My Experiment with Five Minute Prayers

2014-09-15 Prayer 01For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been setting a timer every time I say my evening prayers. This might sound like an absolutely terrible idea and, in some ways I guess it is. So before I tell you how that has worked out for me, let me explain why I would even consider such an idea in the first place.

It starts with the idea of the curse of success. I first encountered this concept in Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose. They wrote that when a policy or technology becomes successful, it can be known more for the hardships it illuminates by contrast rather than for the good it accomplishes. When everyone’s situation is universally awful, no one complains. When an imperfect solution makes the situation better for most but not all, it risks being vilified for the resulting disparity.

In some sense, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints suffers from the curse of success today. The success comes from the way that the Church is able to transmit the basics of its doctrine and moral code to our youth. Relative to other religions in the United States, at least, Mormons are the experts at this.

I draw this conclusion primarily from a the well-known study conducted by UNC researchers from 2001-2005 involving over a hundred researchers interviewing thousands of American teenagers. (The results of the study were published in a book: Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.) Although many teenagers said that religion influenced their lives, researchers conducting in-person interviews found that:

many teens’ religious knowledge was “meager, nebulous and often fallacious” and engagement with the substance of their traditions remarkably shallow. Most seemed hard put to express coherently their beliefs and what difference they make.

Mormon teens were an exception to this rule, however. Researcher Stephen Vaisey said that “One of the groups that stood out from that to some extent were the Mormons. In general they tended to be more articulate about their religion, what their religion actually taught and what kind of religious constraints it placed on them.” These effects were not limited to merely articulation of their beliefs, however. Christian Smith, who led the research, said that in terms of “social outcomes” it turns out that “Mormon kids tend to be on top.”

2014-09-15 Prayer 02This is the success. The curse comes in when we take it for granted that churches ought to be good at transmitting beliefs and practices (which is apparently not true) and then ask why Mormonism doesn’t do a better job of transmitting more than it does. Where is the nuance? Where are the more difficult episodes of our history? Why are the lesson manuals so shallow? Why is the answer to every question always, “Pray, read your scriptures, go to church?”

These are serious questions. All is not well in Zion. I hope that we can continue to improve. But a change in perspective might be in order. Rather than scoffing (as I have done myself) that all we hear in Church is “pray, read your scriptures, go to church,” we might want to take a moment to marvel that repeating this message (or whatever else it is that we’ve got going) appears to be working. It represents a foundation to build on top of rather than an impediment to perfect inter-generational information transmission.

I can certainly say that the curse of success has played out in my own life. After many years of complaining that all we hear in church is the old, tired mantra I’ve recently come to realize how bad I am at enacting it. I’m too quick to take an excuse not to go to church when it arises. I don’t read my scriptures every day. And although I pray every day I can hardly claim to be “wrestling with God in mighty prayer.” (Alma 8:10, etc)

I became acutely aware of the gap between what I’ve been taught and what I actually do because of my continued attempt to set weekly goals for myself. I don’t have a love-hate relationship with goals. It’s more like a fear-hate relationship, and it dates back to the 2-year-long string of catastrophic goal-setting failures I refer to as “my mission.”

I’ve learned a lot about goal-setting, too, but I’ll save that discussion for another day. The point is that goal-setting has caused me to re-evaluate my self-perception downwards again and again for the last decade to the point where I realized that setting a goal of spending just 5 minutes in prayer every night would be moving up.

So that’s how I came to start setting a timer on my phone whenever I knelt down to pray a couple of weeks ago. I imagine that it still sounds like an absurd or sacrilegious idea to lots of folks, or at least hopelessly superficial. I had misgivings myself, but the plan fits with the ideal of trying to sift the sacred from the mundane. There’s not much more sacred than mighty prayer, and there’s not much more mundane than a timer. In any case, here’s what I found.

2014-09-15 Prayer 03First, I found that knowing ahead of time that the next solid 5 minutes were going to be blocked out took away all pressure to rush my prayers. I’m routinely exhausted at the end of the day, and already thinking about all the things I have to work on when I get up in the morning, and so everything between me and unconsciousness feels like an obstacle to hurdle. But once I knew that—for the next 5 minutes—nothing else was going to happen I felt the anxiety melt away. I had time to think. I had time to talk to God, instead of just presenting a pro forma list of thanks and a prioritized, itemized list of requests.

Second, I found that the first few nights were the easiest. It was like I had a pent-up demand of things I’d wanted to talk about, and I easily kept going until my alarm quietly went off. I’d picked a soothing song as the alarm, and set the volume low, so it didn’t really bother me. I just turned it off and kept going.

Third, I found that it got harder before it got easier. After a few days of really sincere prayers, I found myself running out of things to say. But I decided that was fine: I would just stay there, listening, for at least 5 minutes. And I did. Only once did I check my phone to see if the timer was still going ’cause it felt like I’d been there so long. Most of the time, the quiet, peaceful reflection was almost as nice as the prayers itself.

Fourth, it did start to get easier again. It took about two weeks, but I started to really, really look forward to my little 5 minutes of prayer. It’s something I look forward to now.

I still think timing my prayers is a little weird, to be honest. I can’t imagine keeping it up forever. But this is just who I am: the kind of person who is so pathetic they need a timer to get better at prayer. I’m OK with that. After all: I don’t really have an option of being another way other than how I already am. It’s the starting point. I’m going to stick with this plan for now. Maybe I’ll start adding a minute or two now and then. I don’t imagine that this will make me mighty in prayer like a prophet of old, but it seems to be helping.

Pray, read your scriptures, go to church. I wonder how much those can define a life; if we just keep trying to do them better this week than we did the one before.

(I still try to have better questions for my Gospel Doctrine class, though.)

27 comments for “My Experiment with Five Minute Prayers

  1. DQ
    September 15, 2014 at 8:58 am

    Thanks for article. I guess I’m strange for not thinking its weird at all the way you approach it. Just a small doable goal to push yourself everyday. I could see how it could be mocked or even portrayed as weird, but I identify with where you’re coming from on this.

    Actually, I think this is a wonderful idea. I think the only uncomfortable thought I’d have would be if it was said in a way to someone else (like over the pulpit for instance) and then became some sort of Pharisaical like task that everyone felt they had to do without the inspiration and motivation coming from within.

    But I’m a strong believer in this (or other) kinds of effort bringing a lot of good fruit when the action (spend more time consistently in prayer) aligns with your desires, which seems to be the case here.

  2. September 15, 2014 at 9:09 am

    the 2-year-long string of catastrophic goal-setting failures I refer to as “my mission.”

    Laughing and crying at the same time.

    When I first started using Logos, I became aware that there was a “prayer list” feature that people treated like a todo list, which kind of made me laugh. Pray, look down at list, pray, look down…
    But now late at night when I pray, I simply can’t remember all the troubles and pain and evil and sickness I’ve seen, because I’m tired. Prayer becomes little more than a necessary obstacle between me and bed, like brushing my teeth. A prayer list seems like a very practical idea.

    Nice post.

  3. Ben Johnson
    September 15, 2014 at 9:43 am

    Nathaniel, thank you for this. I may sound naive but I truly believe if everyone in the church practised the ‘primary answers’ we’d all be better off. And, not to sound snarky, I was shocked to see something like this on the ‘Nacle. Thanks for helping my faith a little…

  4. September 15, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Thank you, Nathaniel. I might steal your idea.

  5. September 15, 2014 at 10:43 am

    I use a prayer list sometimes. If Mormons can’t be fiercely practical about this stuff, nobody can.

    I think I’ll try this experiment, Nathaniel G.

  6. Owen
    September 15, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Small and simple means.

  7. imasurfer
    September 15, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    Nice idea, not strange at all. 5 minutes doesn’t sound like a long time, but if a person is used to the “thanks/ gimmee” formula, 5 min could be daunting.
    I also think you hit on something crucial; the listening part. Cudos to you for being able to focus and actually listen… this is my biggest downfall, especially at the end of the day. I have tried to have these prayers in the am when I am not a zombie, it is an improvement if i get up early enough to do it before the day starts.
    I think I will try this; thanks for the idea.

  8. Suzy
    September 15, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Not a bad idea at all. A few years ago, Elder Kikuchi visited our Institute and recommended that we prepare for commune with God the way we would prepare to speak with anyone important. We dress up, we eat breakfast, we escape to a clean, private place. I did this for a few years, and the deliberation and thought I put into prayers was really great.

  9. September 15, 2014 at 1:51 pm


    Great post.

    The primary answers are great if we actually apply them in a context. We just hear them so much that we become numb to them. You have taken a commendable step to sacrifice a portion of your day to communing with Deity. That is different from the picture that I get when I hear the primary 3. I think of blessing my Oreos before I eat them or just tossing a question or request at God without waiting for an answer.

    What if we said

    1. Pray – Separate yourself from distraction, take time to listen, and truly talk to God.
    2. Read Scriptures – Seek for answers from any source possible, with an emphasis on scripture. Half the reason you read scriptures when seeking wisdom, is not that the answer is in the material, but that scripture reading puts you in the mindset of receiving a spiritual epiphany.
    3. Go to Church – Spend time with and serve your religious community. The answer to your question can become more visible as you listen to the thoughts and experiences of others and spend time in selfless service.

  10. September 15, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    This may be an unpopular idea, but I can’t help but wonder whether some of those clamoring for changes in the Church (‘teach this element of Church history or that theological [apparent] contradiction’) are doing so not because they want certain things taught but because they want other things neglected. Yes, all is not well in Zion, but will sharing the thoughts of William Law on Joseph Smith really help Zion? Or will an increase of diligence towards the daily fundamentals help Zion? I think the latter is more likely.

    Faith, baptism, prayer, service, scripture study, temple attendance — these are the things that have the ability to move us towards accepting the Atonement. Our understanding of Church history, while interesting, rarely helps with that and is often counterproductive — no one draws closer to the Lord gathered around screens in various parts of the country reading blog posts about how supposedly “racist” early leaders of the Church were. And, based upon some evidences, the fact that it is counterproductive seems to be the very reason it is often advocated. Not in all cases, certainly — there is a case to be made for inoculation. But in some cases it seems that way.

  11. September 15, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    Jonathan it is great to know you have never experienced a faith crisis. May the God of your faith continue to shine on you. For everyone else in crisis my heart is with you. – For the record I pray all the time, usually longer than 5 minutes. There is more pain in life than 5 minutes a day can handle.

  12. September 15, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    Carrie, my statement was that talking about the things certain people want to talk about are counterproductive, and about the motivations of a subset of those wanting to talk about those subjects. I did not say that I have never had a faith crisis, nor did I say that I have. Frankly, whether or not I have had such a faith crisis is irrelevant. If I have not, does that make my argument false? If I have, are you suddenly ready to accept my position?

    My premise is two-fold — discussing certain subjects is counterproductive (both on its own and by displacing other, more important topics), and a portion of those advocating discussing those subjects do so precisely because they are counterproductive.

  13. Old Man
    September 15, 2014 at 9:25 pm


    I don’t think that was Jonathon’s point. In all of the faith crises I have witnessed, I have never seen a single one healed by an appeal to history or blogging. While information can help alleviate concerns, it isn’t the ultimate answer. I think you are actually trying to say the same thing as Jonathon. The only real solution is knowing Christ. And when one knows Christ, one knows He ultimately can and does swallow the bitterness, pain and suffering found in our existence.

  14. September 15, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    It’s rare when I can make it 5 min.

    Usually my mind wanders after a minute.

    Thank God that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us…for, as St. Paul said, “We don’t know how to pray as we ought…”

  15. September 15, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    Thank you Jonathan and Old Man. Clearly I read something more than was intended. I appreciate your willingness to help me see things differently than I did. Have a great evening.

  16. FarSide
    September 16, 2014 at 12:28 am

    Timing your prayers isn’t all that weird. Your fixation on setting goals, however, suggests you may need therapy.

    About a year ago, Scott Adams wrote a nice piece in the Wall Street Journal in which he made a pretty convincing case that goals are for losers:

    I realize this heresy in Mormondom, but I’m inclined to give prophetic deference to a guy blessed with the inspiration to create the Dilbert cartoon.

  17. September 16, 2014 at 7:39 am


    I think I’ll be writing about goals in my next post (in two weeks) or perhaps the one after that. Just as a preview, however, I’ve actually read Scott Adams’ entire book (How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big), and I was not impressed. As I mention in my review (see the previous link), Scott Adams doesn’t have a very useful understanding of pretty basic concepts like goals and systems, which he confuses with outcomes vs. processes.

    The reality is that goals which serve as ends in and of themselves can be problematic, but goals which serve as a means to an end (e.g. as part of a process of improvement) can be very, very useful indeed.

  18. FarSide
    September 16, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Well, Nathaniel, you kind of one-upped me since I haven’t read Adams’ book. And after reading your review I’m kind of glad I saved my money. Nevertheless, I believe his critique of goal setting has some merit, especially given the fact that the failure rate is so extraordinarily high. I tend to shy away from any activity where the chance of success isn’t very good.

    Perhaps your upcoming post on the subject will prompt me to reconsider my views. Indeed, as proof that I have an open mind the subject, I will set a goal to read it!

  19. September 16, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Perhaps it isn’t goal-setting that is the problem, but the conflation of goal-setting with personal worth.

    Failure itself can sometimes be a success. Once we get that, we understand divinity a little better. After all, what greater guaranteed “failure” is there than in such endeavors as the Creation and the Atonement?

    I’ve thought about that as I pondered my failed marriage, and realized I wouldn’t have done anything differently, despite the yet-to-be-ending pain of knowing myself a failure at everything that has ever really mattered to me.

  20. FarSide
    September 16, 2014 at 11:04 am


    If you are interested in pursuing further the notion of failure sometimes being success in disguise, I recommend the works of the 20th Century economics philosopher, Albert O. Hirschaman. There is a new biography out about him called “Worldly Philosopher,” which is excellent, along with a new collection of some of his best works called the “Essential Hirschman.”

    And to get your feet wet, you should start with an article that appeared in the New Yorker last year called “The Gift of Doubt,” by Malcolm Gladwell:
    I’m not a big Gladwell fan, but this is a nice piece. It’s subtitle is: “Albert O. Hirschman and the Power of Failure.”

  21. Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper)
    September 16, 2014 at 12:18 pm
  22. September 16, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Thank you, FarSide. I shall definitely look them up once I’m out of the trenches of lived experience of the concept. I think now, reading about it too might be even more too much.

  23. FarSide
    September 16, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    I understand, SilverRain. But you should know that there is nothing particularly depressing about Hirschman’s writings. Indeed, the case studies he discusses are fascinating.

    One of the central premises of his work is that most of us generally do our homework before embarking on a major project or before making a serious commitment. We generally don’t like surprises. But sometimes unforeseen or unforeseeable circumstances bollix up our plans. In those situations, there are generally two possible outcomes: we either concede defeat and quit or we find a creative way to cope with the new development. The great irony of this, according to Hirschman, is that our ingenuity, imagination and resourcefulness often reach their apotheosis only when we find ourselves in one of these unpleasant situations. In other words, we often go to great lengths to avoid surprises but frequently those surprises will bring out the best in us. Good stuff.

  24. September 16, 2014 at 6:14 pm

    I haven’t read Hirschman, FarSide, but I’m very interested in failure as a topic so I will have to check it out.

    I’ll add a recommendation of my own (for you or SilverRain) that is also an uplifting take on failure: The Up Side of Down (Megan McArdle). For me, it was kind of the antidote to Scott Adam’s book.

    It’s a rather abstract look at failure–spending more time talking about social policies for bankruptcy or unemployment insurance than anything else–but the lessons McArdle draws are fairly universal. I also like that, contra Adams, she went through some hard times before finding success.

  25. FarSide
    September 16, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation, Nathaniel. Your description (and review) of McArdle’s book suggests that this is the kind of book I would enjoy (I was not familiar with it), so I’ve ordered a copy from Amazon.

    Let us know what you think of Hirschman. He passed away a few years ago, so his life and works have received renewed attention. Frankly, I think the man was a genius. Some consider him to have been greatest economic philosopher of the 20th Century.

  26. New Iconoclast
    September 19, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    the 2-year-long string of catastrophic goal-setting failures I refer to as “my mission.”

    I’d be laughing with Ben if I wasn’t crying. :)

    Seriously, that experience may be responsible for the visceral negative reaction I get when I think about setting goals – in life, at work, at church. I simply hadn’t made the connection. Darn you, Anziano H***, last zone leader.

    I think the five minute idea sounds great. Like many of us, I find myself either daydreaming or thinking about how much my back hurts when I spend any amount of time on my knees. I have real trouble having a conversation with someone who’s not audibly answering back (from which you may discern that I haven’t yet had that visitation). Shucks, sometimes I have trouble with conversations with people who ARE answering back. Setting a timer not only says, “There’s an end in sight,” it might just help me focus. That can’t be a bad thing, and working me just a little bit closer to my Father in Heaven – who is sometimes like that close college friend you keep meaning to call but never quite get around to calling – can’t help but be good, either.

  27. Vanessa
    September 26, 2014 at 8:28 am

    I have done the five minute timer prayer thing off an on over the last twenty years, whenever I feel like my prayers could use a “boost”, and it has been tremendously effective for me. I’ve also gently invited my 12yo young women to do the five minute challenge several times before, and without fail every one has come back with a lovely experience to share. Nothing weird about it at all — in the modern world it seems just as necessary to seek out a sacred moment as it once did to find a sacred grove. (Now just to keep my children asleep during those five minutes…)

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