Try the five-hour rule

Careers  Learning
21 May, 2018

Safeguard your career by making intentional learning a part of your daily routine

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ~ Alvin Toffler, writer and futurist

Pretty much everyone agrees on the importance of ongoing learning. But how do you really go about it? Do you attend a workshop every few months, when something happens to catch your eye? Sign up for a week-long course once a year? Read a book occasionally? These are positive steps – but they might not be enough. In your quest for learning, we need to be intentional as well as regular. As the world transitions to a knowledge economy (that too, a rapidly changing one), it is critical to make time in our daily routines to imbibe new information and immerse in fresh concepts.

So, this week, my message focuses on the five-hour rule – an excellent approach for our continuous learning journey. The five-hour rule, inspired by the habits of Benjamin Franklin, is quite straightforward: Set aside one hour each weekday for deliberate learning, which adds up to five hours per week. Using this time appropriately enables you to develop and grow. Does five hours a week sound unrealistic? Well, if Bill Gates and Barack Obama can make the time, so can you!

Michael Simmons, co-founder of Empact and passionate advocate of the five-hour rule, points out that learning is no longer optional; it is a survival skill. With technology rendering an increasing number of tasks obsolete, year after year, it is crucial for all of us to build up our personal banks of knowledge – the most precious resource today.

As Simmons explains:

Those who work really hard throughout their career but don’t take time out of their schedule to constantly learn will be the new “at-risk” group.

Although the demand for knowledge is skyrocketing, many people stop learning as soon as they start working. Among millennials, specifically, this is partly due to the startup-driven myth that success comes to those who simply take a leap into the unknown. In an interview, entrepreneur Marc Andreessen explains that there is no substitute for expertise:

I think the archetype/myth of the 22-year-old founder has been blown completely out of proportion…I think skill acquisition, literally the acquisition of skills and how to do things, is just dramatically underrated. People are overvaluing the value of just jumping into the deep end of the pool, because the reality is that people who jump into the deep end of the pool drown.

There’s a reason there are so many stories about Mark Zuckerberg. There aren’t that many Mark Zuckerbergs. Most of them are still floating face down in the pool. And so, for most of us, it’s a good idea to get skills.

The really great CEOs, if you spend time with them…they are really encyclopaedic in their knowledge of how to run a company, and it’s very hard to just intuit all of that in your early 20s.

Following the five-hour rule means dedicating an hour, every single workday, towards building your repository of knowledge and skills. You need to be intentional and committed about carving out this window for learning, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of a more immediate task. Schedule it in advance, otherwise any free time that comes up will soon be overrun by urgent tasks and other people’s requests.

You can learn through reading, reflection and experimentation:

1. Read 

The most fundamental building block of continuous learning is the act of reading. There’s a reason why so many business legends are prolific readers. Warren Buffet spends 80 percent of his time reading. Bill Gates takes a two-week reading holiday every year. Oprah Winfrey loves the written word so much that she started a global Book Club to share her passion with readers everywhere.

Keep in mind that all your reading shouldn’t be directly connected with your day-to-day responsibilities. Explore varied topics in order to expand your thinking and spark a sense of possibility. As Steve Jobs put it:

…you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.

Along with exploring evergreen topics across the spectrum, Simmons recommends focusing on material that is currently (or set to become) relevant to your industry or role. Learning the right thing at the right moment gives you a huge advantage, allowing you to seize new opportunities and keep up with the world as it switches gears yet again.

2. Reflect 

Without purposeful reflection, all the reading in the world won’t have much of an impact – you will either feel overwhelmed by the new information, or simply forget it within a few weeks. Reflecting enables the knowledge to sink in and lets you process it properly. After you read a book or article, use a portion of your weekly learning time to think about it. Look over your notes and ponder the ideas that you highlighted because you found them compelling and thought-provoking.

Based on your personal preference, you could also try out a few other methods for reflection: keep a written journal, take voice notes and play them back to yourself, or discuss the topic with a close friend or colleague.

3. Experiment

The third component for learning is experimentation. Reading and reflection help you build your knowledge bank, enhance your empathy, and spark creative insights. Act on these new-found gifts by experimenting. Try out something that’s unfamiliar, implement something new and exciting. See what works and what doesn’t.

Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors of the modern age, made it a priority to constantly experiment. When faced with a problem, he would rapidly test solution after solution – until he finally hit the jackpot. His diligence and willingness to embrace new ideas are what made Edison a household name. Leaders are also recognising the value of a trial-and-error approach, with some senior managers creating an opportunity for their teams to brainstorm and experiment regularly.

The five-hour rule is a practical approach for you to explore fresh ideas and master new skills. In his article, 5-Hour Rule: If you’re not spending 5 hours per week learning, you’re being irresponsible, Simmons emphasises that it’s time to get serious about learning:

Just as we have minimum recommended dosages of vitamins, steps per day, and minutes of aerobic exercise for maintaining physical health, we need to be rigorous about the minimum dose of deliberate learning that will maintain our economic health. The long-term effects of intellectual complacency are just as insidious as the long-term effects of not exercising, eating well, or sleeping enough.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


  • Uma Sankar Das says:

    Thanks Vivek for sharing this insight. In this era of transformation, it is so very important to keep learning to stay relevant. Learning with a purpose is an important facet.

  • Isha Goyal says:

    This is one of the most valuable learnings for people of all ages. Without continuous learning, when one hits the stage of realization, it’s often difficult to make amends and bridge the gap b’coz you would have missed out on 1 hour per weekday that has passed ever since you stopped learning!

  • Samir Suryawanshi says:

    Hi Vivek,

    Thanks for writing this. I would say this blog is a gentle “wake up call” for a majority of us. The process of learning has indeed stopped as most of us have been imbibed with “learning on the job” which doesn’t entirely cover the gamut of “learning new things”. I have toyed with lots of things in the past as an area of learning but they fizzled out in the daily grind. Now … I will test the 5-hour rule starting today! Thanks again.

  • Bimal says:

    Thank you so much Vivekji, for putting this across. I will make sure to follow this, and let you know how it goes.

  • Sunita says:

    Thank you, Vivek. This is definitely a wake up and get learning call…I am definitely planning it for myself.


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