Three buckets of action

Dear Readers,  here is Kumaran’s first post. Please welcome him to the blog with your encouraging comments.  – Sukumar
This topic actually came up when I was having a discussion about life with a friend of mine from college (Thyagesh). It has been close to 5 years now after we had the conversation now and it has had a very pleasant effect on my life.
Let me set the context here I am not talking about any action towards others which have the following attributes
♦ Someone pays you to do something ( Job, Contract )
♦ There is a direct & immediate tangible return for you (money, fame etc..) to do that action
♦ You do something out of fear

There is an important criteria what action qualifies for discussion below. I define it as – “Any action done for no direct benefit to the doer but for the person to whom this is being done for”.

Some examples to make this very clear
  • I take a relative of mine to the doctor when s/he is sick
  • I take care of my neighbour’s dog while they are out of town.
  • I guide a colleague when s/he is stuck in work late night by sitting with him/her to fix an issue.
  • I take my brother-in-law for some examination
  • Taking my parents to a temple
  • Giving money to my domestic help for his/her kid’s education
  • Helping ease out traffic at neighbourhood junction
  • Giving money to an orphanage 
Please note that none of the actions listed above have a direct benefit to the doer (i.e. me).

In general in our daily life there is a good probability that everything we do for others is categorised by us mentally as a Help we have done the other person.

The thought is pretty simple, when we do an action for somebody else it falls under one the following 3 categories.
   • Duty
   • Obligation
   • Charity

Let me explain each one of them in detail

Duty – This is something which I have to do for others regardless of what or how I feel about it. These are defined by ourselves .So simply you go ahead and do it when these action present themselves in front of us. Examples of them are
  • Taking care of my sick parents
  • Educating my kids
  • Voting on election day

Obligation – This is something which I have to do for others but I make it clear to them that it is an obligation and I expect something in return. Examples of them are
    • When my neighbour asks me to take of his/her dog instead of quietly accepting and doing it I make it clear ti him – “Sure I can do that. It is little difficult but I am sure you will take of receiving the courier when I am out of town    and you would not mind me giving you contact number”
  • Help a colleague at work but tell him/her  “I can help you with but you will need to help me out next week with the assignment – right?”

The basic point is when you are doing an obligation, make sure the other person has to return the favour in explicit terms. In corporate terminology “Set expectations explicitly and clearly”

Charity – This is an activity which we do and should not expect anything in return and is done of sheer free will. Note this is different from Duty in that there is no external requirement to this activity.Examples of them are
  • Helping out a neighbour drop the kid at school
  • Taking out my wife’s uncle for a shopping who is visiting from out of town.
  • Giving money to my driver when his/her father is sick

Now that we have defined the 3 categories, we need to deal with them. We should be careful in life never to mix the categories which lead us to heartburns, disappointments and spoilt relationships.It is a simple 2 step process
   •  Before doing any activity for others categorize mentally into one of the 3 buckets and do it.
   •  This is the most important step – Do not mix the items in the bucket after the activity is done ever in the future.

So you need to be clear in your mind on how you are doing the categorization and never ever shuffle the contents of buckets. Look at buckets as a post box into which an activity can be categorized and dropped but can never be taken out.

The tough part is that there are activities which can qualify as under any of the above, so it is up to each individual to classify it accordingly. For example I can say that “Doing the laundry or the vessels” is an obligation to my wife ( ok I am going to get a lecture about this statement from my wife) but on the other hand I can also classify it as a duty as a husband or a father. A typical example of falling into the pit hole – I pay my driver some money for his kid’s school fees and at the time of giving the money I categorize it as charity but may be some months later I ask the driver to come on a Sunday and he refuses. I feel hurt recollecting that I helped but he is not helping me or I tell him so now, which is even worse.


To summarize Help others by categorizing your actions and never change it after you have done it.


  1. Quote

    Great post! Very well elucidated. As you’ve rightly pointed out, categorization is the key here. I guess the only way to not forget the categorization is by suffering a few heartburns first 🙂

  2. Quote

    Great Kumaran, fantatic opening. To summarize your point of view “help others and categorize it in correct bucket so that you and help receivers won’t get disappointed”. I think if we are all decided which bucket to fall than all relationship will last forever. I think the biggest obstacle for arranging these buckets are communication. For example as you said “I can help you with but you will need to help me out next week with the assignment” but for some it is delicate position to say that may be some emtional blockage or thinking how the co-woker view me. I think setting expectation with clear communication is important.

  3. Quote
    Random Citian said July 20, 2009, 7:47 am:

    Ever seen the movie “Pay it forward”?

  4. Quote

    Welcome Kumaran. Interesting post. Many times the actions could be chain actions with mix and match. Do you think such rule based approach works? At the end of the day, do we do most of the charity/ help/ such things, for our own self satisfaction. What are your thoughts>

  5. Quote
    kumaran said July 20, 2009, 9:44 am:

    Danesh – Thanks for the comment

    Muthu – Thanks for the encouraging comment.

    As Danesh says it like Agile programming get a beta out see how it works and fell enhancing realeasing newer versions of your categorization model.

    Muthu you it so diffcult to that correct communication even now I can only I do it 30-40% of time. But I have improved over years but still a long way go. Doing this is a life long learning excercise. But key is to start.

  6. Quote
    kumaran said July 20, 2009, 9:59 am:


    Thanks for your cooment.

    You are correct this rule- based approach is diffcult when a a broad initiative becomes a mix of 3 actions categories. So one thing to try not merge 3 actions into a single line item. But to keep them seperate. What I do my kid’s school as an obligation and what I do as a charity cannot be merged into a single item “Things I did for school is a charity”. Keep action items seperate without merging really helps. Yes the overhead of managig many items increases.

    /*At the end of the day, do we do most of the charity/ help/ such things, for our own self satisfaction. */

    That depends on how you look at it. There are certain help I do build my brand , fame etc.. which is more that just self-satisfaction. Yes if you can classify all things you do as for ‘self-satifaction’ only and say – “i don’t care even if somebody criticizes me for the good work I do”. If we can get in our mind clearly I am doing this only for myself without anything in return then is so nice. But that requires a lot of mental discipline and maturity.

    Personally I am not so mature yet. I am growing. There a auite a few things I do for which I still like recognition I get for anything good I do. Last week I helped a collegue clear a mandatory online test ( call it collobarion or cheating.. ha ha ) , I told him I will sit but you have to take me out for an ice-cream. I guess little things like this also get counted under obligation. In this case I needed that tanglible feeback when I spent my time for him.

    Having said categorization is absolutely individual dependent, no person can specify the rule for another.

  7. Quote
    Umashanker (subscribed) said July 20, 2009, 9:59 am:

    Hi Kumaran,
    Nice to read your article on “Mixing the buckets”. It reminded me of a Telugu Movie named “Stalin” by director Murugadoss which features Chiranjeevi. The core theme of the film which is initiated by the hero is “When you help someone involuntarily, instead of getting an acknowledgement (“Thanks”) for that request the beneficiary to reach out to someone who needs your timely help”.
    Finally as the movie runs down the hero who had initiated this message chain will be saved by an autorikshaw driver. When the hero attempst to respond to the help recieved with a “Thanks”, the autodriver will repeat the same words he had passed on to someone years ago. The film inspires not only the characters in the movie but the entire community to take up an involuntarary attitude to help without any kind of reciprocation. Kumaran, I just felt to share this with you.

  8. Quote
    Umashanker (subscribed) said July 20, 2009, 10:02 am:

    Moderator : Kindly ignore previous comment by me
    Hi Kumaran,
    Nice to read your article on “Mixing the buckets”. It reminded me of a Telugu Movie named “Stalin” by director Murugadoss which features Chiranjeevi. The core theme of the film which is initiated by the hero is “When you help someone involuntarily, instead of getting an acknowledgement (”Thanks”) for that, request the beneficiary to reach out to someone who needs his timely help”.
    Finally as the movie runs down the hero who had initiated this message chain will be saved by an autorikshaw driver. When the hero attempst to respond to the help recieved with a “Thanks”, the autodriver will repeat the same words he had passed on to someone years ago. The film inspires not only the characters in the movie but the entire community to take up an involuntarary attitude to help without any kind of reciprocation. Kumaran, I just felt to share this with you.

  9. Quote
    kumaran said July 20, 2009, 10:03 am:

    Random Citian > No I have not. Read the synopisi looks interesting . Will have a look at it.

  10. Quote

    Very thought-provoking post. Its interesting to see the classifications/buckets as you have termed for various courses of action.

  11. Quote
    kumaran said July 20, 2009, 11:26 am:


    Thanks for sharing. Seems to be a similar theme with the movie “Pay if forward”.

  12. Quote
    kumaran said July 20, 2009, 11:27 am:


    Thanks for ecouraging words. Glad you found it interesting.

  13. Quote

    Nice classifications Kumara. I would put as all these things are done by the individual with something back in their mind. I mean returns. For me every individual should develop a mentality to do all these three classified things without even ‘returns’ thought emerging in their mind. In doing so slowly one can achieve a stage that all their possible doings can be for your happiness. I mean helping others can be felt as an happiness internally which one could not explain to others. I mostly get that kind of happiness when I do every action in my life either it is for myself or for my relatives or to my friends or to a third person. It might sound more philosophical. But for me it is my way of living happy life which I am enjoying every instant of it. It is hard to explain but easy to enjoy once we start living the life like that.

  14. Quote
    kulasekaran (subscribed) said July 20, 2009, 2:07 pm:

    Interesting categorizations. But I feel that some actions overlap in the sense you have mentioned in the last para. It is far better to do D.O.C. without any sense of reciprocality involved.

    For e.g. Am arranging a matrimonial match for one of my close relative. Vested interests do not want this to succeed, which makes me all the more determined to see this through to its logical end. I have a duty to see this completed an obligation is also involved and charity since I am not getting any benefit except mentally and still I am contributing time and money in this effort.

    And the icing on the cake is I may end up alienating some persons when this endeavor is finished but look foward to launching the couple towards a happy married life.

  15. Quote
    Kumaran said July 20, 2009, 2:59 pm:


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. What you explain is an advanced level of thinking which is excellant.

  16. Quote
    Kumaran said July 20, 2009, 3:04 pm:


    Looks like you are also on the side with Naks about doing anything without thinking of returns. I totallty agree to that as the final state of mind all of us should aim towards.

    In this post I was trying to explain as it is difficult to do that for everyone from Day 1, this is more like beginner’s guide to reach the stage you have explained.

    As the example you have mentioned is mixture of D.O.C it get really complicated as Vamsi also commented before.

    BTW all the best in the endeavor you are attempting. 🙂

  17. Quote

    Interesting post Kumaran. I am also of the view that the “Pay it Forward” type of mentality is the best one to cultivate. If someone asks me for help, i simply do it if i can. It keeps things very simple and best of all- No scorekeeping needed.

    As you said above, the framework you propose perhaps gives people a starting point to think this through.

    BTW, this murugadoss of Ghajini-Memento-Copycat fame seems to be the copy king. Looks like he has copied Pay it Forward into Stalin 🙂

  18. Quote
    Kumaran said July 20, 2009, 10:41 pm:


    Yes the final goal is to be able to do things without expecting any returns.

    “No scorekeeping needed” – loved that term. it makes life so simple.

    Well! the post was intended for something and we discover a compulsive copy cat Murugadoss. Serendipity!! ha ha

  19. Quote
    Mahendran (subscribed) said July 20, 2009, 10:43 pm:

    Interesting write up Kumara. My view is that these classifications may add clarity or simplify how we analyze situations and act ( Will help in life).

    On the funnier side, I am still wondering what the appropriate category (bucket) for blogging will be.

  20. Quote
    Kumaran said July 21, 2009, 11:54 am:

    Hi Mahi,

    Nice to see your comment and thanks for it.

    Good question, I think blogging is actually an obligation I want people to look at it and comment on it helping me learn and shape my thoughts.

  21. Quote

    I was hoping we discover something more than copycats serendipitously 🙂

  22. Quote
    Balajee said July 21, 2009, 3:03 pm:

    This post is interesting, but however is a very left-brain view in my opinion. What about certain right-brain notions like ‘Love’ and purely for the fact that you care. Several examples above can also fit into this category. To view them as ‘Charity’ is to diminish the sentiment that we may put into doing this. Sometime I do things for people only because I care about them. The real issue is not so much if you mix up the buckets.. but the fact that we would even want to scorecard this..

    Sorry.. have not had my caffine for the day..

  23. Quote
    Kumaran said July 21, 2009, 7:42 pm:


    Excellent point. “Charity” cannot be a word used for that but it would fall under the category where you don’t expect any returns for your action.

    I am now thinking of a a good word instead of charity .. Something ala Hero Honda’s “Fill it, shut it, forget it”. “Do it & forget it” maybe.

  24. Quote

    We need to read Kumaran’s post as past EQ point of view. EQ push one to help others, now do you want to cash in those? or simply ignore those as unintended returns? Based on capitalist point of view, there is no free lunch since Kumaran’s buckets allocation makes more sense and if someone only helps based scorecards means why we want to stop them, let them help and get returns.


  25. Quote
    Srividya (subscribed) said July 22, 2009, 1:12 am:

    Great Post!

    Many cases, problem starts when we do something as ‘obligation’ and the recipient takes it as ‘Charity’

  26. Quote

    Kumaran – Excellent Post. I have to think more about this, read other comments & engage in the on-going discussion.

  27. Quote
    Kumaran said July 22, 2009, 12:13 pm:


    Thanks and yes the recipeint takes it as ‘Charity’ and I feel it is responsiblity of the doer to make sure this does not happen for the good of both.

  28. Quote
    Kumaran said July 22, 2009, 12:14 pm:


    Thanks and look forward to your thoughts.

  29. Quote
    Arun g said July 22, 2009, 3:04 pm:

    Interesting read…..It makes one think …’Obligation’ by explicitly mentioning what I want may work in professional atmosphere…But suppose my neighbor wants my help; how am I going to tell him that I will help u if and only if some of my work is done…Instead practically what will happen in informal context is that we will help him if it is possible for us to do or else we will tell no .if we are obliging there may be some kind of obligation we may be expecting from them in some other time but which may be communicated implicitly..Whether we are consciously expecting something or how valid our expectation are depends on the situations …I may be able to put it in baskets but I finds it impossible to explicitly mention and put it in baskets based on that(btw Merlin Brando may be able to mention things explicitly in God Father but he is godfather then)
    If I think my self as multitude I will help without expecting any returns. ’Taking my parents to temple’ may make myself also happy coz,more than calling it as a duty it`s a favour am doing for my larger self which includes my family…Then if I can extrapolate this self to my neighbours,my village my country and whole my world thinking it as my family then I will be perfectly satisfied helping them… that may sound idealization , but there are real people lived by the principles of Aham Brahmasmi..

  30. Quote

    Well elucidated post. If only we do fall into the pit hole and could think exactly like you summarized!!!

  31. Quote
    Kumaran said July 22, 2009, 7:23 pm:


    Thanks for you thoughts.Yes setting the expectation is a tough thing but I guess as we evolve as a culture, I find people appreciate this feedback. It is difficult with old people but with the new generation it seems to be accepted more.

  32. Quote
    Kumaran said July 22, 2009, 7:24 pm:


    Thanks. As you say not falling is the toughest challenge.

  33. Quote
    krithika (subscribed) said July 24, 2009, 7:45 pm:

    Nice post and a wonderful classification. Even the comments were thought provoking. All I feel the tricky part is “Do not mix the items in the bucket after the activity is done ever in the future”. Channelizing isn’t much difficult but maintaining them does prove difficult. Like the posts says “When my driver refuses to come on sunday” obviously one feels “How much I have done to him and he doesn’t even do this small favor to me”. When we are able to get over this I bet channelizing and maintaining would be really prove helpful to keep ourself happy in what ever we do!

    PS: your comment on “Blogging” is absolutely true! Though blog world started with saying “write one’s mind without caring for other comments”, it had turned out to be a place where we wish rather crave for comments for what we have posted!

  34. Quote
    Kumaran said July 25, 2009, 5:50 pm:


    Thanks for comments.

    Yes that question about “Blogging” did hit me for a second to realize what I was actually doing.

  35. Quote
    Kumaran said July 25, 2009, 5:51 pm:

    Looking through the comments I realize the 3rd category of “Charity” seems to be a bad choice of words.

    Any other words people can think of ?

  36. Quote
    Ganesh said July 26, 2009, 1:22 am:

    Welcome Kumaran. Interesting post. I am still trying to grasp why we should not mix it. I can understand from your one example, where the expectations of the giver and recipient are different, which could cause unnecessary churn in a relationship.

    But, can we box life universally? Foe example, a lot of things I do as charity is due to a sense of obligation to society and perhaps give something back (to society, job, friends etc).. Just as I received something from the same set. The more I feel obliged, it morphs into a sense of duty.

    I guess, I am still trying to grasp my take away from the post. Welcome once again, and hope to see more from you.

  37. Quote
    Kumaran said July 26, 2009, 11:44 pm:


    Thanks for comments.

    I am suggesting only not to mix your actions after the fact.Because you do it as charity and other person also thinks the same way but suddenly months later you ecpext both are in pain.

    I can understand your second point. What you are talking is what motivates you to do the action. I am telling there could be many reasons for doing an action but when doing the action how it categorize it is what needs attention.

  38. Quote
    Krishnan R.S. said July 28, 2009, 8:40 pm:

    Hey Kumaran,
    Interesting post. I’m not sure if the bucketing helps or hurts 🙂 The mind is a pretty deceitful creature – specially when it comes to deceiving oneself. So while making a resolve to not reclassify an act once it is done might work in theory – for the average human being this is a path doomed to failure. If you can’t stay away from coffee for a day – then how are you going to watch your mind for weeks on end to avoid reclassifying something you did say a month ago.
    I think it might be simpler to do things, if and only if, you think it will benefit you in _some_ way (like say the lack of guilt 🙂 ). I think this is simpler and the justificiation/rationale is less prone to change over time – and reclassification becomes moot.

  39. Quote
    Karthik said July 29, 2009, 7:25 am:

    Hi Kumaran,

    Nice post on actions. To say frankly after reading your post, I thought why to make complex by categorizing the actions into three ways. But I understood about the ultimate goal is to bring selfless action which is same as said in bhagavad Gita 3rd chapter.
    Recently i started reading bhagavad gita which i would like to share in this post with your permission. Karma yoga- the active path of selfless service. The point stated in Gita is do your actions without any attachment to resutls. (as no scorecard is necessary). In Chapter 3 Krishna begins to tell Arjuna if anyone follows the path of selfless work, Krishna explains, he will enjoy this world as well as the next. More Important he will gain a spiritual blessing and will be lessening his debt of karma.

    In another chapter, Krishna points out “you have the rights to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. This is against your post.

    In my point all the three categorizations should aim to the same goal, do your action without any expectations in return.

  40. Quote
    Kumaran said July 29, 2009, 7:40 am:


    /* The mind is a pretty deceitful creature */

    Very valid point. I understand what you are saying to make it easy and definitely more implementable.

    But to mature one day we would need to excercise control over this creature.

  41. Quote
    Kumaran said July 29, 2009, 9:46 am:


    There is no second thought about what you are telling. Others also have similar comments above.

    This post is a stepping to the final mindset you are talking about. You can see in my previous comments about the same.

  42. Quote
    Karthik said July 30, 2009, 10:37 pm:

    Hi Kumraran,

    I totally agree with you. I dont think if i go and tell my friends to do some action without any expectation. This is a excellent start to make people think differently on actions. I am trying to colect facts to explain my dear and near ones. I know its not so easy.


  43. Quote
    Kumaran said August 2, 2009, 2:41 am:


    Thanks for the comments.

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