How to Really Leverage the 5 Hour Rule

How to Really Leverage the 5 Hour Rule

How to Really Leverage the 5 Hour Rule

EXPOSE  |  The 5 Hour “Phenomenon”

“Over the past year, I’ve explored the personal histories of many widely admired business leaders, including Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg… despite being extremely busy, [they] have set aside at least an hour a day (or five hours a week) over their entire career for activities that could be classified as deliberate practice or learning… I call this phenomenon the five-hour rule. (emphasis mine)” – Michael Simmons, co-founder of Empact, with Ian Chew and Shizuka Ebata.

EXPLORE  |  Logging Some ‘Lab’ Time

Of course, the focus isn’t the celebrity, but the daily discipline.  Where it will lead, is for God to determine.  But the fact that this ‘rule’ has been played out in significant ways in these people’s lives, warrants some further investigation, and, quite possibly, a fair amount of integration into our own lives.

In the past, we’ve highlighted the implications of becoming a morning person, and the role that being a learner plays, so this idea of “deliberate practice or learning” throughout the week aligns nicely.  It might be best understood in the context of a lab, where you move from concept to experimentation.  So, in practice, it isn’t just reading or planning, but includes trying and applying.

This ‘5 Hour Rule’ could be considered a reductionist view of the more profound concept put forth by Cal Newport and detailed in his book “Deep Work.”  For me, it was a fascinating look into the subject of mastery.  Newport explains how “it enables you to quickly (and deliberately) learn complicated new skills and produce high-value output at a high rate.”

What does it take to master a particular skill or knowledge, but the extended, intensive, immersive, exercise of deep focus. Therefore it favors the person that can achieve lengthy, concentrated focus, and can have a significant impact.  Cal emphasizes that “Deep work is becoming increasingly valuable at the same time that it’s becoming increasingly rare. Therefore, if you cultivate this skill, you’ll thrive.”

Though the benefits outweigh the costs, one major challenge with being able to apply the concept of Deep Work, is the large block of time it demands, and the effort it takes to protect it.  Newport recommends extended hours, or even days, of uninterrupted focus.  Not too many of us have that kind of flexibility.   Enter in the 5 Hour Rule.  You could loosely define it as a ‘normal person’s application’ of Deep Work.

Now the question becomes, what is worthy of my time?

EXECUTE  |  Leveraging the 5 Hour Rule to Become Wiser

I first want to briefly unpack the 5 Hour Rule.  The greatest benefit from this daily practice requires the right pursuit. With that in mind, I wanted to offer an outline of how you could begin, or further, the “deliberate practice or learning” of wisdom. I feel that there is no greater pursuit than to know what we need to know, and do what we need to do.  This is explained a little further in The Right Life Manifesto.

Understanding the 5 Hour Rule

During his research, Michael Simmons observed three activities that he then used to develop the rule: “reading, reflection, and experimentation.”  This process is especially beneficial as it takes us through to application and thorough integration.


Simmons cites this daily activity among the billionaire entrepreneurs he researched as lasting anywhere from one to three hours a day.  The main principle here is that we are ingesting something worthwhile each day for a significant amount of time.  Your best bet is to not time yourself, but give yourself a window to allow yourself the room to sift through a complete thought (whether a chapter, or section of a book, etc).


“AOL CEO Tim Armstrong makes his senior team spend four hours per week just thinking. Jack Dorsey is a serial wanderer. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner schedules two hours of thinking time per day. Brian Scudamore, the founder of the $250 million company O2E Brands, spends 10 hours a week just thinking.” – Michael Simmons

What does that look like?  Simmons referred to some who will contact a friend or mentor to help them think through an idea, others will take to journaling through what they read and what it caused them to think.  I need this part of the process to capture the ground I’ve gained.  Otherwise, I run the risk of forgetting and having to start over.  Besides, what’s the real benefit of reading or taking something in, if it is not fully absorbed?


“Throughout his life, Ben Franklin set aside time for experimentation, masterminding with like-minded individuals, and tracking his virtues. Google famously allowed employees to experiment with new projects during 20 percent of their work time. Facebook encourages experimentation through Hack-a-Months.”- Michael Simmons

This is where things get real.  Reading and thinking about it, although necessary, don’t get us very far.  This last step is where we work it out.  Where what we’ve been focusing on becomes clearer to us, more certain, and we’re able to wield it fruitfully.

Applying the 5 Hour Rule to Wisdom

With there being so many things you might want to use this process to pursue, may I suggest a good starting place?  Regardless of what you might choose, I highly recommend steps 1 and 2.  Step 3 is key, because it has the potential to be absolutely life-changing.

  1. Begin by implementing the 5 Hour Rule.  Determine your daily window for what you’ll be ‘ingesting’.  Give yourself enough time that you’re not feeling like you have to watch the clock.
  2. In the first two weeks, read Deep Work by Cal Newport.  This will help fully sell you on the idea of establishing distraction free focus, and the benefit of being able to “quickly (and deliberately) learn complicated new skills and produce high-value output at a high rate.”
  3. Use the schedule you’ve adopted (for the 5 Hour Rule), and the concept of Deep Work, and focus it on the understanding and practice of wisdom.  Here are several ideas to consider to get you going:
    • Begin your ‘deep dive’ into wisdom by reading a section of Proverbs a week and dissecting it
    • Create a list of key quotes from Proverbs, and memorize them
    • Read pages 1-9 of the paper Practical Wisdom and Organizations.  It is based on the book Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe.  In it, they establish a solid framework for the background and context for reviving practical wisdom.
    • Assume that wisdom is essentially doing the right thing, the right way, at the right time.  Use this as a checklist for areas or relationships in your life where you’d like to see wisdom improve.  What do you need to start doing?  What do you need to stop doing?  In what way should they be started or stopped?  When is the right time for this to occur?  God loves answering these questions.
    • A part of an accurate definition of wisdom includes ‘doing’.  How can you take the outcomes from applying the 5 Hour Rule and pass it on?
    • Establish the habit of wisdom as the basis for the way that you approach life.

Garmin, for their GPS smartwatch, has a current ad campaign that uses the phrase: Beat Yesterday.  As it is with so many talented athletes, it isn’t that they practice, but how they practice.  Intentional, deliberate, performance-based practice leads to real growth and effectiveness.  You’re realizing your greatest potential when you demand that you be better today than you were yesterday.  Use the 5 Hour Rule to create the space and process with which you pursue and exercise wisdom in all things.

Further Reading:

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Oprah Winfrey All Use the 5-Hour Rule

Overview of Deep Work

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