing I thought of When I read this bit: "What if we apply the Cult of Done not to a large project but to the bite-size components that collectively make up a large project?" Which is funny because the author doesn't even mention urban renewal in the piece but we both thought the same thing (all three if you include Ted Mitchell in the comments). Context matters baby!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 12, 2009 at 16:22:56

Not to knock Penalosa or anything, but his brother was the Mayor. It's alot easier to 'git 'er done' when you have that kind of access. When he was in town last week, I asked him how you get things done in cities with entrenched political cultures like Hamilton. He didn't have a very useful answer - just hopey, changey bromides. It was obvious he's never had to affect change from a grassroots level.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted March 16, 2009 at 23:01:41

Ted >> If you can't do it right, it's better to stall it so it doesn't get done.

If the city cut tax rates, giving the private sector a greater role in the city's economy, we would not have to suffer from these delays. Governments are bureaucratic by design, so when they control too much of the capital, the economy stagnates. By allowing the individuals and businesses of Hamilton to keep a greater percentage of their net worth, the total number of economic transactions would increase, therefore increasing the speed at which new products and services come to market.

Trial and error is the basis of a consumer driven, private sector economy, so by increasing it's relative role in society, you also increase the amount of things that "get done". Furthermore, by abolishing zoning rules and urban plans, you let the buyer and seller decide what is important. One year it may be condos, a few years later, townhouses. The point is that these preferences are "real time" and not based on plans that are out of date as soon as the politicians craft them.

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