Science is clear: lifelong learning is awesome for you. Keeping your mind active and your knowledge base growing throughout life helps you become not only smarter and happier, but also richer and even more popular, studies show. 

So what could possibly be wrong with Empact co-founder Michael Simmons's suggestion that we all adopt the "5-hour rule" and commit to making time for five hours of learning each week?

Turning the benefits of learning into a catchy rule might help the idea go viral, but as JotForm founder Aytekin Tank pointed out on Inc.com's sister site Fast Company recently, it can also kill curiosity. The joy of discovery should not become just another obligation to check off your list. 

Regimentation kills curiosity. 

At this point I should probably explain that I know Simmons personally, have worked with him, and have a ton of respect for his mission to help everyone gain the benefits of lifelong learning. But I also think Tank makes a compelling point about repackaging feeding your brain as a "rule." 

The danger with rigid commitments like the 5-hour rule, Tank argues, is that they can turn something that's naturally inherent to humans - curiosity - into just another to-do list item. 

"The desire to learn is coded in our DNA. Watch a baby grapple with a toy or a toddler trying to walk and you can see our innate drive to explore," Tank writes. "Learning is natural and fun, until we force it."

When we use an external rule to push us to learn we lose touch with the inherent pull of our own curiosity. The same thing can happens when formerly inquisitive kids find themselves in a rigid school environment where they're required to follow a set schedule and curriculum. Their curiosity often withers. 

That sounds gloomy and it is. Curiosity, a ton of research shows, is tightly linked with fun, happiness, empathy and speedy learning. People who are inquisitive enjoy life more, understand it better, and generally, as a consequence, end up more successful. Curiosity is really not something you want to lose. 

Measurement can backfire badly.   

In addition, quantifying and carefully tracking your progress towards your goals may be popular with productivity gurus and management consultants, but other science shows that in cases where the activity in question has its own intrinsic appeal, it can turn a pleasure into a drag. In these instances measurement backfires, causing people to do less of what they're tracking. 

"Measuring activities can actually make them feel like work," Tank explains. "For example, a large, long-term clinical trial found that participants who wore fitness trackers lost significantly less weight than participants who didn't. Those sporting wearables weren't any fitter either."

The bottom line

Michael is surely right that making a commitment to lifelong learning is great, and if you've been implementing his "5-hour rule" for awhile now and it's working for you, by all means keep at it.

But if you're just getting started with this idea, be careful. Turning your natural love of learning into another obligation to squeeze in between gym sessions, work deadlines, and the rest of life's responsibilities can transform something that should light you up into just another stress. At the end of the day, if learning isn't fun, you're not doing it right. 

Finally, as Bill Gates has pointed out, we're most likely to succeed at the things we love enough to do just for fun. Which means learning that you're doing just to meet a weekly minimum is probably not getting you much of anywhere at all. 

Published on: Aug 14, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.