Thomas Edison, Salvador Dali, And A Navy SEAL All Follow The 20% Rule
They spend 20% of their time on activities of experiments and skill-building.
Author’s Note: This article was written over 60 hours with love and care using the blockbuster mental model.
Over the last few years, I’ve spent nearly 1,000 hours thinking deeply about, researching, and writing about a simple question that has profound implications…
What percentage of our workweek should we spend on learning and experimentation in order to have a thriving career?
In 5-Hour Rule, I make the case that if you’re not spending five hours per week learning, you’re being irresponsible…
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. Not learning at least 5 hours per week (the 5-hour rule) is the smoking of the 21st century and this article is the warning label.
More recently, I’ve been thinking about the optimal dose of weekly learning rather than the minimum. This distinction is increasingly important given that we’re in a period of extreme time acceleration.
As I performed this research, I noticed something surprising. Many of the top companies and entrepreneurs in the world have independently found an optimal number that is the same…
Navy Seal, Google, Genentech, 3M, and GaryVee Follow The 20% Rule
They spend 20% of their time on activities of experiments and skill-building.
So, if you work five days per week, that would be one full day devoted to just learning and experimentation. In other words, a 4-day workweek.
Here are a few of the most interesting case studies I’ve come across…
1) Google Founders Follows The 20% Rule
Early on, Google created a 20% Rule that gave employees the flexibility to spend 20% of their work time on innovation projects not directly connected to what they’re paid for.
Former CEO, Eric Schmidt explains some of the thinking behind the magic “20%” number.
In short, Google believes in the 70/20/10 Rule for learning and innovation…
70% of your time should be dedicated to core business tasks.
20% of your time should be dedicated to projects related to the core business.
10% of time should be dedicated to projects unrelated to the core business.
2) 3M Follows A Similar Rule
3M has had an informal 15% Rule for decades. Engineers and scientists can “spend up to 15% of their time pursuing their own projects, free to look for unexpected, unscripted opportunities, for breakthrough innovations,” according to a Harvard Business Review article.
3) GaryVee Also Follows The 20% Rule
Legendary Internet entrepreneur GaryVee spends 20% of his time on new innovative projects and learning new skills. He credits this approach with a lot of his success.
4) Navy Seal Jocko Willink Makes The Case For The 20% Rule
In a Jogan Rogan podcast episode, Jocko Willink proposed that police officers, a profession with high pressure and high stakes, should spend 20% of their week (1 day a week) training in order to improve.
Explaining his logic, Willink shared that Navy Seals would train for 18 months to just go on a 6-month deployment.
Indirectly, Willink is saying that certain professions require more ongoing learning. Based on my research, I believe that the 20% Rule applies to high-skill knowledge workers who do non-routine activities.
5. Genentech, One Of The Largest Companies In The World, Follows The 20% Rule
According to a Fortune profile, Genentech “encourages their scientists and engineers to spend fully 20 percent of each workweek pursuing pet projects.”
6. 95% Of People I Surveyed Think The 20% Rule Would Make Them More Productive
Interested in this 20% Rule, I recently polled members of our Learning How To Learn community. 643 people responded to this question…
If you had a 4-day work-week combined with a 1-day learning-week, do you think your lifetime productivity would increase or decrease?
An amazing 95% of respondents said that they thought that the 4-day workweek would increase their lifetime productivity.
The List Goes On
The luminaries above are not alone.
Bill Gates has not only spent an hour a day his whole career learning. In addition, he has also gone on an annual two-week learning vacation:
Warren Buffett has spent 80% of his entire career reading and thinking. For example, here’s how Buffett’s long-term business partner describes his weekly schedule:
You look at his schedule sometimes and there’s a haircut.
Tuesday, haircut day.
That’s what created one of the world’s most successful business records in history. He has a lot of time to think.
Thomas Edison is famous for following the 10,000 Experiment Rule.
And while Elon Musk has never publicly stated the percentage of his time he has spent reading throughout his career, he is clearly one of the best applied learners in human history.
All of my research over the past few years has convinced me to increase my learning time from one hour per day to 3–4 hours instead.
Finding 10+ Learning Hours Per Week Is Easier Than You Think
If you follow the 20% Rule, then you should spend 8–14 hours per week on learning depending on how much you work per week.
This begs the question…
How can you find hours more per day for learning when you already feel behind?
What follows is a proven approach to finding time for learning that I call adaptive learning.
Introducing Adaptive Learning
If you already feel overwhelmingly behind, then adding deliberate learning feels impossible. After all, you have negative hours available. Therefore, to add anything, you’d have to remove something. Right?
Not quite. If you simply flip the equation, suddenly learning time is everywhere. Here’s how I would recommend thinking…
Every single moment in life is a learning opportunity. How do I capitalize on them?
This perspective shift means you have 168 hours of time per week where you could be learning. You could even learn in your sleep as Ray Kurzweil, Josh Waitzkin, Reid Hoffman, Thomas Edison, Salvador Dali, and other luminary learners have throughout the ages (more on this later).
Rather than just finding the time to learn, the goal becomes adapting to every situation in order to find learning opportunities and turn them into lessons learned.
Enter adaptive learning…
Adaptive learning is learning how to learn in every situation.
Becoming an adaptive learner means mastering T.E.E.M.Z:
Time: Find and make time in your schedule.
Energy: Have energy rituals that prevent you from crashing.
Environment: Select environments that facilitate learning.
Mindset: Turn fixed mindsets into growth mindsets.
Zone: Move overwhelming triggers into the learning zone.
For the rest of the article, I will break down each letter in TEEMZ…
There are three types of learning time: double time, deliberate time, and downtime.
Double time is combining learning with other activities you already do as part of your schedule. For example, I like to learn while…
Doing the sauna
Working out with friends
What’s beautiful about double time is that you don’t have to make time for it. Instead, you just layer in learning. As such, you likely already have at least two hours per day you could use for double time. Here are a few ways I fit double time into my schedule…
Walk & Learn
I take my dog for a walk every day. If I don’t, she stands in front of me and gives me puppy dog eyes until I relent. During the walk, I…
Listen to audiobooks
Use Voxer to reflect with other friends who love learning about our biggest lessons learned
Use my iPhone’s native audio recording app to record notes for myself.
Sauna & Learn
I do the sauna five times per week. For each session, I get 25 minutes of reading and reflection in the sauna and then another 20 minutes as I cool down.
(Side note: If you don’t know about the research behind saunas, check this out.)
Chores & Learn
With two kids getting homeschooled and eight animals (we’re currently fostering five kittens), there is no shortage of chores to do. I simply put on my headphones and get to work.
Drive & Learn
I drive & learn while doing errands.
Work Out & Learn
Since the Coronavirus started, two friends and I worked out every weekday at 3:30 pm EST over Zoom. Given that we all love learning, our calls ultimately come down to talking about lessons we’re learning and dilemmas we’re facing.
While double time is great for meandering reflections and conversations, it’s not the best for deliberate learning, which requires 100% of your attention.
Deliberate learning is based on the idea of deliberate practice pioneered by Anders Ericsson. Here’s what it means to do deliberate learning…
Identify high-leverage skills.
Figure out practice routines (ie, the ‘music scales’ of your industry) to master those skills.
Hire coaches for the areas you want to master.
Get high-quality feedback (coaches/dashboards).
Focus 100% of your attention on the task at hand while you have high energy.
The power of deliberate learning is that it is one of the top tools that world-class performers use to become the best at their craft.
Deliberate learning time does require blocks of time. But the good news is that a small amount of deliberate learning time can go a long way. Here are a few opportunities for deliberate practice you have every day…
Have 15-minute debriefs at the end of projects, work sessions, meetings, and days where you and the people in your circles reflect and give/get feedback. In a Harvard study, “employees who spent the last 15 minutes of each day of their training period writing and reflecting on what they had learned did 23% better in the final training test than other employees.” Imagine spending 8 hours in a training, then spending 15 minutes reflecting on what you learned. Amazingly, those 15 minutes are only 1/33 of the total time but drive 20% of the learning gain.
Use every time you do something as an opportunity to get better at it. Every time we do something is an opportunity to improve at it. All that’s required is clarity on what you want to practice. For example, I do this with every article I write. There is always one skill I want to get better at. These incremental improvements compound over time. They’re the difference between someone stagnating and someone becoming a world-class performer.
Wake up early and read. Mornings are great because you don’t have distractions, and you have high energy.
When you look at time on multiple levels, you see that there are learning opportunities hidden everywhere.
Finally, the third type of learning time is downtime.
Counterintuitively, one of the best times to learn is when we take breaks. This is one of the fascinating patterns I’ve noticed through my years of research—many creative geniuses use their sleep to learn. Yes, you read that right. They literally learn in their sleep. Rather than explaining it, let me share some of the case studies I’ve seen. Enough very smart people do this that make it worth trying.
Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.
Before he goes to sleep, Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, asks himself a few questions:
What are the kind of key things that might be constraints on a solution, or might be the attributes of a solution?
What are the tools or assets I might have?
What are the key things that I want to think about?
What do I want to solve creatively?
Upon waking, he reflects on the answers…
The very first thing I do when I get up, almost always, is to sit down and work on that problem because that’s when I’m the freshest. I’m not distracted by phone calls and responses to things, and so forth. It’s the most tabula rasa — blank slate — moment that I have. I use that to maximize my creativity on a particular project. I’ll usually do it before I shower, because frequently, if I go into the shower, I’ll continue to think about it.
—Reid Hoffman, Founder, LinkedIn
Josh Waitzkin, chess grandmaster and martial artist world champion, has a similar system,
My journaling system is based around studying complexity. Reducing the complexity down to what is the most important question. Sleeping on it, and then waking up in the morning first thing and pre-input brainstorming on it. So I’m feeding my unconscious material to work on, releasing it completely, and then opening my mind and riffing on it.
—Josh Waitzkin (world champion)
Explaining his system and patterns of top performers, he further adds…
If they’re thinking about it right before bed, they’re thinking about it consciously. They’re not releasing the conscious mind, which is a huge part of that… [It’s] that core Hemingway principle of writing and then finishing his workday leaving something left to write. Right?… It’s very interesting, but he would always speak about the importance of stopping your thinking at that point. And he would relax. He would drink wine. And also for me as a chess player, I found if I studied it earlier and then released it, then I was able to dream about the insight.
Brilliant inventor Ray Kurzweil also uses sleep as part of his learning process…
Thomas Edison famously took multiple naps throughout the day and claimed that they helped him be more creative. This is an actual photo of his office. It hasn’t been touched since he passed away.
I am working on a full-length article on sleep learning, but for now, I just wanted to whet your appetite.
Bottom line: When you add double time, downtime, and deliberate time together, you can easily find hours more per day for learning.
Think about what it feels like when your energy dips during the day. For me personally, when I crash, my mind craves junk learning and junk food. I’m susceptible to distractions like social media. I’m also more irritable, which makes me susceptible to being triggered.
Basically, low energy is to learning as light is to vampires.
On the other hand, when I’m high energy, I want hard challenges, and I feel super positive.
Bottom line: When you focus on energy, then you realize that sleep and naps are fundamental to the learning process as they keep us in the learning zone throughout the day.