The elegance of doing less

is your work driven by fear?

In medicine, there are two schools of thought for determining how to treat a disease.

The first is called Maximum Tolerated Dose. This method of drug prescription is the standard for nearly all treatments. It suggests that we should take the absolute maximum amount of medicine possible, right up until the point where the side effects of taking more would become dangerous.

When I hear about Maximum Tolerated Dose, I think of chemotherapy and radiation. A brutal war on your body, that indiscriminately kills cancerous and non-cancerous cells alike. These treatments push your body to its limit—and hopefully—stop before making matters worse.

The other method—which is far less common—is called Minimum Effective Dose. This method of treatment suggests that patients should take the minimum amount of medicine necessary to effectively treat their disease. A precise dosing will allow your body to beat back a disease, without harming your healthy cells.

Minimum Effective Dose is popping 2 ibuprofen for a headache, Maximum Tolerated Dose is downing 25. Both will cure you’re headache. One, however, is irresponsible, and far more dangerous.

One factory or one million casualties

In WWII, the Allied Forces faced a similar dichotomy.

Like a fearful physician prescribing treatment for a cancer patient, the Allies had to make a difficult decision. Would they bomb the Axis Powers with the Minimum Effective force, or the Maximum Tolerated?

The first was an elegant, and measured approach, called Precision Bombing. It was designed to end wars while limiting the number of civilian casualties.

The idea was if a bomb squadron could judiciously drop explosives on, let’s say, a German ball-bearing factory, the effects on the military supply chain would be devastating. Broken machines would be abandoned on the battle field, and the economic defeat of Germany would quickly force a surrender. Very few, if any, civilians would be harmed as a result.

The second type of bombing was far less judicious, and it was called Area Bombing.

This was done by targeting an entire city, and simply dropping thousands of tons of explosives indiscriminately. Millions of civilians would die as a result.

The Allies chose what nearly all physicians choose. They chose to administer the Maximum Tolerated Dose, and the consequences were devastating. 

The firebombing of Tokyo, which killed 100,000 people, was an area bombing. As was the brutal destruction of Germany’s cultural center, Dresden. The nuclear fallout of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were area bombings, as well.

Maximum work is maximum fear

Our decisions during times of war, and times of illness, have one thing in common—fear.

And as a result, the decisions we make in this state of fear, are compromised. We physically tense up. Our window of possible outcomes contracts. We dial into our deepest, and most primal survival instinct. Then we begin to hoard, and bend the truth, and scheme. In a state of fear, we bring our lowest selves to center stage.

We annihilate our enemies and fire-bomb entire cities, afraid of what would happen if we didn’t. We assault our bodies with as much medicine as possible, out of fear of recurrence.

But this doesn’t just apply to wars and disease, but to our relationship with work as well.

Driven by fear, the ambitious lawyer attacks their career with indiscriminate effort. When facing the scourge of expectation and adversity inherent to their job, they pile on more. More time, more calls, more emails, more effort. Longer nights, earlier mornings.

They go for the maximum, until they can tolerate no more.

Do what’s necessary, not what’s easy

When you hear Minimum Effective work, you might think 10 hour work weeks, and sipping mojitos poolside.

For some, that may be the case, but I believe that misses the point entirely. What I’m suggesting, rather, is to do the absolute minimum amount of work necessary to achieve your desired outcome. Be that one hundred hours of work each week, or just one.

It’s easy to dial your effort to its maximum, and ride that wave to its inevitable crash. It’s far harder to determine, with precision, the difficulty of your goals, and adjust your effort accordingly.

The critical distinction then is knowing when to stop. Knowing when enough is truly enough, and courageously adhering to that.

More is never better

One of the problems with the Maximum Tolerated Dose paradigm is something called, accumulation.

Over an extended period of time, this method of cancer treatment will cause your body to experience a build up of residue. This residue is all those little bits of unnecessary drug pooling in your body. Drop by drop, it accumulates in your lungs, or kidneys, or brain. Then it begins to kill the surrounding area, and eventually, you.

That’s the insidious nature accumulation.

A bit of extra drug, a bit of extra work, a later night, an earlier morning. They’re all like tiny leaks under your kitchen sink. Today, it’s nothing to worry about, but in 10 years, the foundation of your house will be rotted to its core.

Therefore, the conclusion I’ve come to isn’t that “more is better up until a point”, but rather, more is never better.

That’s because there are always consequences to doing more than you need. There are consequences to dropping one more bomb, there are consequences to taking one more pill. There are always consequences to more, even if they aren’t immediately seen.

It takes guts to do less

So how can we bring a targeted, and Minimum Effective, approach to our work?

If you’re reading this article, the first thing to do is recognize your unwarranted fears.

Despite how it might feel at times, I promise you, you are safe.

Odds are, on your darkest day, when your bank account is drained, your partner walked out, and you got laid off, you’re still going to eat. You’re still going to speak English in one of the most affluent countries in the world. You’re still going to be a phone call away from a couch you could sleep on.

You’re safe, and you will always have enough to survive.

However, what you won’t always have is the feeling of safety.

You’ll be insecure, like the Allies were during WWII. You’ll be afraid, like someone recently diagnosed with cancer. You’ll be anxious, like a lawyer struggling to keep up with the status quo.

Therefore, doing the absolute minimum takes guts.

It takes guts to stop to your workout after one hour, knowing you could go longer. It takes guts to go out for drinks, and stop before you get drunk. It takes guts to be the most effective person in the room, when your industry rewards hours on the clock.

It takes guts to set goals, achieve them, and go no further.


PS. If you’ve made it all the way down here and don’t feel that you’ve just wasted five minutes, consider hitting the Like button on this essay.

It helps others find it. And it makes me happy.

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