Less Is More: The Minimum Effective Dose

We are becoming busier.

Busy is now synonymous with productive work.

Busy means that we are employed. Busy means that we are not wasting our time away. Busy means that we are making ourselves better.

The ideals of “hustle” and “taking action” have certainly not helped this at all. Oftentimes, people confuse this with simply to always be doing, because there is an idea that some progress is better than none.

Yet, the reverse is also true. Doing more means investing your time and resources into an endeavour that may not pay off. It also means that you’re incurring an opportunity cost — you could be using that time to do something else. You could be getting healthier and fitter, spending more time with your family or simply resting.

The Minimum Effective Dose

In his book, The 4 Hour Body, Tim Ferris popularised the concept of the minimum effective dose. Put simply, it means the smallest dose that will produce a specific outcome. To illustrate his example, he writes:

“To boil water, the minimum effective dose is 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it “more boiled.” Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.”

It’s a simple idea and one that most of us have already applied. How many of us have turned in assignments or work that we know will definitely get us a certain grade: whether a borderline ‘A’, an average ‘B’, an acceptable ‘C’, or just a mere ‘pass’. We’ve done this before.

At that point in time, we already understand that the extra work we put in is unlikely to give us extra rewards. In other words — it’s no longer worth it. We’re simply adhering to the law of diminishing returns.

Minimum Effective Dose
Law of Diminishing Returns

Ideally, we should be doing work in the green zone. In reality, it is difficult to identify that we’ve passed the point of diminishing returns; much better to put in more effort and be safely in the orange zone. This period is also where the men separate themselves from the boys; where the top 1% distinguishes themselves from the top 5%. It is where you go from being one of the best to the very best.

If you want to be the best in the world at what you do, you must bear the pain of that ascent. If you want to just be good in that particular field, you’ll do better staying in the green zone. There’s no shame in wanting to just be good; conversely it’s unproductive when you try to be the best at everything you do.

Controlling Your Dosage

There are those who are firm advocates of going all out at every moment. I’m all for giving your best, but living and playing like it’s the 4th quarter all the time is definitely unsustainable.

It’s apparent in many fields. Overtraining in sports leads to injury. Working hard without a break leads to burnout. Too often when that happens, we simply quit. “It’s not for me”, we say. Your effort becomes counter-productive. You are effectively having negative returns. Better, to pace yourself for the long run.

Similarly, there are people who do many things repetitively. These activities give the semblance of productivity, but in reality, create little value. Some of them even borderline compulsive behaviour:

  • Organising belongings and work
  • Ensuring cleanliness
  • Checking of emails

These things are overdone, often by force of habit. Although seemingly small, these inefficiencies and bad habits do add up. Over a lifetime, it may well make the difference between failure and success.

“A lot of people don’t do well simply because they major in minor things” — Jim Rohn

Know What You Want

The key is to beware the undisciplined pursuit of more.

Know where you want to go, and your minimum effective dose. Keep in mind Pareto’s principle — that 80% of your results comes from 20% of the effort. What’s one thing you can reduce your effort by half and still get your desired outcome?

Eliminate the things that are wasting your time. Outsource or delegate these tasks if possible. Give the minimum effective dose if the task at hand is one that you truly must handle.

Things will change for you once you fully comprehend and factor in the ideas of diminishing returns and opportunity costs into your life.

Oftentimes, less is more.


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