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I was wondering how a normal adult in their 20s could best structure their life to make best use of their capacity to learn. I am no expert in cognitive science, so I assume just a really common definition of "learn" here. We might measure this by, for example, hours of sustained, intense study per 24 hrs. I realize my question might be a major oversimplification, leaving out factors like stress.

If there is some upper bound on how quickly learning occurs, then there may be little point in studying more than, say, 6 hours per day. Does anyone know of any research which shows some general, asymptotic upper bound for learning in adults (20-30)?

Anectodal examples might also be useful. What are some examples of how highly accomplished adults structure their days?

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Anecdotal- I found learning in the mid 20s to be easiest when I'm actively interested in the subject and am learning "to do", because I want to. This is quite different from mindless drilling I was exposed to as a teenager, or studying for exams in college – Alex Stone Feb 21 '13 at 5:27
this might be answered by looking at the expected credit hrs. of a full-time student at most institutions. This would come out to 15 + 3(15) = 60 hrs of study for 15-credit full-time student. For some graduate programs, this is even the maximum allowed. – T. Webster Feb 21 '13 at 21:36
Going off memory, Ericsson's research on expertise acquisition has suggested that internationally recognized masters tend to have practiced 3-4 hours a day for many years, and that falling outside of these bounds may be counterproductive. It'll take a bit for me to look up the references, but great question! – Christian Hummeluhr Mar 31 '13 at 11:21

1 Answer 1

Karl Ericsson, on whose work Malcolm Gladwell based much of his popular Outliers, has expressed on a number of occasions that the optimal amount of practice time a day is around 3-5 hours, depending on domain.

There is a great deal of research in the expertise literature, but Ericsson, Krampe, Tesch-Römer (1993) is a seminal (if not uncontroversial) paper in the field which provides a very solid introduction. They reported evidence for the idea that practicing more than four to five hours a day was not associated with higher achievement within a domain. To support this claim, among others, they drew on a number of sources, including:

  • Literature review

A number of training studies in real life have compared the efficiency of practice durations ranging from 1-8 hr per day.These studie sshow essentially no benefit from durations exceeding 4 hr per day and reduced benefits from practice exceeding 2 hr (Welford, 1968; Woodworth & Schlosberg, 1954). Many studies of the acquisition of typing skill (Baddeley & Longman, 1978; Dvorak et al., 1936) and other perceptual-motor skills (Henshaw & Holman, 1930) indicate that the effective duration of deliberate practice may be closer to 1hr per day. Pirolli and J. R. Anderson (1985) found no increased learning from doubling the number of training trials per session in their extended training study.

  • Retrospective estimates from expert violin players

When the duration of all music-related activities was summed across the diary week, the average number of hours per week was 50.6, and no reliable differences between the groups were found. Of the eight activities judged to be highly relevant to improvement of violin performance, only two had an average duration across all three groups exceeding 5 hr per week. These two activities were practice alone (19.3 hr per week) and sleep (58.2 hr per week).

  • Biographies of accomplished scientists and intellectuals

Biographies report that famous scientists such as C. Darwin, (E Darwin, 1888), Pavlov (Babkin, 1949), Hans Selye (Selye, 1964), and Skinner (Skinner, 1983) adhered to a rigid daily schedule where the first major activity of each morning involved writing for a couple of hours. In a large questionnaire study of science and engineering faculty, Kellogg (1986) found that writing on articles occurred most frequently before lunch and that limiting writing sessions to a duration of 1-2 hr was related to higher reported productivity. [...]

In this regard, it is particularly interesting to examine the way in which famous authors allocate their time. [...] Almost without exception, they tend to schedule 3-4 hr of writing every morning and to spend the rest of the day on walking, correspondence, napping, and other less demanding activities (Cowley, 1959; Plimpton, 1977).

However, many questions remain regarding the generalizability of deliberate practice. More recent research has suggested that Ericsson's theory may not be equally adequate for all domains, and nearly irrelevant to some. For a more critical review of Ericsson's work, please see my related answer on, "Do 10.000 hours of practice make you an expert?".


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