The 15-minute rule

27 January 2015

You know the score: you skim-read a bunch of articles on Hacker News and one catches your attention. You then can’t for the life of you find it again. This happened to me a while back after reading a great article on problem solving, and wanting to share it with the team. Thankfully, after a few half-hearted attempts to find it, over the period of about a month, I hit the jackpot: You Must Try, and then You Must Ask, a.k.a. the 15-minute rule. An abridged version of it follows, but do go read that article yourself for the full one.

  1. If you find yourself stuck trying to solve a problem, give yourself another 15 minutes. Set a countdown timer if you fancy, and relax.
  2. In the next 15 minutes, start from the top, gathering your thoughts, documenting everything as you go. Write down everything you’ve tried, the assumptions you’ve made, how you’ve reproduced the problem, etc.
  3. After 15 minutes is up, stop. Ask for help. Once you’ve found someone to help you, start by going through all your workings you wrote down in that final 15 minutes.

When I finally found the article and shared it with the team, everyone loved the idea, so we gave it a go. And here we are still using it a year later.


The rule is great for a few reasons:

  • It says that it’s OK to ask for help. With a rule in place, it’s perfectly clear to everyone that it’s good to ask for help, and it’s good to be asked for help.
  • It’s clear when to ask for help. When you’re trying to solve a problem, you can go over and over it, always kidding yourself that the answer is just around the corner. No more. When you’re stuck, you’ve got 15 minutes. That’s it. There’s light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a colleague holding a torch, ready to help you out.
  • Because you spend that 15 minutes gathering up all relevant information and clarifying your thoughts, you feel less bad taking someone’s time, since you’ve distilled your accumulated work already into a useful chunk of information. Similarly, others are more inclined to help out, as they know they’ll be coming to a problem with a lot of facts ready to be laid out in front of them.
  • The 15 minutes gives you breathing room. It’s good to come up for air when knee-deep in something. The solution may become obvious when you take the time to review it (rubber duck debugging)!

Room for improvement

We’re always on the lookout for ways to make people’s jobs easier: from Happy Hour to the 15-minute rule, we’re iterating constantly to improve things. If you’ve any suggestions for such improvements do drop me a line.

Picture credit (cropped): William Warby

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