The Minimum Effective Dose: Why Less is More

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add,
but when there is nothing left to take away.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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In pharmacology, the effective dose is the amount of a drug that produces the desired response in most patients. Determining the range for a drug, the difference between the minimum effective dose and the maximum tolerated dose is incredibly important.

The Minimum Effective Dose (MED) is a concept I first came across in The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman. The definition is pretty simple: the smallest dose that will produce the desired outcome (this is also known as the “minimum effective load.”

Most people think that anything beyond the minimum effective dose is a waste.

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.

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In biological systems, exceeding your MED can freeze progress for weeks, even months.

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More is not better. Indeed, your greatest challenge will be resisting the temptation to do more. The MED not only delivers the most dramatic results, but it does so in the least time possible.

While that's true in some cases it's not true in all cases. The world is complicated. Perhaps an example or two will help illustrate.

Consider a bridge used to take vehicles from one side of a river to another. The maximum anticipated load is 100 tons. So, in theory, it would be over-engineering to make sure it can withstand 101 tons.

Another example, think about the person that wants to make a sports team. Do they want to do barely enough work, so they are 0.01 percent better than the other person to make the team? No of course not.

Do you want a Dr. performing surgery on you that did the bare minimum to pass tests in medical school?

No of course not. You don't want to leave things to chance. You want to build a bridge that your kids can cross without you worrying if there are more cars on the bridge than some engineer 15 years ago guessed. You want a surgeon who is in the top 1%, not one that just passed med-school. You want to be so good that you're not on the roster bubble.

There are a lot of areas where applying the minimum required to get an outcome and calling it a day doesn't make any sense at all. In fact, it can be downright dangerous. You want to think about the dynamic and holistic world that you're operating in. And to borrow a concept from Engineering, you want to make sure you have a Margin of Safety.