Why Successful People Spend 10 Hours A Week On “Compound Time”
Warren Buffett, Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey all do this one thing outside their to-do-lists every day.
Author’s Note: This article was written over 60 hours with love and care using the blockbuster mental model.
One question has fascinated me my entire adult life: what causes some people to become world-class leaders, performers, and changemakers, while most others plateau?
I’ve explored the answer to this question by reading thousands of biographies, academic studies, and books across dozens of disciplines. Over time, I’ve noticed a deeper practice of top performers, one so counterintuitive that it’s often overlooked.
Despite having way more responsibility than anyone else, top performers in the business world often find time to step away from their urgent work, slow down, and invest in activities that have a long-term payoff in greater knowledge, creativity, and energy. As a result, they may achieve less in a day at first, but drastically more over the course of their lives.
I call this compound time because, like compound interest, a small investment now yields surprisingly large returns over time.
Warren Buffett, for example, despite owning companies with hundreds of thousands of employees, isn’t as busy as you are. By his own estimate, he has spent 80 percent of his career reading and thinking.
At the 2016 Daily Journal annual meeting, Charlie Munger, Buffett’s 40-year business partner, shared that the only scheduled item on his calendar one week was getting his haircut and that most of his weeks were similar. This is the opposite of most people who are overwhelmed with short-term deadlines, meetings, and minutiae.
Ben Franklin once wisely said: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Perhaps the source of Buffett’s true wealth is not just the compounding of his money, but the compounding of his knowledge, which has allowed him to make better decisions. Or as billionaire entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones has eloquently said, “Intellectual capital will always trump financial capital.”
To build your own intellectual capital, here are six compound time activities that you can start incorporating into your life immediately:
Hack #1: Keep a journal. It could change your life.
Many top performers go beyond open-ended reflection: they often combine specific prompts with a physical journal.
Each morning, Benjamin Franklin asked himself, “What good shall I do this day?” and each evening, “What good have I done today?” Steve Jobs stood at the mirror each day and asked, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do?” Both billionaire Jean Paul DeJoria and media maven Arianna Huffington take a few minutes each morning to count their blessings. Oprah Winfrey does the same: she starts each day with her gratitude journal, noting five things for which she’s thankful.
Billionaire entrepreneur and investor Reid Hoffman asks himself questions about his thinking before bed: 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? Grandmaster chess player and world champion martial artist Josh Waitzkin has a similar process, “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.”
Whenever legendary management consultant Peter Drucker made a decision, he wrote down what he expected to happen; several months later, he’d compare the results with his expectations. Leonardo da Vinci filled tens of thousands of pages with sketches and musings on his art, inventions, observations, and ideas. Albert Einstein amassed more than 80,000 pages of notes in his lifetime. Former President John Adams kept over 51 journals throughout his life.
Ever notice that after writing about your thoughts, plans, and experiences, you feel clearer and more focused? Researchers call this “writing to learn.” It helps us bring order and meaning to our experiences and becomes a potent tool for knowledge and discovery. It also augments our ability to think about complex topics that have dozens of interrelated parts, while our brain, by itself, can only manage three in any given moment. A review of hundreds of studies on writing to learn showed that it also helps with what’s called metacognitive thinking, which is our awareness of our own thoughts. Metacognition is a key element in performance.
Hack #2: Naps can dramatically increase learning, memory, awareness, creativity, and productivity.
Pulling from the results of more than a decade of experiments, nap researcher Sara Mednick of the University of California, San Diego, boldly states: “With naps of an hour to an hour and a half… you get close to the same benefits in learning consolidation that you would from a full eight-hour night’s sleep.” People who study in the morning do about 30% better on an evening test if they’ve had an hour-long nap than if they haven’t.
Albert Einstein broke up his day by returning home from his Princeton office at 1:30 p.m., having lunch, taking a nap, and then waking with a cup of tea to start the afternoon. Thomas Edison napped for up to three hours per day. Winston Churchill considered his late afternoon nap non-negotiable. John F. Kennedy ate his lunch in bed before drawing the curtains for a one- to two-hour nap. Others who swore by daily naps include Leonardo Da Vinci (up to a dozen 10-minute naps a day), Napoleon Bonaparte (before battles), Ronald Reagan (every afternoon), Lyndon B. Johnson (30 minutes a day), John D. Rockefeller (every day after lunch), Margaret Thatcher (one hour a day), Arnold Schwarzenegger (every afternoon), and Bill Clinton (15–60 minutes a day).
Modern science confirms that napping makes us not only more productive but also more creative. Maybe that’s why greats such as Salvador Dali, chess grandmaster Josh Waitzkin, and Edgar Allen Poe used naps to induce hypnagogia, a state of awareness between sleep and wakefulness that helped them access a deeper level of creativity.
Hack #3: Only 15 minutes of walking per day can work wonders.
Top performers also build exercise into their daily routines. The most common form is walking.
Charles Darwin went on two walks daily: one at noon and one at 4 p.m. After a midday meal, Beethoven embarked on a long, vigorous walk, carrying a pencil and sheets of music paper to record chance musical thoughts. Charles Dickens walked a dozen miles a day and found writing so mentally agitating that he once wrote, “If I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish.” Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche concluded, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”
Others who made a habit of walking include Gandhi (took a long walk every day), Jack Dorsey (takes a five-mile walk each morning), Steve Jobs (took a long walk when he had a serious talk), Tory Burch (45 minutes a day), Howard Schultz (walks every morning), Aristotle (gave lectures while walking), neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (walked after lunch), and Winston Churchill (walked every morning upon waking).
Now we have scientific data proving what these geniuses intuited: taking a walk refreshes the mind and body, and increases creativity. It can even extend your life.
Hack #4: Reading is one of the most beneficial activities we can invest in
Here’s an amazing truth: no matter our circumstances, we all have equal access to the favorite learning medium of Bill Gates, the richest person in the world: books.
Top performers in all areas take advantage of this high-powered, low-cost way to learn.
Winston Churchill spent several hours a day reading biographies, history, philosophy, and economics. Likewise, the list of U.S. presidents who loved books is long: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and JFK were all voracious readers. Theodore Roosevelt read one book a day when busy, and two to three a day when he had a free evening.
Other luminary readers include billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban (three-plus hours a day), billionaire entrepreneur Arthur Blank (two-plus hours a day), billionaire investor David Rubenstein (six books a week), billionaire entrepreneur Dan Gilbert (one to two hours a day), Oprah Winfrey (credits reading for much of her success), Elon Musk (read two books a day when he was younger), Mark Zuckerberg (a book every two weeks), Jeff Bezos (read hundreds of science fiction novels by the time he was 13), and CEO of Disney Bob Iger (gets up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to read).
Reading books improves memory, increases empathy, and de-stresses us, all of which can help us achieve our goals. Books compress a lifetime’s worth of someone’s most impactful knowledge into a format that demands just a few hours of our time. They provide the ultimate ROI.
Interested in reading more? I created a free training series to help you to find the time to read and double your return on learning.