Selling the Best Hour of the Day to Yourself

Few people are accidental learners. For most of us, becoming an outstanding idea professional means putting time and effort into our thinking. It takes work and cal s for conscious strategies. Here's one way to help make sure that happens: Carve out time every day for learning. Charlie Munger hit upon one strategy when he was a young lawyer. He decided that whenever his legal work was not as intelectualy stimulating as he'd like, “I would sel the best hour of the day to myself.”

He would take otherwise bil able time at the peak of his day and dedicate it to his own thinking and learning. “And only after improving my mind — only after I'd used my best hour improving myself — would I sel my time to my professional clients. And I did that for a number of years,” he said at the 2008 shareholders meeting of Wesco Financial, which he leads, and which is control ed by Warren Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway.

For both Munger and Buffett, reading and conversations are the basic stuff of daily learning time. Both of them have a preference for what Munger somewhat raffishly refers to as “ass time” — parts of the day when they're perusing published material at their desks.

Of course, not everyone can seal off a choice hour of office time every day for intelectual improvement. Even Munger said he would make an exception when a demanding situation arose. The important lessons here are that (1) learning is not something you do only when business is slow; (2) it is an intentional activity; and (3) everyone can make it a priority. Most managers and professionals would be able to run with some version of Munger's “sel the best hour” approach. Most would be able to deepen their knowledge, pursue their interests, and explore ideas on a daily basis.

Some companies have begun to institutionalize the notion of “sel the best hour.” For example, 3M has long made it a practice to let employees set aside 20 percent of their time for work unrelated to the core business — in search of ideas and innovations.

Google folows the same dril. Most of its employees are alotted one day a week to folow their interests and passions. “This has produced more than a few of Google's technological breakthroughs. Just as important, it conveys a sense of freedom,” writes Ken Auletta in his book Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, adding that the 20-percent rule also encourages engineers to “push the envelope, to assume that their mission is to disrupt traditional ways of doing things.”

Marissa Mayer, who is Google's main overseer of product innovation, has said that half of the company's new products have stemmed from the 20-percent al otment. One example is Google News, the automated news aggregator that premiered in 2006. (Google has other ways of nurturing the thinking and conversation behind the innovations. For instance, borrowing an idea from university life, Mayer holds open office hours three times a week, welcoming al those who have a notion they'd like to entertain.) Copying 3M and Google, a slew of other companies, including Intuit and Facebook, are now offering 20-percent time as wel .

At W. L. Gore, a half-day of every employee's week is turned over to “dabble time” for projects entirely of their choosing. The company is best known for its breathable waterproof fabric GORE-TEX, which is used in many kinds of sportswear. But Gore has also developed such wildly varied products as dental floss, cardiac implants, and industrial gaskets and hoses. “At its core, Gore is a marketplace of ideas,”

observes Gary Hamel in his book The Future of Management. The discretionary time enjoyed by employees has served as the main fuel for this innovation machine.

One of the more spectacular fruits of dabble time is the company's line of guitar strings, which keep their tone several times longer than other guitar strings. This is achieved by virtue of a special coating that was developed from a Gore effort to improve push-pul cables. Elixir Strings, original y a dabble-time project, has now cornered the U.S. market for guitar strings.

What al this shows is that breakthroughs happen when people attend to their professional curiosities and set aside time for deliberate learning. Dabble time is not wasted time. It is a seedbed of innovation, a habit that expands the store of knowledge.

With or without a formal company policy, every individual professional can make time for learning or experimentation, even during the work day. It could be a matter of what you do with the half-hour before you get going in the morning or during lunch. Do you check in on blogs, scan the New York Times, jot down some wild ideas? Are there any particular web sites that seem to be most deserving of your self-improvement time?

Another avenue is to spend core work hours more deliberately — with an eye toward ideas and knowledge. What kinds of questions are you asking at meetings? What sorts of conversations are you pursuing in the hal ways? What are you noticing when you visit a client or come in contact with a customer? How wil your work on the project today add to what you know, not just what you do? Henry David Thoreau put it this way: “It's not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” Everyone today should be busy about learning new things and seeking out ideas.

Andy usualy starts off his seminars with an exercise. Each participant is asked to spend fifteen minutes talking to at least four people in the group — not for the purpose of finding out what their favorite dishes or hobbies are, but for purposes of the Hunt. Each one is asked to learn something that is valuable to him or her professional y. When the time is up, Andy puts a series of questions to the group. How many learned something of real value, something that is likely to improve your work? Invariably about 90 percent of the hands go up. Would you have learned much of anything if you were simply making introductions, as is normally done at the start of a seminar? The consensus is always

“No.” So why did you learn? Usual y at least a couple of people answer immediately: “Because you told us to.”

Finaly, the seminar participants are asked what extra time was involved in getting the new idea(s) during this learning. And the answer is

“None.” In a typical seminar, they would have spent around fifteen minutes getting to know each other anyway. The difference is that they used the time deliberately to search for knowledge and ideas. And they took the first step, which is to be interested.

Whether you're carving out new time or learning more intently in the course of regular work, the key is to somehow become liberated from the routine. Too often, the normal procedure is to stay narrowly focused on doing the work, rather than on learning what's needed to improve the work. Most professionals today understand that they need to invest in themselves. One way of doing so is to, literal y or otherwise, sel a productive hour of the day to yourself, for continued learning.

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