Selling the Best Hour of the Day to Yourself

Here’s an idea to use your time in clever ways to advance your learning and effectiveness.

One of the biggest challenges ahead for top executives is to create learning organizations in which everyone knows more. Contrary to widespread belief and practice, this is not primarily about technology—for example, crafting better web pages or databases. Simply put, the way to become a learning organization is to make sure people are, well, learning—constantly. And the way to do that is to encourage everyone to become what Warren Buffet’s insightful partner, Charlie Munger, describes as “learning machines.” As he explains, these are people who “go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up.”

We believe that such an emphasis on the individual, rather than on technical processes, is the key to forging true learning organizations. The fundamental task is to create a culture in which learning is a well-understood expectation—something done by individuals, starting with executives, every single day.

We don’t need to dwell on the stakes here: acquiring new knowledge and superior ideas are essential for organizations to innovate and find an edge in today’s hyper-competitive markets. By now few senior managers would argue otherwise, and some will, in fact, turn at least part of their focus to the individual. For example, they’ll tinker with training budgets or find some extra time for attending seminars. These are all well and good, but such efforts tend to be intermittent at best. Learning with the goal of innovation is different. It’s a habit—one that calls for conscious strategies every manager can deploy.

Senior managers should start by borrowing a page from Munger, who hit upon one simple strategy when he was a young lawyer. He decided that whenever his legal work was not as intellectually stimulating as he’d like, “I would sell the best hour of the day to myself.” He would take otherwise billable 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 sell 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 controlled 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 intellectual improvement. Even Munger said he would make an exception when a demanding situation arose. The important lessons here are 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 executives would be able to run with some version of Munger’s “sell the best hour” approach. Most would be able to deepen their knowledge, pursue their interests, and explore ideas on a daily basis—and lead others to do so as well.

Some companies have begun to institutionalize the notion of “sell 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 follows the same drill. Most of its employees are allotted one day a week to follow 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.”

According to Google’s main overseer of product innovation, Marissa Mayer, half of the company’s new products have stemmed from the 20-percent allotment. One example is Google News, the automated news aggregator that premiered in 2006. In addition to the 20-percent rule, Google has other ways of nurturing the thinking and conversation behind the innovations. For instance, adapting an idea from university life, Mayer holds open office hours three times a week, welcoming all those who have a notion they’d like to entertain. Following the example set by 3M and Google, a slew of other companies, including Intuit and Facebook, are now offering 20-percent time as well.

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 ordinary guitar strings. This is achieved by virtue of a special coating that was developed from a Gore effort to improve push-pull cables. Elixir Strings were originally a dabble time project; now, they have cornered the U.S. market for guitar strings.

These examples are evidence 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.

Every professional can be encouraged to make time for learning or experimentation, even during the work day. It could be a matter of what they do with the half-hour before they get going in the morning or during lunch. They could be asked: Do you check in on blogs, scan The Wall Street Journal, jot down some wild ideas? Are there any particular web sites that seem to be most deserving of your learning time?

Another avenue is to spend core work hours more deliberately—with an eye toward ideas and knowledge. What kinds of questions are you (and your people) asking at meetings? What sorts of conversations are you pursuing in the hallways? What are you noticing when you visit a partner or come in contact with a customer? How will 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.

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. Executives and indeed most professionals today understand that they need to invest in themselves in order to create extraordinary value for their organizations. One way of doing so is to, literally or otherwise, sell a productive hour of the day to yourself, for continued learning.