More is Not Better: The Minimum Effective Dose

In the world of personal development, we’re pushed to believe that we should always be doing more. You can see this in the rising popularity of hustle culture, where you devote as much time as possible to grinding.

Sure, working hard is a key factor in finding success, there is no doubt about that — but there is a flip side.

In this article I’ll explain why more is not always better, with the concept known as the minimum effective dose (MED).

The minimum effective dose (MED) is the minimum amount of input required to arrive at a desired outcome. This is an incredibly useful framework of thinking that can be applied for anything, and I’ll be highlighting what it is, and why you should apply it.

This entire article serves as an example of the MED in action, because you’ll be able to leverage the key information presented here to be more effective in everything you do.

What is MED

The minimum effective dose originated in the field of pharmacology, with it being used as a means to provide the minimum quantity of a substance that elicits an optimal biological response.

Whenever you supplement drugs to solve a specific problem there will also be other effects on the biological system — this is the basis of side effects.

When applying the MED, the minimum effect allows you to provide the effective amount of a substance, while minimizing unwanted effects on the body. This is good, and we’re fortunate people figured this out because we’d be screwed otherwise.

Eventually, this concept was translated into other domains. I first came across the MED in ‘The 4 hour body’ by Tim Ferris, where it was used as a pillar for development strategies for fitness.

In the book, he introduces the man behind applying the MED in the fitness world, Arthur Jones. He was a revolutionary fitness expert who coined the application of the MED as the ‘minimum effective load’. He pioneered ways of training more effectively, which lead to the development of training methods such as high intensity training (HIT).

In the future I’ll be going into more depth about how the MED is applied in other areas, but for now this brief overview gives a jist about what it’s all about.

MED vs No Pain No Gain

The notion of ‘no pain, no gain’ has deluded us to put too much focus on maximizing our inputs while sacrificing ourselves during the process. Just like everything, the focus on hard work has a cost.

You pay a price for everything you do, and don’t do, so taking this into consideration you realize simply going all out is a sub-optimal solution.

“To boil water, the MED is 212°F (100°C) 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.”

This analogy from Tim Ferriss serves as a perfect depiction of the problem at hand.

Rather than wasting valuable resources such as time & energy, you could obtain all you wanted with less wasted, which allows you to function at a higher level.

There is no debate here, this is obviously a better approach, so if you truly want to be effective, it’s important to look at the bigger picture.

Context Matters: Long term vs Short term

One useful dichotomy which relates to the MED is short-term vs long-term thinking.

When taking on an endeavour we tend to have natural impulses that seek out short term gains, but as we know, only having your sights on the short term merely serves to bite us later on.

It could be something as simple as skipping out on going to the gym, or that extra hour of procrastination — we are aware that these short-term impulses tend to have looming effects for the long term.

Firstly, acceptance is important here because fighting against this mechanism head on is a losing battle. It’s an integral part of the way you work because your brain is designed to be efficient in gratifying neurochemical needs. When we look at the bigger picture, and understand the situation, we can take better actions.

Right action happens when we align ourselves between planning for the desired outcome while making progress towards it feasible. For example, if you want to lose weight as the desired outcome, pigging out whenever you feel like it probably won’t be a viable strategy. However, planning for cheat days is a pragmatic compromise that keeps you going in a sustainable way. MED utilizes this long-range thinking, where we accept mechanisms of the system, rather than fighting against it. We work towards our desired outcomes while smoothening the path of progress.

Failure and Success

A group of scientists at Northwestern University created a one-parameter model that could help uncover the mechanism of success and failure, using data from a large database of various outcomes. From this model, they identified certain indicators that separated successful groups from non-successful groups.

One thing from the study that was clear is that every winner begins as a loser, BUT not every failure leads to success. Perseverance does not determine success.

The data for the model came from 3 domains:

  1. 46 years worth of venture capital startup investments,
  2. 170,350 terrorist attacks carried out between 1970 and 2017
  3. 776,721 attempts from researchers to obtain national institutes of health (NIH) grants.

The model used data from these three domains to present what factors lead to success and failure.

With the case of the failures, the problem was not that they weren’t working hard enough, but rather they were not working smart enough. The number of tries between successful people and failures was the same, the key factor was that the failures made more unnecessary changes. When taking into consideration all the factors in performance; person’s work habits, learning strategies and luck — two people can still have very different outcomes when all these factors are matched. Instead what the data shows is the key factor is how people respond to failure.

“One key difference between progression and stagnation regimes is the propensity to reuse past components”

This exerpt from the study shows that ultimately, it’s not about how hard you work, but optimising the changes you make as you strive towards an outcome. In other words, finding the minimal effective dose is a deterrent to running yourself into the ground.


One response to “More is Not Better: The Minimum Effective Dose”

  1. […] In my previous post I introduced the concept known as the minimum effective dose (MED), which is the minimum amount of input required to achieve the desired outcome. In this post I’d like to take a deeper look into the concept to see how it can be applied in our lives in general, with the hopes that you’ll be able to turn this into a useful tool. […]

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