How Much Time Is a Problem Worth? 3 Minutes, 15 Minutes, More?

Best Practices, Following Through, Thinking Tools

The #1 general-purpose problem-solving tactic I teach is “Thinking on Paper.” If you are not familiar with it, get my freebie, “Thinking Directions Starter Kit.” If you are confused, overloaded, uncertain, blank, conflicted, or stuck in any way, I recommend you turn to “Thinking on Paper” about your problem. It is a powerful tactic that makes all the difference.

The question often comes up: how much time should you spend “thinking on paper” on an issue?

I recommend you start with three minutes thinking on paper about each question. That’s long enough to make sure you don’t give it short shrift, and short enough that you don’t feel strain. Three minutes is enough time to warm up your mental circuits. That makes it enough time to solve 80% of all the problems you face. That’s why most of the exercises I do in class are 3–5 minutes.

However, sometimes a problem is entrenched or just too complex to solve in three minutes. Then the three minutes help you see the scope of the problem, and decide whether it is worth it to sit yourself down and spend more time on it.

For example, one author (Andrea Conway) recommends devoting 15 minutes to thinking when you find that you are resisting doing something that you think is important. In this case, the extra time helps you get leverage on the problem. Here are a few reasons why:

  • By committing to spend 15 minutes (and timing it), you send a powerful message to your subconscious that you really want to understand what the problem is. Your willingness to devote 15 minutes of concentration on it is significant.
  • When you’re feeling resistance, the real causes may be buried under a couple of layers of pseudo-explanations. You need time to clear away the top level “excuses” to get at the real issues.
  • When you commit 15 minutes, you are acknowledging to yourself that the resistance costs time — more than 15 minutes. Perhaps you have been procrastinating, or you know yourself well enough to see that you are about to procrastinate. Measuring the cost of the problem in time helps motivate you to solve it.

Other times, you may find that you need a larger block of time to dig into a creative, intellectual task. Doing this in-depth work using “thinking on paper” helps you to sustain your concentration, deal with the complexity, and ensure you can pick up where you left off after a break or interruption.

I often work in 2 or 2½ hour timed blocks. That is an empirically derived time to maximize progress on a complex task, such as book writing. You need a bio break after a couple of hours, but more importantly, you need to sum up and take stock. When I put in 6 hours of essentially continuous work on my book, I discovered that it sprawled. It was difficult to review the work and pick up the threads the next day. Now I am careful to reach a real stopping point after about 2 hours, with a tidy finish. I list my takeaways, open questions, and next steps. Then I can pick up easily the next time I work on it, whether that is later in the day or later in the week.

So, the answer to the question, “How much time should you spend ‘thinking on paper’?” is another question. How much time is it worth to solve your problem? “Thinking on Paper” is a tool that helps you solve the problem more efficiently, whether it is small, medium or large. Whether it’s worth your time to solve that problem is itself a question that might be worth spending 3 minutes thinking on paper about.

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