Minimum Necessary Change

I’m not going to quote you anything here because I got this idea from a book that has no quotable excerpts from. Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity is brilliant when you’re a teenager, substantially less so when you’re not. It’s a novel with eye-poppingly great ideas, it just makes you close your eyes wincing at how poorly it’s written. Asimov was a permanent schoolboy, that’s all. Yet there is an idea that sticks with me.

It’s called the Minimum Necessary Change and in his millennia-spanning time-travel tale, it means this. The most gigantic event can be traced back to the very tiniest of things. I think an example he gives is of a war being prevented because a tea cup is moved. In the book’s world, this cup or whatever it is being moved to a different shelf means it’s not where some fella expects it to be and it takes him a minute to find it. That delay means he leaves the house a minute later than he would have done and so he gets caught up in traffic or something, he’s late getting to a big meeting, he doesn’t annoy someone who therefore doesn’t start a war.

Okay, I may have skipped on a few steps there but you got the idea and you saw where it’s going.

It’s in my mind because I read a thing this morning, a factual article rather than a naff novel, recommending what it said was the Minimum Effective Dose. You can read that here but the piece says that’s a medical term to do with finding the very least medicine dose you can give someone before it works. With the idea that giving them more than that is a waste and/or dangerous. The article takes that idea and applies it to productivity and says that you should look for the least you can do to get what you want.

And I don’t like that.

I’m not sure why since it makes sense and any effort you don’t apply to this job you can apply to another. Yet somehow I read that and I take away an idea of not trying. Of pushing papers around, of getting by. I want to do things that matter to me more than that.

And as I pondered away about this MED thing, Asimov’s MNC popped into my head from a couple of decades ago. His is a time travel thing and works by seeing this great big war and tracking back to the smallest possible origin, finding the point where with the least twiddling you can get the result you want. I just prefer that.

The reason for the Minimum Necessary Change is not laziness or the conservation of energy, it’s that you could accidentally set off a different war if you do the wrong thing. That’s it, I’ve got it now: both Asimov’s MNR and this article’s Minimum Effective Dose are about getting the most by doing the least, but MED is apathetic and MNR is precise. Minimum Necessary Change says you do this and exactly this to get that. MED says you do enough to get what you want.

I don’t know how doctors calculate the MED, though presumably there’s a lot of research data to call on. I also don’t quite know how you can time travel back to a point where moving a tea mug will save the world.

But I really like the idea that the smallest thing you do right now can make massive changes in your life later. Plus, I’m going to tidy my shelves, so there’s that too.

Find the Minimum Necessary Change

The Minimum Necessary Change or MNC was a thing in Isaac Asimov’s novel, The End of Eternity. Be careful of that link: like so much of Asimov’s work, the book has astonishingly vivid and great ideas but they’re written like he’s still in school.

Still, I read it when I was in school and the MNC stuck with me. The End of Eternity is a time-travel novel that features an organisation which fixes problems. If there’s a war that kills billions, they track it back to its cause, to the specific moment, the earliest speck of a pixel of its beginning, and they change that.

I think one example is delaying someone on their way to a meeting. If you could fix their car to stop working and they therefore never get to that meeting, you can imagine how that small act could be the trigger for massive changes. Say the meeting was an interview: you don’t go, so you don’t get the job, so your life is changed.

The MNC was the minimum necessary change to make big things happen.

And I’m thinking of all this in part because it’s fascinating how a dreadfully badly written novel can still stick with you all these years later. But more because Lifehacker has a feature on finding the Minimum Effective Dose. It’s the same thing, sort of.

In medical terms, the “minimum effective dose” or MED is the lowest dose of a pharmaceutical that causes a significant change in health or well-being for a patient. To find the perfect balance of productivity and time management in your life, Dr. Christine Carter suggests you find the MED for everything you have to get done.

There’s no point in burning yourself out on things that can be completed with far less effort. You can find your MED for everything: sleep, checking email, working out, various work tasks. Once you’ve figured out your MED for the tasks you do everyday, you’ll feel less stretched out. You might even find time to do the things you’ve always wanted to do, but never felt like you had time for. Determine your MEDs, stick to your dosage, and realize that overdosing doesn’t mean that you’re getting any more done.

Streamline Productivity with the “Minimum Effective Dose” for Tasks – Patrick Allan, Lifehacker (6 March 2015)

Read the full feature for what Dr Carter has to say.