Take the challenge and try high intensity focus sessions of 5 min.
Why: It is like a HIT workout for the brain. You feel great afterwards and motivated to do more. The 5 min format is like a big focus lens that helps you avoid losing time on non-essential ideas.
- write down 3 engaging prompts, that would make you think. Can be a project, idea, philosophical or personal issue. It has to be specific enough to be somewhat answerable in 5 min.
- e.g. prompt: flesh out this first spark of an idea as much as possible in 5 min: …
- e.g. prompt: How could I use scrum (or …) in my own workflow? Come up with at least 3 ideas. (5 min)
- e.g. prompt: Evaluate this concept …. and compare to my experience. How far do I agree and how could it be helpful for me. (5 min)
- every day pick one of them, set timer for 5 min and answer to the best of your ability. Believe me it feels good afterwards
- If you like the experience repeat for the rest of the year and see it accumulate in your PKM and ability to think with focus. Bonus: Share one of your completed prompts here.
It started we me being unhappy about my PKM workflow. I usually went the easy way. This was my vice: I was collecting too much helpful things and not spending enough time processing the things. I was jealous of people who spend a lot of time, thinking about their ideas again and connecting them, whereas I just put a ton of ideas and information sorted into the right notes, but then never touched those notes. I was evading the things in my PKM that required focused thinking and did mostly the easy stuff.
So being unfulfilled I got creative and was looking for a micro habit that I could start. I was inspired by Mr. Beast who shared in a podcast the value of working daily to improve your skills (in my case thinking with focus). Another inspiration was James Clear‘s book Atomic Habits. I know that I need a small habit, that is fun and that I can do every day. Based on the problem I thought, what if I make a list of questions or prompts that are challenging and make me think. Collecting information and sorting them into notes, is not so challenging to my thinking anymore. Any I know the real value is, when I look at the accumulated information and think it through. I started with taking ideas that I had, but didn’t really think through, with some personal issues, that I wanted to think about. I just made a list with things I thought might be interesting and valuable to think about.
The first time I tried it out, I knew I am onto something. After 5 min thinking about something hard with focus, I felt alive and a sense of accomplishment. The 5 min limit was very helpful to focus. Usually I have many ideas, and can get sidetracked, but with 5 min on the clock I automatically focus on the intuitively most promising approaches and ideas. The result is not the complete answer, but an impressive first shot. The change from thinking: “Wow this is a hard question, I don’t know the answer from the top of my head”, to “Oh my God, these thoughts are substantial, I can somewhat answer this question in 5 min.” It is magical. I saw it happen with others and it fascinates me.
Now every day I do this in the morning, it is a win. It sets the tone for the day. Most time I do it, afterwards I think: “Let’s do this more often”. After doing it for some months I started telling friends about it. With one of my best friends, he did it about a personal issue. Just watching him was so interesting. I got to see how my friend thinks in real time. He did 5 min, then he picked a prompt about a subtopick and did another 5 min. I think after 15 min he had a pretty good idea about his issue. Then he wrote another question and let me answer that one. Then we just talked about it freely and explained more how we thought and why. It was an amazing conversation. I learned that this could be real handy as a preparation for meetings or important conversations.
Along the way I started sharing my prompts and answers with friends and asked them for feedback. It’s a good way to connect with people, but a challenge to decide which person to share a certain topic with. And then usually I need to go over it again to add a few words of explanation here and there so that the person understands what I am talking about. Usually since time is short I answer just in bullet points.
Over a couple of month I observed getting more effective and creative at these prompts. And I enjoy now the “harder” but more rewarding thinking as part of my daily PKM workflow. The more I do it, the more I like it and apply it in all sorts of areas. I start now using it at university to prepare for seminars or draft the outlines of papers. It strengthens my identity as a rigorous thinker (see Atomic Habits).
Be in a place you can somewhat focus. Set a timer for 5 min.
Prompt: Come up with at least 3 challenging questions for yourself, where each question has to satisfy the following criteria:
- it engages your interest.
- It can be from any area of your life philosophical, personal or relationship issue, thinking through an idea about a project. But it has to be interesting.
- Look at notes that have valuable content and you wished you engaged with it more.
- to answer you must think deeply
- it helps if it is a open question
- make it specific enough so that answering within 5 min is somewhat possible. It should be challenging but possible.
- if the main problem is to big, pick a sub-problem or specify the scope. Eg. Challenge yourself to generate a list of at least 5 different ideas or solutions for the problem at hand, without evaluating them initially. Embrace quantity over quality in this brainstorming process.
Here is a concrete example of mine. I had a speculative idea and looked at it from different perspectives. After about 10 minutes I had a good picture of the idea:
I shared it with a friend and she commented that it would be difficult or impossible to realize the idea. Here are the points from here response that I kept:
- Perfect spam filters would require detailed knowledge of customers, akin to espionage.
- Eliminating advertising agencies seems impractical in a capitalist society.
- If advertising agencies were abolished, they would likely resurface in a different guise.
It increases quality a lot and is less draining on the brain, for you it through step by step or perspective by perspective.
When you know it is something you will want to look at from different perspectives, then I would first get clear what your goal is and then start with the first prompt.
Doing multiple prompts on the same subject increases the quality of the output a lot. Eg. First you focus on fleshing out the idea. Then you look at potential benefits. Then at potential risks. Or at gaps in your line of reasoning. To focus at each of these one at a time helps me to be way less drained afterwards.
I noticed that this way of high intensity thinking is less draining, than other ways of thinking hard about something. My theory is that switching perspectives and going back and forth in my thinking is draining. So when I break down a thinking process in multiple steps that look at a question from different vantage points sequentially and not paralelly, it is so much better. Then if somebody else is taking the part of assessing how good it was or what I missed, it is even better. It is easier to take feedback and see where it applies and where it didn’t go far enough, as opposed to coming up with it all yourself. Not because you could, but it is a different state of mind necessary to do it.
When sharing the prompt and answer with other people and asking for their feedback. I would strongly recommend to select somebody who is capable of giving good feedback and giving them enough context to understand what you wrote and give them a clear request what you want from them. Only include information that is relevat for this. If you please, do another 5 min prompt to get it ready for sharing with a friend.
I don’t know enough people to share every day these things with someone, who is capable and willing to answer. So in some cases I ask Chat GPT for feedback. I wrote myself a QuickAdd script that generates all sorts of feedbacks with predefined questions in seconds. It is quite helpful if I want feedback right away.
It takes time to get good at formulating good prompts (engaging and specific enough for 5 min). It helped me to look every once in a while at the prompts and see what worked for me and what didn’t. I started a list with basic prompts that I can adapt or use as follow-up prompts after the first one.
Here are some of the prompts that work best for me. I either adapt them or use them as the second or third prompt on the same subject.
when you don’t know which question to ask first:
- What is the best starting point that you can come up with in 5 minutes?
- What is your best guess how you could approach this issue?
- Challenge yourself to generate a list of at least 5 different ideas or solutions for the problem at hand, without evaluating them initially. Embrace quantity over quality in this brainstorming process.
When you are stuck and you need a new approach:
- If you had no prior knowledge or preconceptions about this topic, let’s say you are a child, how might you perceive it?
- Think of the wildest solution to this problem that makes you laugh. Now, how can we make it work?
- How could you redefine this problem in a way that opens up new avenues for solutions?
When you want to look at it from a different perspective:
- Imagine you hold the opposing view on this issue. How would you argue your case?
- Can you look at this situation from a different perspective? What assumptions are you making, and could you see it differently if you challenged those assumptions?
When you want to identify gaps in your reasoning:
- If you were to critique your own ideas/plan, where would you identify potential flaws or gaps in the given argument or strategy?
- What are some valid points from the opposing perspective that could strengthen this argument or solution?
When you think you need more context information:
- What might be other factors that are important in this issue that were not part of the description?
- What additional information or resources would you require to confidently address the core issue?
When you want to express it as a visual:
- Express your thinking so far in a visual way. Keep it simple and clear. It’s not a work of art, but a visualization of your thought.
Overall it is an amazing habit and I want to stick to it in 2024. The focus of a good prompt and 5 min time limit is magical. It is fulfilling to me and the bar to start is so low (5 min) that I end up doing it regularly. The more I do it, the more I like it and apply it in all sorts of areas. The 5 min format saves me from the abyss of getting sidetracked by non-essential ideas. Even better, I feel great afterwards and motivated to do more.
I hope this was interesting or helpful for some of you. If you took the time to try it for a few days, what are your thoughts?