The Four Rule: How To Maximize Your Energy And Time To Master Your Craft

What separates good performers from great performers? For years, it was common to assume that working harder was the answer.

But take a look around your immediate social circle. Friends, family, co-workers. Many of them are working hard. And they're doing good.

That's also the problem.

They're good enough at their job that they don't get laid off. They're good enough that they aren't embarrassed on the court during their mens league basketball game. They're fit enough so that they're only a few pounds over weight instead of obese.

There are tons of people mistaking activity with progression: Doing a lot of unfocused work that doesn't yield improvement. Sadly, this cycle can go on for 20, 30 or 40 years.

And because of this, many people are not excellent at what they do.

This isn't a claim to say that everyone should strive to be world-class at their craft. Some people simply don't have that desire and that's fine. But if you're somebody who is working hard at becoming better at your work, but seem to be spinning your wheels and getting nowhere, this article is for you.

So if many people are working hard and not becoming better at what they do, what's the difference between these people and those who are great?

Deliberate practice.

In his book, Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin defines deliberate practice this way:

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It's activity designed specifically to improve performance; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it's highly demanding mentally and it isn't much fun.

The book does a wonderful job of diving into each of these categories and explaining why they are important. But I want to highlight an aspect that often gets overlooked when attempting to master a craft; whether it be purely intellectual like writing or something physical like a sport.

When the spark to set on a journey to improve one's ability in their craft is ignited, it's easy to recruit all of the external tools into play.

For someone in the arts it may be buying a new camera, a new instrument, or a new laptop.

For someone in business, it may be hiring a coach, purchasing a sales course or reading books.

For someone mastering a physical craft in sport, it might be purchasing supplements, training gear or bringing on a trainer.

None of these things matter if you don't set yourself up for success with how you manage your energy and time. Since deliberate practice is so demanding both mentally and physically you simply can't perform it all day long.

For example, a writer cannot pound the keys for 12 hours straight.

A lifter cannot deadlift for 8 hours in a row.

An athlete cannot perform drills for 6 hours with no break.

A corporate athlete cannot talk on the phone for 9 uninterpreted hours.

Here's what Geoff Colvin found:

A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.

The best violinist in the Berlin study, for example, practiced about three and a half hours a day, typically in two or three sessions. Many other top-level musicians report four or five hours as their upper limit.

Chess champions typically report the same amount of practice.

Even elite athletes say the factor that limits their practice time is their ability to sustain concentration.


This is the 4 hour rule. It states that you must arrange your energy and time to practice your craft in sixty to ninety minute bursts for up to 4 hours per day.

Without this schedule, the hustle of life with take you where it pleases. You'll be in reactive mode instead of attack mode. This leads you down the path of mistaking activity with achievement.


The Four Hour Rule: How Maximize Your Energy and Time To Master Your Craft

Here are three ways to make the four hour rule work in your life:

Have a daily routine

Some of the most creative and productive minds of all time have adhered to one basic idea: Do the most important (and often most difficult) thing first each day.

Sounds simple, but common sense isn't common practice.

By delegating at least 60 minutes of your morning to improve your skills automatically sets in motion momentum for progression. This works well because your willpower reservoir is full in the morning. That means you'll have the mental clarity and vigor to dedicate your best effort to your practice.

Ideally, you should schedule and accumulate 4 hours of deliberate practice around the first half of your day.


Work in short bursts

Great performers practice in waves. They understand their work capacity cycles.

From athletes to musicians to chess players, they all found that practicing in sixty to ninety minute intervals was their upper limit before they had to take a break.

In the modern workplace, we commonly choose to hunker down, pull our bootstraps up and plow through hours of work with no intermittent recovery.  But this is the exact opposite of what the highest performers on the planet do.

Instead they work in burst, then recover. This cycle goes on for the day until they accumulate around 4 hours of work or practice. By approaching their days like this, they allow themselves to maximize practice time because they enter each burst with mental clarity, physical energy and enthusiasm.


Understand the difference between deliberate practice and admin work

The four hour rule is directed towards the time you are actually practicing your craft.

For instance, the time a writer is actually hitting the keys, when an athlete is shooting jump shots, when a musician is strumming the guitar or when a corporate athlete is on the phone selling are all efforts of deliberate practice.

This doesn't necessarily mean that your work day is limited to four hours. With any pursuit there will be admin work. This stuff doesn't require a high level of concentration or physical effort: Replying to emails, editing, scheduling events, booking tours, submitting requests, taking an ice bath, reading, watching film, long term planning.

Your work days might add up to 8 to 12 hours, even though your deliberate practice time accumulates to around 4 hours.


Wrapping Up

If you're tired of working hard, but feel like it's to no avail, it's time to adopt the four hour rule.

Make sure your practice is designed to improve your skill and then arrange your energy and time to dedicate the required effort to do so.

And then, do that everyday.


End Notes
Thanks to Geoff Colvin prompting this post. 
Talent Is Overrated
Be Excellent At Anything