As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen a habit that can be found in top performers, and it’s one that is rarely noticed. Even though they usually have more responsibility than others, top performers in the business world take time away from critical work and deadlines, slow down, and instead focus on things that benefit them in the future, activities that increase knowledge, creativity, and energy. Because of this, it’s not unusual for them to have less productivity in a single day, yet still accomplish more in a lifetime.
I call this compound time because, similarly to compound interest, a series of small investments early on will produce massive results.
Look at Warren Buffet, for example. Even though he owns companies with thousands of employees, he is never as busy as any of them. Buffet even estimates that he spent almost 80% of his career simply thinking or reading.
At the 2016 Daily Journal annual meeting, Charlie Munger, a business partner of Buffet for 40 years, divulged that the only appointment on his agenda one week was for his haircut, and it wasn’t unusual for most of his weeks to be similar. This is the total opposite of most workers, who are overwhelmed with inconsequential tasks and deadlines.
Ben Franklin said: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” It could be that Buffett’s true wealth did not develop from the compounding of money, but the compounding of his knowledge, which has educated him and guided his choices. Or as billionaire investor Paul Tudor Jones has so rightly stated, “Intellectual capital will always trump financial capital.”
To build your own intellectual capital, here are six compounding habits to add to your daily life. The sooner you start, the better the payoff:
Compounding Habit #1: Keep a journal. It could change everything.
Many high achievers look past simple reflection: they will use guided prompts in their physical journal.
Every day, Benjamin Franklin asked, “What good shall I do this day?” and when the day was coming to an end, “What good have I done today?” Steve Jobs looked at himself in the mirror every day and asked, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do?” Both billionaire Jean Paul DeJoria and media expert Arianna Huffington take several minutes every day reflect on their blessings. Oprah Winfrey does it as well: she begins every day with her gratitude journal, recording five things she is grateful for.
Billionaire Reid Hoffman reflects on a series of questions before he sleeps each night: “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?” Grandmaster chess player and renowned martial artist Josh Waitzkin has habit that is very similar, “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.”
Each time that management consultant Peter Drucker mad to make a choice, he recorded his predictions for what might happen, and a few months after that, he would contrast the actual results with his prediction. Leonardo da Vinci filled thousands and thousands of pages with the extraordinary workings of his imagination. Albert Einstein collected over 80,000 pages of writing in his life. President John Adams amassed over 51 journals in his lifetime.
Have you ever seen the increase in focus that you had after writing down everything that you thought in your head? Researchers named this phenomenon “writing to learn.” And it causes us to organize and give purpose to what we experience, and turns it in to a tool for exploration. Additionally, it aids in our comprehension of complex ideas that might be made up of dozens of interrelated workings, while our brain, by itself, can only manage three in any given moment. A review of hundreds of studies on writing to learn has given evidence that it enhances metacognitive thinking, which is the awareness that we have of our own thoughts and ideas. Metacognition is a key element in performance.
Compounding Habit #2: Taking naps can drastically increase learning, memory, awareness, creativity, and productivity.
Pulling from the results of more than a decade of experiments, researcher Sara Mednick from the University of California, San Diego, confidently says: “With naps of an hour to an hour and a half… you get close to the same benefits in learning consolidation that you would from a full eight-hour night’s sleep.” Studies show that someone who studies for an evening exam during morning hours, and then takes a nap, does about 30% better on the exam if they’ve had an hour-long nap than someone who hasn’t.
Albert Einstein broke up his day by heading home from his Princeton office at 1:30 p.m., eating lunch, lying down for a nap, and then starting the afternoon with some tea. Thomas Edison would nap for up to three hours every day. Winston Churchill thought that his afternoon naps were no optional. John F. Kennedy ate his lunch in his bed before taking a one- to two-hour nap. Other individuals who relied on naps include Leonardo Da Vinci (sometimes a dozen 10-minute naps each day), Napoleon Bonaparte (before battles), Ronald Reagan(each afternoon), Lyndon B. Johnson (30 minutes every day), John D. Rockefeller (after lunch), Margaret Thatcher (an hour a day), Arnold Schwarzenegger (every afternoon), and Bill Clinton (15–60 minutes each day).
Studies today have confirmed that naps no only cause us to be more productive, but also more creative. That could be why legends like Salvador Dali, chess grandmaster Josh Waitzkin, and Edgar Allen Poe would nap and reach a state of hypnagogia, which is a level of awareness between sleeping and waking that allowed them greater creativity.
Compounding Habit #3: A 15 minute walk every day can change your life.
Top performers turn daily exercise in to a habit. Walking is the most popular choice.
Charles Darwin went for a walk twice a day: once at noon and another at 4 p.m. After his lunch, Beethoven embarked on a long, vigorous walk, bringing a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck. Charles Dickens would walk dozen miles a day and thought writing was such mental torture that, “If I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish.” Friedrich Nietzsche stated, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”
Other famous walkers are: Gandhi (walked every day), Jack Dorsey (five miles every morning), Steve Jobs (took walk if he had a serious conversation), Tory Burch (45 minutes each day), Howard Schultz (every morning), Aristotle (lectured while walking), neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (after lunch), and Winston Churchill (walked each morning after he woke up).
And today we have scientific studies that prove what these great minds always knew taking a walk is refreshing to both the body and mind, and causes creativity to increase. It could also prolong lifespan. In one 12-year study of adults over 65, just 15 minutes a day of walking reduced mortality by 22%.
Compounding Habit #4: Reading is one of the greatest investments.
Here’s an astonishing fact: it doesn’t matter what our circumstances are, everyone has access to Bill Gates’ preferred way to learn. Books.
Top performers in any field use this low-cost and high-yield learning strategy.
Winston Churchill would spend hours each day pouring over books on all subjects. Similarly, the list of U.S. presidents who loved to read is lengthy: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and JFK were all insatiable readers. Theodore Roosevelt would read at least one book every day that he was not otherwise occupied, and two or three if he had more time.
Other well-known book lovers include entrepreneur Mark Cuban (at least three hours a day), billionaire Arthur Blank (two or more hours a day), investor David Rubenstein (six books every week), billionaire entrepreneur Dan Gilbert (at least one hour a day), Oprah Winfrey (considers reading the cause of most of her success) Elon Musk (read two books each day when younger), Mark Zuckerberg (reads a book every two weeks), Jeff Bezos (read hundreds of science fiction novels before he reached 13), and Disney CEO Bob Iger (wakes every morning at 4:30 a.m. so he can read).
Reading improves memory, increases empathy, and de-stresses us, and all of this can assist us in reaching our goals. Books condense decades worth of knowledge in to several hours of our time. They are the greatest ROI.
Compounding Habit #5: Conversation partners can result in shocking breakthroughs
In Powers Of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, author Joshua Shenk argues that the start of creativity is social, not from the individual. His book discusses the research on innovation, showcasing creative pairs like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Marie and Pierre Curie, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
During their daily long walks, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky created a theory of behavioral economics that resulted in Kahneman winning the Nobel Prize. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met at the pub every Monday and traded their work back and forth. Francis Crick and James Watson, who were the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, shared ideas constantly, in the office they shared at Cambridge, and over lunch. Crick recollected that if he shared an incorrect thought, “Watson would tell me in no uncertain terms this was nonsense, and vice-versa.” Artists Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett spent two hours every morning to “do the diary” together: detailing everything they had done the day before.
Many great minds would make a habit of communicating in very large, organized groups. Theodore Roosevelt’s “Tennis Cabinet” was made up of diplomats and friends gathered daily for exercise and discussions on the issues that the country faced. Benjamin Franklin formed the “mutual improvement society” that was called the Junto, and they grouped together each Friday night to educate each other. The Vagabonds were four famous friends — Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs — and they went on road trips every summer: camping, rock climbing, and “sitting around the campfire discussing their various scientific and business ventures and debating the pressing issues of the day.”
Compounding Habit #6: Success comes from the number of experiments you conduct.
There’s a meaning behind it when Jeff Bezos says, “Our success at Amazon is a function of how many experiments we do per year, per month, per week, per day….”
One huge success makes up for all the failed experiments. He reflects on these thoughts in a recent SEC filing.
“Given a ten percent chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time. But you’re still going to be wrong nine times out of ten. We all know that if you swing for the fences, you’re going to strike out a lot, but you’re also going to hit some home runs. The difference between baseball and business, however, is that baseball has a truncated outcome distribution. When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four. In business, every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs.”
You could spend hours and days reading books, or discussing ideas, but that won’t make up for the mistakes that you must go out and make. If you feel discouraged by this, think of Thomas Edison. Edison conducted over 50,000 failed experiments to create the alkaline storage cell battery, and 9,000 to invent the light bulb. But in spite of all this, he held nearly 1,100 U.S. patents.
Experiments can’t just populate in the “real” world. Our mind has the amazing skill to simulate reality and discover theories much faster and for a lot less money. Einstein conducted thought experiments (he might picture himself chasing light through space) to devise incredible scientific theories; and you can do the same, and pursue your smaller questions with the power of your imagination. The journals of Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, and other geniuses are filled with mind maps and sketches, and not just words.
Standup comedy may seem a long way from being an inventor, but experimentation is just as critical in the arts. Think about a comedian like Chris Rock. Rock prepares for huge shows in venues like Madison Square Garden by putting together his act in small clubs for months and months, testing out his new material and receiving immediate feedback from audiences (he hears laughter, or he doesn’t).
Others might conduct experiments that enable them to break bad habits and make new good habits. Producer and writer Shonda Rhimes confronted her workaholic habits and introversion and said yes to anything that frightened her in an experiment she referred to as the Year of Yes. Jia Jang his fear of rejection in his experiment the 100 Days of Rejection project, and then catalogued on YouTube. College graduate Megan Gebhart took a new person out for coffee each week during the first year of her career, and then collected everything she learned in a book titled 52 Cups of Coffee. Filmmaker Sheena Matheiken wore the same dress each day as an experiment in sustainability.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson mused, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.”
You Should Take That Hour
In a world that is accelerating, and everyone is packing their calendars and trying to get ahead, you should do the polar opposite. Take a few minutes and relax, work a little less, spend more time inside your own thoughts.
In a world where the tendency is to work nonstop, top performers should concentrate on rest and mindfulness. In a world where more and more of our work is replaced by artificial intelligence, we should increase our creative side. Creativity can’t be found by working more, but by working less.
It’s much easier to tell yourself, “Yes! Warren Buffett can do it, but, it’s because he’s Warren Buffet.” But you need to remember that Warren Buffett started those habits at the beginning of his career. Way before he was the success that we see now. It would have not been hard for him to buy in to the lie of “busy-ness,” but he made the three critical choices:
- Get rid of all busy work so that he could move past the deadlines, meetings, and monotony.
- Spend most of his days on compound time, activities with the most long-term profit.
- Tap dance the work because he has his own strengths and interests.
This might not be something that you can snap your fingers and do, but if you want to utilize compound time, you need to be confident that the lifestyle where you spend less time working but achieve more will benefit you in the end; and that a lifestyle where you tirelessly focus on your strengths and passions is more than possible, it is a necessity.
To begin, follow the 5-hour rule: every day, for an hour, invest in compound time: go for a walk, read a book, take a nap, or have a conversation. You might think that you are wasting time, or doubt that it will benefit you… But don’t listen to that! Leave your growing list of tasks, just for one hour, and put that investment in to the future. This has accomplished so much for some of the greatest people in history, and it can be lifechanging for you too.