The Minimum Work Principle

If you have ever studied hard for an exam, you will know the feeling of frustration after the exam was over. Only a small fraction of what you had learned actually showed up in the questions. It feels like the time you had spent on all of the other material had been wasted.

This is to be expected. There’s no way that a few short hours of exams could possibly cover everything you had learned over a period of several weeks or months.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could work backwards from those few short hours of exams? If somehow, you knew exactly which questions would come up and could study for just those questions, you would save so much time...

Think of the best-case scenario. In this scenario, you complete the minimum required workload and nothing more. This is the preparation that you would need to do in order to fully complete your exams if you knew exactly which questions would appear. Short of cheating, it is impossible to reach exactly this minimum. Many students try to reach it by trying to predict which questions or topics will show up in the exam. This is not a particularly reliable technique. It can very easily go wrong. Use it at your own risk.

However, you can still do much better than simply learning everything that could come up in the exam. It is perfectly possible to get much closer to the minimum required workload without taking additional risks.

This is achieved by following The Minimum Work Principle. Work towards the best-case scenario. Don’t try to learn everything. You can safely eliminate a lot of work from your preparation. Focus on the most versatile material that you can use in the greatest possible number of situations. This will become clearer in the next few chapters.