Last week I wrote about the 5-hour rule, which author Michael Simmons defined as setting “aside at least an hour a day (or five hours a week) … for activities that could be classified as deliberate practice or learning.”

Michael identified a handful of successful people who use the 5-hour rule – Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Barak Obama, etc. But one could argue that these individuals are unique in their roles – leaders who have more control over their time; directors more than doers at this stage in their careers.

What about the people in the crush of the day to day, being measured on their ability to produce? How do we keep learning alive, while still getting stuff done? And what do we do if the revered expert who is the source for our learning is too busy to share their knowledge with us?

Making Time for the 5-Hour Rule

To answer that, let me introduce two people – I’ll call them Gus and Jason – and one vital machine: the Lifealyzer.

The company Gus and Jason work for was a client of ours and they manufacture drug therapies out of blood plasma. One day, while I was standing in the break room of the plant with the general manager, I overheard a conversation between the maintenance supervisor, Gus (a longtime mechanic), and Jason (a new hire). This is roughly how it went:

Manager: Gus, this is Jason, our new mechanic. Jason, as I mentioned, Gus here is a legend at this plant. For nearly forty years, he has kept the wheels turning and he knows every control panel, grease zirk, and cooling fan in the place. He can hear inaudible squeaks, anticipate warning lights before they turn on, and troubleshoot problems that start two buildings over. You want to be like Gus. Gus, I know we’ve been short-staffed lately. In fact, Jason here is our first new hire in nearly ten years, but I finally got management to give us some help. All I need you to do is show Jason the ropes. Could you “put him in your pocket” and let him follow you around for a while until he gets his feet under him?”

Gus: Sorry, boss. I’m too busy. Nothing personal, Jason, but I have too much to do to keep this place from falling apart to give you much time.

And he started heading out the door. Now, my team had already been working with Gus, and we knew that one of his responsibilities was maintaining a huge and critical piece of equipment called a Lifealyzer. We had already written a plan that deconstructed Gus’s role taking care of the Lifealyzer through our talent risk management work, so I thought I’d try an experiment.

Me: Gus, hey, I know when we talked to you yesterday, you said you needed to get back to a big job on the Lifealyzer. You said you were going to change the gasket today.

Gus: Yeah, that’s right.

Me: If you’re up for it, Jason, your job today is to learn how to “change the gasket on the Lifealyzer,” and by the end of the shift I want you to have learned a good chunk of Gus’s forty years of experience related to this machine. You’ll know you’ve learned something if you can answer five questions and sound just like Gus. Do you have a notepad? Here are the questions:

  1. What are the steps in the process of changing the gasket, and why is each step important?
  2. What are the most common mistakes newbies make when trying to change this gasket?
  3. What do you look for, listen for, feel, and smell when changing the gasket?
  4. How do you know if you’re in over your head and need help?
  5. How do you know you’ve done a quality job?

Jason: So, I’m supposed to follow Gus and learn how to change the gasket. By the end of the shift, I need to get these answers out of him.

Me: Yes. Gus, is that OK with you?

Gus: Yeah, I can do that. I can start answering those questions on the walk over.

And that was it. With a simple shift and a little structure, the talent risk management process we were trying out with their company did more than mitigate risk. It integrated deliberate learning into Gus and Jason’s daily routine. It made it practical, which was an easier sell for Gus. Jason went from being a pain in Gus’s side to taking charge of his own learning, starting with one task that needed to be done right away.

Learn or End Up Floating Face Down in the Deep End of the Pool 

“When your clients balk at committing their experts and apprentices to 4 hours of knowledge transfer planing per week … point them to these smart people!” The note was from our COO, Teresa Canady. And these “smart people” include the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk who each spend at least 5 hours a week learning.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler

The author of the article Teresa referenced was Michael Simmons, who coined the 5-hour rule, defining it as setting “aside at least an hour a day (or five hours a week) … for activities that could be classified as deliberate practice or learning.” Michael went on to describe how these life-long learners create space to read, reflect, and experiment. In particular, he quoted billionaire entrepreneur, Marc Andreessen, who’s practical (if slightly morbid) perspective resonated with me:

“I think the archetype/myth of the 22-year-old founder has been blown completely out of proportion … I think skill acquisition, literally the acquisition of skills and how to do things, is just dramatically underrated. People are overvaluing the value of just jumping into the deep end of the pool, because the reality is that people who jump into the deep end of the pool drown. There’s a reason there are so many stories about Mark Zuckerberg. There aren’t that many Mark Zuckerbergs. Most of them are still floating face down in the pool. And so, for most of us, it’s a good idea to get skills.”

I couldn’t agree more.

How do you help your employees make time to learn?

Do you have a structure that holds space for learning and experimenting in the busy day-to-day? Do your teams read and discuss relevant articles in staff meetings? Do you block time on your calendars for reflection? What are your practical tips for skill development? 

Share your thoughts on LinkedIn and come back next week. I’ll share a story of my own and some simple tips that work for me — but first I’d love to hear from you!

Simple Talent Risk Management Tools That Keep Your Team Learning

The five questions I gave to Jason are part of a set of twenty questions experts and mentors can use to organize their wisdom, experience, and tacit knowledge. Apprentices who are learning from them can use the questions to keep the expert focused on the most important information and to validate how much they are learning.

You can download these questions below. They are a great tool when you need to make a practical case for implementing the 5-hour rule on your team!

The 5-Hour Rule: Value of Learning Is Real, But Who Has Time for It? 1