The five hour rule: How some of the world's most successful business leaders thrive

Source: GatesNotes.com Source: GatesNotes.com

Some of the world’s most prominent business leaders are following a simple weekly plan to further their learning and take time to reflect.

And by spending an hour each day focusing on deliberate learning, busy entrepreneurs and business owners can also improve their chances of success.

An hour spent learning skills for the future may reduce short term productivity, but in the long term, those who use this technique can find themselves getting tasks done faster and being more productive.

Michael Simmons, co-founder of start-up support firm Empact, calls this behavioural phenomenon the five-hour rule after looking at the personal history and daily activity of business leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

Simmons found the leaders he looked at spent five hours each week focusing on three key areas.

1. Read a book

The primary focus area is reading, with Simmons finding each business leader he researched spends some time reading each week.

Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates reads 50 books a year, and regularly shares his recommendations with the public, as does Oprah Winfrey who credits much of her success with reading books, saying they were her pass to "personal freedom". 

Gates’ best friend and investing giant Warren Buffett reads five newspapers and 500 pages of corporate reports every day. This exceeds the one-hour a day suggestion, as Buffett says he spends five to six hours a day reading.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg reads one book or more every two weeks, and billionaire investor Mark Cuban reads for over three hours every day.

2. Reflect and learn from your mistakes

Reading isn’t the only way that these business leaders wind down for an hour, with Simmons finding many also choose to take time to reflect and think about their business and their lives.

AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong thinks with his senior team for four hours every week, while investor Ray Dalio takes this to the next level by logging his mistakes into a company-wide system and then working through them with his team.

LinkedIn chief executive Jeff Weiner does nothing but think for up to two hours every day, and LinkedIn’s co-founder Reid Hoffman likes to give Elon Musk a call whenever he has an issue to think through.

Weiner previously wrote about his take on the five-hour rule on LinkedIn, calling it:“The Importance of Scheduling Nothing”.

“If you were to see my calendar, you’d probably notice a host of time slots greyed out but with no indication of what’s going on. The grey sections reflect “buffers,” or time periods I’ve purposely kept clear of meetings,” Weiner said.

“I schedule between 90 minutes and two hours of these buffers every day.”

Weiner said that he began to schedule these buffers in order to have time each day to “just think.” Over time, Weiner realised this 90 minutes a day became essential for him to do his job successfully.

3. Experiment a little

Finally, Simmons found these business leaders also dedicate time to experimentation. Some of the largest companies in the world also foster creativity and innovation through dedicated experimentation time.

Google once allowed its employees to spend 20% of their work time on innovative personal projects that can benefit Google. This was eventually phased out in 2013 for a more focused approach to innovation, but the concept resulted in huge projects such as Gmail and AdSense.

Hack-a-thons are also common in many companies: programs that allow employees 48 hours to come up with ideas and programs for the company. Facebook takes this to the next level with Hack-a-months: 30-day long caffeine-fuelled engineering and designing sessions that have resulted in major projects such as Facebook Deals.

So why should you implement the five-hour rule in your business week? Simmons claims that by “focusing on learning as a lifestyle, we get so much more done over the long term.”

According to entrepreneur Marc Andreessen, “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 like the reality is that people who jump into the deep end of the pool drown,” he said in a recent a16z interview.

“There aren’t that many Mark Zuckerbergs. Most of them are still floating face down in the pool.”

Jumping straight into the five-hour a week regime can be difficult to do right away, so it’s best to take it in increments. Simmons says to look at the rule like exercise, saying, “the long-term effects of NOT learning are just as insidious as the long-term effects of not having a healthy lifestyle”.

So grab a book, pick a timeframe, and get learning.

Dominic Powell

Dominic Powell is a freelance journalist with an interest in technology, startups and music.

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