Let’s start with a simple fitness story, and expand from there: About two years ago, for a wide variety of reasons—including time, mental energy, and a calf that becomes painful and explodes with repetitive motion—I decided to shift my armchair athleticism from running to strength training. I went from running 50 miles per week to running no miles at all; from trying to avoid gaining any unnecessary muscle mass to trying to gain as much as possible; from trying to get under 3 hours for the marathon to trying to get over 330 pounds for the squat.
One quality I didn’t want to lose, however, was my cardiovascular health. Sure, my heart-rate increases during strength training, but it only goes so high when doing 5 to 10 repetitions of a movement. The question I asked myself: What is the least aerobic exercise I can do to maintain a strong heart? With two years of experimentation under my belt, the answer, for now anyways, goes something like this: once a week, I hike as fast as I can up a steep hill (can’t run because of the exploding calf) for 5 minutes, between 2 and 3 times, with the recovery period walking down. The whole workout takes 20 to 30 minutes (depending on whether I go up the hill 2 or 3 times). I know it’s effective because my resting heart-rate, the distance I can cover in the 5-minute interval, and probably most important, how I feel going up the hill during the workout (and going up the stairs in daily life) hasn’t changed, even as I’ve gained more mass from strength training. These 5 minute bouts of hiking up a hill are my minimum effective dose for maintaining cardiovascular health.
My minimum effective dose for maintaining cardiovascular health is going to be different that yours. It is based on my prior exercise history, my unique genetics, my physical limitations, and literally a million other factors. The point isn’t that there is anything magical about my fast-hiking up a hill once a week. Rather, it is that every individual can find their own minimum effective dose for the qualities they want to maintain.
At the outset of this little piece, I promised I’d expand beyond fitness. The concept of a minimum effective dose can be applied to just about everything. How much poetry reading to maintain a connection with the mystical? How much meditation to stay grounded? How much sex to stay physically connected? How much deep-focus work to feel good and protect the quality of paying close attention?
To be clear, a minimum effective dose is generally not the right approach to reach your full potential in a given pursuit. For that, the right model is probably closer to a maximum effective dose (i.e., the most you can do without illness, injury, burnout). A minimum effective dose is about maintaining a quality while you pursue others more fully. Connecting this to our earlier examples: Cardiovascular fitness while focusing on strength training; poetry while focusing on reading long biographies and research papers; meditation while focusing on physical fitness; sex while focusing on keeping an infant alive; deep-focus work while managing a large team.
The strategy of minimum effective dosing squares nicely with something else I’ve written about extensively, a concept that was one of the most popular in Peak Performance: “being a minimalist to be a maximalist.” This means in order to go deep, to pursue mastery in one thing, you have to say no to many others. But often times, you don’t want to completely leave those other things behind. Perhaps you enjoy them, perhaps they are good for your health, perhaps you may want to come back to focusing on them in the future. This is precisely when figuring out and sticking to a minimum effective dose becomes the perfect strategy.