5-Minute Thinks


image“Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”– Napoleon Bonaparte

If you have five minutes to think about something, you actually have a lot.

You don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking to make a lot of progress.

You can spend five minutes on a problem and actually cover a lot of ground more effectively.

That is, if you have a framework.

Use 5-Minute Thinks to Train Your Thinking While Solving Problems

At Microsoft, I end up with a lot of short blocks of time, whether it’s in between meetings or in between tasks.  It’s easy to fall in the trap of, “I don’t have enough time to think about that.”

Well, the reality is, it’s actually very effective to use short time blocks to both train your thinking while solving your problems, rather than let them pile up.

The 5-Minute Think is Time Management for Your Mind

The key is to use Five-Minute Thinks.  Five-Minute thinks are an effective time-management technique for your mind.  A Five-Minute Think is simply a structured approach to thinking that focuses your thinking and helps you identify the goal, explore options, narrow down, and then conclude.

Using a Five-Minute Think helps you avoid locking onto one idea too quickly, falling into analysis-paralysis, and over-engineering.

Chip Away at the Stone with 5-Minute Thinks

By casting a wide net, exploring a topic, and then narrowing down potential paths, you can naturally use your thinking skills very effectively.  You can also “chip away at the stone” of larger problems with these little time blocks.

In the book De Bono’s Thinking Course, Revised Edition, Edward De Bono shares the idea and approach of Five-Minute Thinks.

5-Minute Think Technique

The framework for the Five-Minute Think is simple.  According to De Bono, to do a Five-Minute Think:

  1. One minute: Target and Task
  2. Two minutes: Expand and Explore
  3. Three minutes: Contract and Conclude

That’s it!

Don’t spend more than five minutes or you’re defeating the purpose.  What you might do is use another Five-Minute Think on another aspect of the problem, but don’t turn Five-Minute Thinks into 10, 20, or 30 minute thinks.  By limiting your time, you’re telling your mind to focus and fully engage for a short-burst.  You’ll improve with practice.

One-Minute — Target and Task

The outcome of your one-minute should be the target and the goal defined precisely, such as “Identify ways to improve my blogging speed.”

In other words,  — what do you want to accomplish with your Five-Minute Think?

At this step, you define the target and the task precisely.  The target is your focus of the thinking.

The target can be as general or as tight as you want.  The task is setting the goal – it’s the thinking task you’ll do.  For example, you might set the goal of reviewing something to improve it.  You might set the goal of finding problems.  You might make the task a creative exercise, such as “How else could I …” or “How could xyz be made more useful?”

Minute Two – Expand and Explore

I think of it as elaborating on the problem, making a mental map, and exploring options and ideas.

In this part of the phase, you open up.  Don’t be critical or judging.  Just start flowing what you know and any ideas that come to mind.   You can scan your experience, analyze the situation, or look for familiar patterns.

Keep it positive and free-flowing.  According to De Bono, you’re “opening up the field, filling in the map, exploring the territory.”

Minute Three – Contract and Conclude

This is where you spiral down on the problem.   Try to make sense of what you’ve got and get to a definite conclusion.  According to De Bono, this might be a “solution, creative idea, additional alternative, or an opinion.”

The next time you have five minutes to think about something, test your ability to define, expand, explore, and contract on the problem.

Simply directing your thinking will improve it over time.


  1. Hi JD,

    I like the “5 minute think” approach. It does help to clear our mind and just focus on one area in life that we want to improve or find a solution for… Thanks for sharing

  2. J.D. pretty interesting. I had never heard of this, but I definitely plan to put it to use. I also have time in between meetings which is not really enough to get an entire project done, but seems like too much time to just do nothing. I like this idea of the 5 Minute Think approach and there is nothing better than getting to a creative solution in just 5 minutes.

  3. @ Jonathan – Thank you. I think more of De Bono’s practices should go mainstream. A little thinking can go a long way.

    @ Dia — It’s funny how time can be our best friend or our worst enemy. It’s all in how we use it. Narrowing the focus is a key to great results.

    @ Sibyl — “Creative solution in just 5 minutes” has a beautiful ring. I think it’s true that good things come in small packages, and the beauty is that we can package our thinking into a small box of time.

  4. J.D. – This is a great approach to maximize short blocks of time. I can imagine that utilizing this can help me be that much more efficient; allowing me to be more productive and effective. Thanks for the wealth.

  5. @ Amit — I think you’ll seriously like Edward De Bono’s work. He’s got a ton of techniques for uncorking your mind. When it comes to thinking skills, he’s among the best.

    @ Jk — While there are a lot of thinking techniques, I especially like that this one is very simple and deceptively powerful. Because it’s a well-defined technique, you can use it as “deliberate practice” to improve your thinking.

  6. oh that’s timely one…
    i was thinking about how to break this habit of constantly checking emails when i have spare few minutes…
    I think i found the answer 😉
    thank you

  7. @ Alik — One way to really make the most of it is to practice asking better questions within the time frame. You can ask questions to elaborate, and then different questions to narrow down, and then a different set of questions to help turn learnings into action. It’s a wonderful process to add to your bag of tricks.

  8. Hi JD,
    This is indeed something that I can add on for additional learning and sharing in 2011 with the people I have the pleasure to work with. Thanks.

  9. Hi J.D.,

    I like the 5-minute burst of thinking energy this exercise entails. Many times we spent too much time thinking and not enough time jumping into the activity. It can be easy and less scary to stay in thinking mode.

    Most helpful!


  10. @ Giulietta — I really like the fact that it helps break endless loops, while at the same time, exploring a topic before spiraling down. It’s a beauty.

  11. JD, I like this – would have never thought to call it that. For me, I can tend to be so OVERanalytical about everything that it makes me indecisive. That doesn’t help anybody.

    But there’s also the danger of making decisions without much thought. I like the idea of mulling things over for 5 minutes and forcing yourself to consider the most basic fundamentals of how it will affect things, and act on it. At least this is what I took away from it.

    Thanks, man!

  12. Hi JD .. thanks the 5 minute approach I could take when I drive up to my Mum’s .. or 5 minutes at her bedside, when she’s quiet – quite often now – I like the idea of TTs, EEs, and CCs .. all in short bursts, kept within that 5 minute approach. The bird’s eye view will help here too .. great post – thank you .. Hilary

  13. @ Bryan — Right on. The thinking trap is such a slippery slope. The more we think, the more we learn, the more we can keep thinking. It’s hard to know when to stop, since, in some regard, we can always keep learning.

    I like the approach of using a timebox to help limit. I really like the idea that the approach is to first cast the wide net, then spiral down — this simple approach bakes a bunch of great thinking practices all into one technique.

    @ Hilary — Thank you. Anytime I catch myself over-thinking about something, where I keep revisiting, or I’m stuck, I’m reminding myself of 5 minute thinks. I think it’s a great way to avoid over-investing thinking about a problem, while getting a lot of the benefits of sound thinking. It’s a beautiful, structured approach.

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