How to Break Through Using the Five-Hour Rule

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Benjamin Franklin followed his own version of the five-hour rule.

No one could have accused Benjamin Franklin of slacking off.

The same goes for Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Oprah. What all these people have in common—aside from their ridiculous levels of success—is their willingness to drop what they’re doing on a daily basis.

For one hour a day (and sometimes longer than that), these luminaries stop whatever they’re working on and dedicate that time to reading, thinking, and conducting experiments.

This is called the five-hour rule.

Why is it so important to regularly drop what you’re doing and focus your efforts elsewhere? It’s a distraction from the pressures of day-to-day work in the best possible way. While no meaningful inventions or breakthroughs might come from these 60 minutes, the hour gives us time to decompress while also sharpening the mind. In some cases, this hour of no-pressure experimentation can lead to some incredible breakthroughs.

In the best cases, the time brings us towards that critical “eureka” moment of the creative process.

Some of the greatest people in history are lifelong learners, and the five-hour rule gives some structure to the joys of learning something new. Wouldn’t you like to join them?

The Five-Hour Rule

This rule of productivity comes from research conducted by Michael Simmons, co-founder of Empact. He found that despite the chaotic schedules of some of the most successful people in business and sport, they all set aside time to focus on other things. These aren’t idle breaks of browsing Facebook or YouTube. According to Simmons, these productive hour-long sessions fall into one of three categories.

1. Reading

Reading a book or a long article might seem like a luxury when you have so much to do. But as hard-pressed as you may be, it’s worth finding the time to put your work on hold and do some reading.

Investing legend Warren Buffet is a voracious reader, reportedly spending up to 80 percent of his day reading everything from financial reports to newspapers to books.

Not many people taking reading to Buffet’s extremes, yet he’s in good company when it comes to finding time to read. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg challenges himself to read a new book every two weeks.

Of course, super-successful multibillionaires can get away with reading all day. Who’s going to ask them to put the book down?

Still, for the rest of us, there are proven benefits to reading:

  • The simple act of reading is mentally stimulating and can keep our minds sharp
  • Reading reduces stress by up to 68 percent
  • Perhaps most importantly, reading the right things can help build knowledge

With all those benefits, it’s no wonder a reading break can help improve productivity.

2. Reflecting and learning from mistakes

Society often tells us to look forward rather than backward.

Deadlines need to be met and milestones need to be reached. Despite those pressures, it’s important to spend time during the day to just sit back and think. During this time, let ideas slowly come to fruition and try to learn from your mistakes.

It’s hard to clear the mind and simply think when there’s so much to do. But it’s how some of the most successful people discovered their great ideas. Everyone has their own idiosyncrasies when it comes to thinking.

For Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, reflection was a critical stage in any idea. Here’s what he told Wired way back in 1996:

When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.

Without taking the time to slow down and process everything that’s happening, some great ideas might be left to languish. Giving these ideas the time they need to grow is absolutely necessary.

3. Experimenting

Try coming up with solutions during a desperate deadline. Odds are you can find something that works, but you’ll leave many good ideas on the table just because they take too long to test out.

Pressure can be a powerful tool at times. However, it’s just as important to have the freedom to tinker around and make something great.

Experimentation is one of the most valuable aspects of the five-hour rule. Systematic testing, experimental writing, or whatever it is you’re working on is a great use of time. It’s how some of the best ideas can sometimes to fruition.

Make the Rule Your Own

All these people who follow the five-hour rule, either informally or with conscious effort, spend a minimum of an hour every day in a way that’s best for them. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. You just need to regularly take that hour off from the daily grind.

Think of it like going to the gym. Going once is better than never going at all (maybe?). But you won’t see any results even if you have the best workout of your life. It takes time.

Do it often, and you’ll enjoy measurable results.

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