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Both constructions seem capable of expressing 'I thought something very recently'. Why is the former preferred over the latter?

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    Because thinking is an action that takes time, and is thus suited to be used with a continuous present. "I was just thinking" means that you were in the continuous process of thinking about it. See: Difference between (was thinking / thought / have thought / had thought – MadWard Jul 19 '16 at 11:44
  • "just thought" usually refers to a completed thought, for example "I just thought you were going to the store." – user3169 Jul 20 '16 at 1:11
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Because thinking is an action that takes time, and is thus suited to be used with a continuous present. "I was just thinking" means that you were in the continuous process of thinking about it. See: Difference between (was thinking / thought / have thought / had thought)

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