Most of us don’t spend enough time adding new knowledge and skills to our toolbox. We get caught up in a loop at our corporate jobs, executing the same few procedures day in and day out.
The 5-hour rule can remedy that. It makes sure you invest at least 5 hours each week in improving yourself. This creates exciting new opportunities, both in terms of income and purpose.
Learn what the 5-hour rule is all about, who came up with it, and how you can best apply it to your own life.
Definition: What Is the 5-Hour Rule?
The 5-hour rule states you should spend an hour each workday learning something new. That adds up to five hours per week, hence the name.
The term goes back to entrepreneur Michael Simmons, who wrote his first article on the subject in 2016. Since then, the term has gained some traction in the personal-development world.
Of course, the idea of daily, continuous learning is much older. Benjamin Franklin famously blocked out time each day to read and write with the goal of self-improvement. Many successful entrepreneurs are known to do the same; think Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Mark Cuban, or Mark Zuckerberg, who are all avid, daily readers.
The 5-hour rule endorses the following triad:
“Reading” is the input you are getting from books and other sources (podcasts, courses, etc.). This phase is about new information being transferred to your brain. The reflection phase is for chewing the new information over and making it your own. Finally, during experimentation, you apply what you learned to the real world.
Continuous, daily learning is not just some self-help hoax. A study found that rich people (with a liquid net worth of $3.2 million or more) study significantly more than poor people. 85 percent of the rich read at least two career-related books per month, while only 15 percent of the poor do so.
A Closer Look at the R-R-E Triad
As mentioned, proponents of the 5-hour rule usually propagate the R-R-E triad.
That seems like a good idea, at first glance. You read something new, you let it marinate a bit, then you apply it.
However, there are three issues with this approach.
First, in reality, most people get stuck in the consumption phase. They read their ten pages a day or they listen to their podcast on their way to work, and that’s that.
I should say I am a huge proponent of systematic reading and it does have a noticeable effect on your competency; I have been profiting from it my whole life.
But without testing and applying that new knowledge, you don’t get the whole range of benefits. Maybe you see a 30 percent increase in skill level, but not a 70 or 80 percent increase.
Second, the things people consume during their study time are often more entertaining than knowledge-inducing. Reading the newest Malcom-Gladwell book is not going to teach you Python or video editing. Neither is reading this blog (as much as I appreciate you doing so). You must not kid yourself.
Third, the R-R-E triad implies a linear, bottom-up process. You get the input first, then you think it through, then you apply it.
That appeals to us because it is so neat. But that is not how effective learning takes place. Effective learning doesn’t happen linearly, but synchronously. And it tends to happen top-down rather than bottom-up.
For example, when I first started learning SEO, I did so by reading several books on the subject (yes, there were books about SEO back in the day and people read them). Then I took notes and organized them into a system. Then I did little experiments here and there to see what worked.
It was an alright approach, but it wasn’t great. I saw some progress, but I didn’t excel.
That radically changed when I participated in a free online program called “The Challenge” for beginner marketers. The idea was simple – start a website, drive organic traffic to it, and monetize via display ads until you make your first dollar online.
This turbocharged my learning process. I was no longer going through the motions, but actually aiming for a real-world goal. In the process, I encountered hundreds of little hick-ups, which I then had to read up on. My studying was informed by my objective and implemented instantly.
So, the key takeaways are:
- Don’t get stuck in phase 1, the input stage.
- Be real with yourself about your daily hour of studying. Does it feel hard? Does it objectively increase your skills and your market value? Or are you indulging in high-brow entertainment?
- Find a project with a clearly defined objective. Paint one painting a day. Write 500 words. Write 10 lines of code. Memorize all the pentatonic fingers on the guitar. Then study up as problems arise.
Why You Need the 5-Hour Rule
Proponents of the 5-hour rule usually give four reasons why you should implement this practice into your busy life:
- In the near future, information will become more valuable than money. The 5-hour rule will help you reap the rewards.
- Any area of knowledge is constantly being overhauled at a rapid speed. The 5-hour rule will help you to keep up.
- Most people will soon fall behind in learning new skills. The 5-hour rule will give you a competitive advantage over these people.
- Your 9-to-5 job is not an environment conducive to learning. The 5-hour rule will make sure you improve on your time.
But are these assumptions true? Let’s examine them in turn.
1. Information Over Money
This first presupposition states that information will continue to increase in value, while money will continue to decrease in value. Hence why you are better off investing your time in learning than in making more money at your job.
That comparison is misleading.
It is true that we live in an unprecedented age of information. The internet, aka our ability to store and share unlimited amounts of knowledge, has changed our lives forever. And your ability to utilize this data is indeed crucial to your success.
But to pit information against money is silly. The two serve completely different functions.
Money is a means of exchange. You provide something of value — a product, a service, your manpower — for a placeholder called money. You can then use that placeholder to acquire any good you cannot produce yourself.
Unlike money, information is not a means of exchange. You can’t walk up to the cashier at the supermarket and offer them your cancer research, as valuable as that data might be.
Information is a good, something to barter with. And like any other good, it needs to be translated into money at some point so you can buy groceries and pay your rent. You can’t chew on your hard drive.
In no way does that diminish the importance of daily learning. The more knowledge and useful skills you have, the more valuable you will be to the world, and thus, the more money you will make.
The relationship between information and money is symbiotic, not mutually exclusive.
2. Information Expires
Another argument for prioritizing learning is that information has an expiration date. Half of the things you learned ten years ago are now outdated. So, you must constantly add to your skills, or risk falling behind.
This argument is at least partially true. For example, when I started learning about search engine optimization about 15 years ago, there were certain practices that were all the rage, like private blog networks.
Nowadays, private blog networks are not only not effective, but they will also actively harm your website. Clearly, that information has expired and been replaced by new information.
Another example is from the world of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. When I started training in BJJ, lower body attacks — leg locks — were rarely used, and even frowned upon by many teachers.
Now, many of the best competitors use a game built upon leg locks almost exclusively.
It is easy to take this too far, though.
Any area of learning consists of stable and moving parts. The stable parts are called “the basics;” these building blocks hardly change. The moving parts are called “trends;” these evolve constantly.
Now, when you focus your learning efforts on the basics, on further and further perfecting them, you can be as successful — if not more successful — than the trend chasers.
This certainly holds true in the world of SEO. Neil Patel’s blog, arguably the most successful blog on online marketing in the world, uses the same evergreen SEO strategies it used 10 years ago — superb content plus high-quality backlinks. Nothing fancy, but it works.
The same is true in BJJ. The most successful competitor of all time — Roger Gracie — used a game that only consisted of techniques that any white belt learns within their first six months of training. Yet, Gracie dominated the sport like no one before or after him.
Without question, you should block out time every day to improve your skills. But you shouldn’t do so because of an information frenzy. Do it to build rock-solid basics. These will stay with you until the end of your life.
3. Learning as a Competitive Advantage
The third way to justify the 5-hour rule is that it gives you a competitive advantage. And that is a notion I wholeheartedly agree with.
There is a sobering statistic from July 2022. It states that 51.57 percent of Americans have not read a book in the last 12 months. That is more than half of the population saying “No” to learning.
It also stands to reason that the remaining 48.43 percent do not read one book after another. Realistically, the vast majority will be only slightly less reluctant to expand their horizon. Maybe they will read one or two educational books a year. That is nothing to write home about.
But it also means that if you consistently spend one hour a day studying a certain field, your expertise in that field will soon surpass the vast majority of people alive today. That is a very easy way to stand out from the herd and give yourself a financial edge over others.
This dynamic is further intensified by the digital age we find ourselves in. I said earlier that with any field you choose to study, you should focus on the never-changing basics; I stand by that statement. However, what you cannot ignore is that there are now new, disrupting technologies popping up every five years or so. Compare this to the pre-digital age where such disruptions might take place two or three times during an average lifespan (like the automobile and the radio for someone living at the turn of the last century).
It was hard enough for most people to adapt to these changes back then, as most of us don’t like learning new things (see above). But doing this 10 to 15 times during one life? That is a recipe for disaster. It means there will be soon a wide gap between those few who are willing to always study hard for the rest of their lives and the vast majority of people who are not.
Really studying a field or learning a new skill for one hour a day will make you part of that elite group. And the rewards for those selected few will be exponential. This, to me, is one of the best reasons why you should implement the 5-hour rule into your life.
4. Busy Work vs. Learning
Employers always ramble on about lifelong learning, how important it is, how much they value it, yada yada yada.
But your employer is not interested in you constantly expanding. They are interested in pushing you to the max. They want to get the most out of what they paid for — your time.
Squeezing more and more projects at work doesn’t equal learning.
Also, they want you to do more of the same thing, not expand into new areas. You doing what you already know how to do makes them money. But teaching you new skills and watching you suck at them, at least at first? That costs them money.
“I need the end-of-the-month numbers by Friday, John, just like every month.” That is the reality.
That is a big part of the reason why most of us are so fed up with our 9-to-5 lives — the soul-crushing monotony. And then we get angry when our monotonous workflows get automated by machines.
To counteract this, you must establish a daily learning habit. You must improve your competencies in your own time. This way, you can easily switch jobs, industries, and areas of specialization. It keeps the grind halfway bearable.
Also, it futureproofs you. When you are let go because an algorithm now does what you did, you have other skill sets to fall back onto.
Finally, developing your toolbox will allow you to start your own business. As every new business owner knows, in the beginning, you must wear all the hats. When you already possess these skills in place, the hurdle will be much easier to jump.
This is the ultimate reason why must implement the 5-hour rule — it gives you autonomy.
What Should You Study?
What should you spend your studying time on? The answer to that question will be highly dependent on you as a person — your interests, your career goals, and your innate talents.
However, there are three areas of expertise that anybody profits from. These are:
- Health-related know-how
- Digital know-how
- People-related know-how
If you are always tired and sick, you cannot perform at your highest capacity. Hence why health-related skills are so valuable. Learn to improve your physical well-being, and all other areas of your life will improve too. Not to mention that you will live longer, and so have more time to accomplish your goals.
Note that knowing about health and actually improving your health are two different skill sets. You will have succeeded when you are lean, strong, and feel almost always well-rested; not when you complete your residency program. There are a lot of fat doctors out there.
The next area that benefits practically anyone is digital skills; we are living through the digital revolution, after all. These skills come in three shapes:
- Mining information, e.g., obtaining data about your customers. Whatever industry you find yourself in, if you can collect more and better data points than your competitors, you will win.
- Interpreting information, e.g., seeing patterns that others don’t see. If you excel at reading data, e.g., how the market is shifting, you will win.
- Presenting information, e.g., creating content for your customers. In a cluttered digital world, if you can explain things better than anybody else, you will win.
The third area that benefits anyone is people-related skills. We might be living in a digital world, but we still crave the human touch. If you can become an expert in listening to and understanding people, making them feel seen, selling them, attracting them to you, etc., you will be able to stack the game in your favor. So study up on psychology, marketing, and influencing people.
Accumulating vs. Pivoting
Another fundamental decision you need to make is if you want to build upon your existing competence or make your study sessions about a new field of knowledge.
There are advantages and drawbacks to both strategies.
If you build on your existing competency, you will get rewarded quicker. You are investing in something you already do well, which will take you from advanced practitioner to expert level. And experts get paid better than anybody.
But what if you hate what you are good at? You might have studied to become a software engineer to impress your parents, but now dread going to work every morning. If that’s you, you must cut your losses and pivot to another area of knowledge.
Don’t listen to the Cal Newports of this world. Doing something you despise for long enough will not make it more enjoyable. I hated math all throughout high school and college, yet years of private tutoring did nothing for my enthusiasm.
If you bet on the wrong horse, be big enough to admit it. Then find a better horse to bet on.
How To Implement the 5-Hour Rule
Here is how you can get the most out of the 5-hour rule.
1. Start Tiny
Just because it’s called the 5-hour rule, doesn’t mean you have to start with a daily hour of studying straight away. In fact, for most people with a full-time job and a family, that will be too big of a commitment initially.
Start with 10 minutes a day, or even just 5 minutes. Then gradually increase your daily study time until you get to one hour. It’s much better to build the habit slowly than to rush it and then quit after two months.
2. Be Honest With Yourself
The 5-hour rule is meant to give you a leg up in life. By learning about a certain field or developing a new skill, you will eventually become more sought after and make more money.
But this won’t happen unless you challenge yourself. To really grow, you must:
- Pick a certain field or niche. Jumping around from one topic to the next is fun but doesn’t lead to a compound effect.
- Pick sufficiently demanding material. Get input that develops your chosen skill. Don’t read to feel inspired and hyped up, the infamous self-help high. Read to learn.
Always ask yourself — is whatever I am currently studying really propelling me forward? Or am I just killing time?
3. Prefer Books Over Podcasts
There is a reason why most of us prefer podcasts over the written word — they contain more fluff and thus are easier to consume. It is simply built into the production process. A book is the result of months if not years of constant refinement; a podcast is the result of two people riffing for 30 minutes. Hence why a good book will always beat a podcast in terms of density.
In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none. Zero.Charlie Munger
Also, podcasts lend themselves to multitasking. Most people listen to them while driving, working out, or doing the dishes. That means we are less likely to absorb the presented material deeply.
Don’t get me wrong — you can still listen to educational podcasts. I do every day. But try to shift over to reading more and more, especially when you are blocking out time for bettering yourself. It will have more of an impact.
4. With Online Courses, Do Your Research
When it comes to sources of input, online courses are another option to consider.
They can be fantastic. Like a book, the creator of the course can refine and re-record the material until it is very dense and valuable. But on top of that, they can demonstrate things to you, making the learning experience more hands-on.
But this is rare. Many course creators, instead of doing the hard work, lead with their personalities. Worse yet, they make unrealistic promises to get you all fired up. It is another variation on the self-help high.
Therefore, really do your research. If you can find a great course in your field, this might be the best option of all. If not, stick to books.
5. Come Up With a Project
Always come up with a pet project to put your knowledge into practice straight away. If you want to learn web design, start building a website on day 1, however bad it may look. If you want to learn about the history of philosophy, commit to writing a little book for your 10-year-old daughter, however bad it may read.
Generally, spend more time worrying about your project, than about choosing the “right” study material. The right study material will present itself once you have a problem to solve.
6. Shut Out All Distractions
Most of us are addicted to social media and other digital distractions. We can’t spend five minutes without reaching for our phones.
This is not conducive to the 5-hour rule. If you sit down for an hour each day to study, but then spend 40 minutes scrolling through your Instagram reels, that completely defeats the purpose.
So, you should put your phone in silent mode, turn off all notifications, disconnect the internet, etc.
The problem is developing the willpower to do so. Just like any addict, we always come up with an excuse why we have to check our messages really quickly.
This is another good reason why you should start tiny, with 5 or 10 minutes of studying a day. It is just as much about waning yourself off your addiction gradually, as it is about finding the time to study.
7. Time Block
Ideally, you want to reserve the same block of time for your study ritual every day. Maybe it’s getting up at 6 am and doing your studying when everybody is still asleep. Maybe it’s the hour after lunch or that hour after the kids went to bed. Whatever time works best for you, block it in your calendar and treat it like a non-negotiable appointment.
Time blocking, aka having a consistent study rhythm, will increase your chances of sticking with the 5-hour rule dramatically. But wing it, and sooner or later you will fall off the wagon.
8. Always Be Ready
I just argued that you should time block, sit down in a quiet room, and focus your studies on one thing. And that is indeed the best way to make progress.
However, life gets hectic. Sometimes, you can’t find that uninterrupted time slot of one hour. But even during the most hectic days, you will have a few minutes here and there, e.g., while you wait for your food or while driving your car through the car wash.
Be prepared for these little windows of time. Always have your Kindle with you. Always have a video course to watch on your phone. Always have a few good podcast episodes ready.
As I said, this is not the most effective way to learn. But it’s still much better than nothing. Even if you never sat down for a proper study session but just did these mini-sprints, you will still get much better than most people.
9. Make It a 7-Hour Rule
I know, it’s called the 5-hour rule. But I would much rather you’d make it a 7-hour rule. In other words, study every day, not just on weekdays.
Accumulating valuable skills is what makes or breaks you. It decides what jobs you can score, and how fulfilled you will feel at them. It decides how much money you will make. It even decides what sexual prospects you have, what the future of your children will look like, the opportunities you can offer them, etc.
For these reasons, learning needs to happen every day, for the rest of your life. Learning is life.