Why You Should Work Less: A Second Look at the 10,000 Hour Rule

We've all heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at anything. But there's more to the 10,000 hour rule than Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his book, Outliers. "It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep." 

Malcom Galdwell's source for the "10,000 hour rule" was the research of Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer (1993) who identified the 10,000 amount from their research with violin students at the Music Academy of West Berlin. I had read this research in university and, like Malcolm Gladwell, only retained the 10,000 hour rule. The best violin students (those rated by their teachers as having the most potential for international solo careers, who had a higher number of successful entries at violin competitions, and who could perform more music from memory without preparation than merely good violinists) did put in their 10,000 hours. 

But what's most interesting, and what had been generally overlooked, is that they only practiced on average four hours a day. Over a period of 10 years, this amounted to about 10,000 hours. And this was not just any practice: It was practice that was alone, deliberate, and very effortful. 

But that's not the whole story. 

They preferred to practice in the morning, before lunch; their practice sessions were about 80 minutes long; and they took half-hour breaks between sessions.

They also slept eight and half hours a day, about an hour longer than the average for adults of a similar age. Deliberate, solo, practice is effortful and the extra sleep helped them recover. In addition, they also napped for an average of 2.8 hours a week and engaged in leisure activities for about 3.5 hours a day.

“Deliberate practice,” the original researchers observed, “is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day.” Practice too little and you never become world-class. Practice too much, though, and you increase the odds of being struck down by injury, draining yourself mentally, or burning out. To succeed, students must “avoid exhaustion” and “limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

The best violin students "figured out early that rest is important, that some of our most creative work happens when we take the kinds of breaks that allow our unconscious minds to keep plugging away, and that we can learn how to rest better."

"Perhaps that was the secret to their success: Not just how they worked, but how they rested, and the two relate."

It turns out that many of the greats worked only 4 hours or so a day. Charles Darwin wrote 19 books on this schedule including the Descent of Man and The Origin of Species. Henri Poincaré, a 19th century French mathematician, wrote "30 books and 500 papers spanning number theory, topology, astronomy and celestial mechanics, theoretical and applied physics, and philosophy." "Poincaré kept very regular hours. He did his hardest thinking between 10 a.m. and noon, and again between 5 and 7 in the afternoon. The 19th century’s most towering mathematical genius worked just enough to get his mind around a problem—about four hours a day." Gifted novelists like Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Naguib Mahfouz, Alice Munro, W. Somerset Maugham, Gabriel García Márquez, and Stephen King all worked about a 4 - 5 hour day. And Winston Churchill, one of the twentieth century's greatest statesman, took a daily afternoon nap.

"We’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep."

"This illustrates a blind spot that scientists, scholars, and almost all of us share: a tendency to focus on focused work, to assume that the road to greater creativity is paved by life hacks, propped up by eccentric habits, or smoothed by Adderall or LSD. Those who research world-class performance focus only on what students do in the gym or track or practice room. Everybody focuses on the most obvious, measurable forms of work and tries to make those more effective and more productive. They don’t ask whether there are other ways to improve performance, and improve your life."

"Maybe the key to unlocking the secret of their creativity lies in understanding not just how they laboured but how they rested, and how the two relate."

It's not just work that makes us smarter and more creative. It's also how we rest and how we sleep.

"Even in today’s 24/7, always-on world, we can learn how to blend work and rest together in ways that make us smarter, more creative, and happier." 


Ericsson, K., Krampe, R., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review100(3), 363. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.100.3.363

Pang, A. S-K. Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too. Nautilus, 46. March 30, 2017. http://nautil.us/issue/46/balance/darwin-was-a-slacker-and-you-should-be-too?

  • I love this angle, as a Sports Scientist we focused a lot on sports psychology as well as maintaining high performance. Though for one reason or the other, this link has (still) not yet fully made it to the mindful business practices as much as I’d like it to see. And I am here to help change this. So excited I took this course now! Perfect timing =)

  • Fantastic explanation and addition to the need for Rest and Relaxation in addition to work!

    • Yes Suzanne, rest and relaxation is something that is very often overlooked, yet important to performance and success.

  • I knew I was onto something when I decided that I will only see 2 clients a day, with my sessions being 2 hours.

  • Excellent insight into the 10,000 rule and absolutely there is always two sides to the coin. The correct blending is so important to recognise and achieve that elusive balance…

    • Unfortunately William, the media often doesn’t tell the whole story. Rest is just as important as deliberate practice.

  • Brilliant article and having used this principle in my Coaching I am excited to now learn the science to back it up in my Coaching practice.

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