The 5-hour rule: How to turn a wasted day into a successful one

How do you spend the leftover hours of your day?

I like to make chit-chat now and then. One of my go-to conversation topics — most people’s go-to conversation topic — is TV. I might open with, “are you watching anything good at the moment?” This often opens a half-decent, mostly entertaining discussion. But sometimes, my opening salvo falls flat. The other person says something like, “Oh, I’ve not got the time to watch TV.”

It’s an answer that bothers me. For one, it’s laced with not a small whiff of condescension: If you’re watching TV, you must be lazy. But mostly, it bothers me because it’s not strictly true. What people mean is, “I’ve prioritized other things in my day.” And that’s fine. We each have our own personal values, concerns, and preferences.

“I’ve not got time to watch TV” means “TV doesn’t interest me as much as this or that.”

The fact is that we all have the same number of hours in the day, and it’s up to us to decide how we spend them. Some people will most certainly have more “free hours” than others, but for most of us, we have at least a few hours to spend as we want. And according to “the 5-hour rule,” how we choose to spend those hours might mean the difference between success and mediocrity.

The anatomy of a day

There are 24 hours in a day (or 1,440 minutes, if you really like to count your life away). The average person sleeps around eight hours (with the Dutch sleeping the most and the Singaporeans the least). That leaves 16 waking hours left to spend (I’m afraid those “learn while you’re sleeping” tapes aren’t likely to work). We need to subtract the seven to eight hours a day during which most people work, though those sleepy Dutch work a bit less. So, we’re down to nine remaining hours.

Much of those nine hours are taken up by life administration: shopping, housework, unpaid labor (e.g. care work), and eating and drinking. Of course, there are massive cultural differences lurking in that category. For instance, as Our World in Data reveals that people “in France, Greece, Italy and Spain report spending more time eating than people in most other European countries. The country where people spend the least time eating and drinking is the USA (63 minutes).”

Unsurprisingly, there’s a huge disparity in how care work or unpaid labor is divided across genders. According to the OECD, “Around the world, women spend two to ten times more time on unpaid care work than men.” This has a knock-on effect in how many leisure hours the genders have to spend. For instance, in Norway and New Zealand the difference is almost negligible. In Portgual and India, however, men have 50 percent more leisure time than women.

The 5-hour rule

Most people have at least a few hours to do with what they want. For more than half of the population, those hours are wasted away on non-work-related phone worship. But these are not the people who will become the entrepreneurs, innovators, and success stories of tomorrow.

Over the last few decades, a cottage industry has sprung up that examines and dissects the habits and values of “self-made” millionaires. One of the key findings that comes up again and again is known as the “5-hour rule.” In short, this is the rule where we spend one hour a day learning, reflecting, and thinking. The rule dates to Benjamin Franklin, who would devote (at least) an hour each day specifically to learning something new. Franklin would rise early to read and write. He even set up his own club of artisans and experimenters. Today, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Gates all employ some version of the 5-hour rule.

The idea is that devoting an hour of your day to education exercises the mind, improves your skills, and rehearses great discipline. In education-speak, the 5-hour rule gives us both knowledge and skills.

How to spend your hour

Even accepting the wisdom in the 5-hour rule, it can still come over as daunting. After a long day, with tired eyes and a throbbing headache, most of us will reach for the TV remote, not Tolstoy. But here are three “first steps” to the 5-hour rule.

Learn…however you can. Reading print on a book is one way of learning, but it’s not the only way. In fact, if you don’t enjoy reading that much, it’s likely you’ll learn less from it anyway. Today, podcasts, audiobooks, and spoken radio are all great ways to spend your hour. What’s more, the internet is full of educational, entertaining, and enlightening long-form articles, which are much more digestible than huge, hand-aching tomes.

Experiment. Bettering yourself does not always mean cramming your head with facts. The most successful people in life were not those who stumbled on some magic treasure in the woods, but who tried and failed, tried, and failed again. In his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Harford says success means we “first, seek out new ideas and try new things; second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable; third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.” Try something new. Try something differently. When we experiment, we both have fun and learn a great deal.

Reflect. Failure is only valuable insofar as it improves the future. In the words of Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Each failure is different, and each defeat is closer to victory than the last. There are many ways to reflect. For some, it might mean a diary, journal, or ten minutes spent simply ruminating. For others, it could mean talking things over and unpacking what happened. When we reflect on our days and our mistakes, we turn failures into learning experiences.

So, why not give the 5-hour rule a go? At worst, it will make you a bit more interesting at the next family gathering. At best, it might make you a few million dollars.

This article was reprinted with permission of Big Think, where it was originally published.

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