Thomas Edison, Salvador Dali, and a Navy SEAL All Follow The 20% Rule

Over the last few years, I’ve spent nearly 1,000 hours thinking deeply on, 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 on 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 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 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:

  1. Time: Find and make time in your schedule
  2. Energy: Have energy rituals that prevent you from crashing
  3. Environment: Select environments that facilitate learning
  4. Mindset: Turn fixed mindsets into growth mindsets
  5. Zone: Move overwhelming triggers into the learning zone

For the rest of the article, I will break down each letter in TEEMZ…

1) Time

There are three types of learning time: double time, deliberate time, and down time.

Double time is combining learning with other activities you already do as part of your schedule. For example I like to learn while…

  • Walking
  • Doing the sauna
  • Doing chores
  • Driving
  • 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 walk everyday. If I don’t, she stands in front of me and gives me puppy dog eyes until I relent. During the walk, I…

  1. Listen to audiobooks
  2. Use Voxer to reflect with other friends who love learning about our biggest lessons learned
  3. 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.

Workout & Learn

Since Coronavirus started, two friends and I workout every weekday at 3:30pm 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…

  1. Identify high-leverage skills
  2. Figure out practice routines (ie, the ‘music scales’ of your industry) to master those skills
  3. Hire coaches for the areas you want to master
  4. Get high-quality feedback (coaches / dashboards)
  5. 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 everyday…

  • 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 down time.

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.” — Thomas Edison

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, down time, and deliberate time together, you can easily find hours more per day for learning.

2) Energy

Source: Project Management Center For Excellence

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.

3) Environment

When it comes to environments, not all environments are created equal. Some facilitate learning. Others squash it. We can exert control over our environments through the decisions we make about:

  • Who we spend our time with
  • What projects, opportunities, and business we pursue
  • What physical environments we choose to spend our time in

Throughout most of my career, I’ve built lifelong friendships with other people who love learning. Because of this shared interest, nearly every conversation is a learning conversation.

Similarly, one of the reasons I chose to be a writer and teacher is that learning is fundamental to the whole process. I am literally getting paid to learn. In my previous company, learning was something I did on the side.

4) Mindset

Because of the pioneering research of Stanford researcher Carol Dweck, we now understand that our mindset has a huge impact on our learning.

In short, if we believe that intelligence is fixed, we have a tendency to avoid challenges, give up easily, ignore feedback, and feel threatened by the success of others. As a result, our learning plateaus.

If we believe that intelligence can grow like a muscle, we embrace challenges, put in more effort, learn from feedback, and get inspired by the success of others. As a result, our learning keeps on reaching higher levels.

Fixed and growth mindset are just two mindsets that impact learning out of many.

5) Zone

Whether you study Columbia University’s Jack Mezirow model of disorienting dilemmas or Jean Piaget’s model of accommodation or Harvard University’s Robert Kegan model of optimal conflict or researcher Dean Keith Simonton’s model of diversifying experiences or researcher Warren Bennis’ model of crucible experiences, the pattern seems to be the same.

Although each of these researchers use different words, they all seem to be talking about the same thing. To reach our full potential and learn the most, it is important to have a unique type of experience with the following qualities:

  • Cannot be explained using our existing mental models.
  • Forces us to question and change some of our most fundamental assumptions about who we are, why we’re here, and how reality works.
  • Is deeply painful, but not so difficult that we can’t grow from it.

Harvard Researcher Robert Kegan captures the essence of what these experiences have in common in the following quote…

“The persistent experience of some frustration, dilemma, life puzzle, quandary, or personal problem that is perfectly designed to cause us to feel the limits of our current way of knowing in some sphere of our living that we care about, with sufficient supports so that we are neither overwhelmed by the conflict nor able to escape or diffuse it.”

Put more simply, experiences that are outside of our comfort zone, but before our burnout zone are particularly transformative…

We also see this pattern in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s model of flow…

The key to staying in the learning zone and not going into the burnout or anxiety zone is how we handle our triggers. When we feel triggered, we humans often have a few predictable reactions:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze
  • Appease

Responding to triggers with fight, flight, freeze, or appease makes it almost impossible to learn in the moment.

Take public speaking as an example. When I first learned how to speak in front of an audience, I would worry about presentations for days. They’d literally ruin my weeks. I’d have nightmares about them. When I stood in front of the audience, my adrenaline would spike, and my logical mind would go to sleep. If I had a bad presentation, it would register as trauma in my nervous system. My mind would flashback to the worst debacles for years. So, the idea of reflecting on a presentation and learning was super difficult at first. Therefore, my progress was slow.

I’ve also seen how states impact learning as a parent and husband. When I’m triggered, I’m more likely to trigger others. Which means they trigger me. Rather than understanding and growth, we enter into a feedback loop of anger and blame.

Conversely, if we are not challenged enough, we become bored. Once again, our mind shuts off, and we don’t learn.

With practice, triggers can fuel learning rather than block it. For example, self-made billionaire investor and entrepreneur Ray Dalio has built a whole system to turn triggers into learning opportunities. He even has an app that employees use when they feel pain…

“The Pain Button can be used like a personal journal. Because pain is a signal that something may be going wrong, the purpose of the app is for one to write down and reflect on the “pain” one is experiencing in order to understand what’s causing them and to deal with those causes effectively.”

Via Learn Or Die

Furthermore, if employees are in a meeting and they feel bored, they can give the feedback to the presenter in real-time via an app (get the app here).

Bottom line: The more that we are able to keep our state in or near the learning zone, the more of the day is available to us for learning.

How To Apply The 20% Rule And Learn Faster Starting Today

I personally believe that we are here, alive on this planet in this moment, to learn and grow. To embody wisdom and then role model it through our actions and transmit it through our words. When we do this, we become one with the universe’s process of evolution and creation. For me, growth is tightly connected to purpose. It is an end to itself. It gives joy and meaning.

By devoting more time toward learning, you not only become more successful, you live a more purposeful life.

My hope is that this article helped you see that there is always time for learning and growth.

And if you see the power of learning like I do, I would love to support you on your learning journey…

This article is the first in my free course on how to learn and succeed in the radically different future we’re all entering. Each of the five lessons took me over 50 hours to research and write, and is based on my experience reading over 2,000 books, building multiple 7-figure businesses, and teaching thousands of students how to learn faster.

In this free learning course, I will help you…

  • Overcome information overwhelm (the No. 1 reason why most learners fall behind, and fail to get real-world results from their learning)
  • Find breakthrough knowledge that gives you a lasting competitive edge (and ultimately transforms your life)
  • Use a simple memorization strategy that Greeks and Romans used to remember what they learned (that is also backed by science)
  • Find time in your busy schedule to build a bulletproof learning habit

Each lesson comes with a summary video and free worksheet to help you apply the lesson.

Get the free learning course >>

This article was written with love and care using the blockbuster mental model.

If there’s a link to an Amazon book, it’s an affiliate link, which means I get a small amount of compensation when you buy the book. This compensation does not influence the specific books I recommend, as I only recommend books that I read and love.

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For people who want to find time to learn, learn better, and use their knowledge to boost their income.

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Michael Simmons

Michael Simmons

I teach people to learn HOW to learn / Serial entrepreneur / Bestselling author / Contributor: Time, Fortune, and Harvard Business Review

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