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I'm often asked to look into projects or technical issues that I don't understand fully. If you've ever had to do this, you'll know that it's very hard to come up with a deadline or a completion date. All of my coworkers who ask me for this always want a deadline immediately before I can look into it at all. I've tried:

  1. Saying "I don't know when this will be complete". This has always turned into an argument about how they need a deadline and I'm being unreasonable for not providing one.
  2. Providing an incredibly wide deadline, like "maybe 6 months from now". This comes across rude and usually they say that's not acceptable.
  3. Saying "I'll look into it and get back to you". I've never had someone accept this. They always start going into a socratic seminar about "Well what are all the thing you need to look into? Ok, how long will researching constraints of Django queueing take? Ok so it sounds like this will take you 6 hours".

Is there some other approach I could use to avoid giving a deadline in this kind of case?

  • What kind of projects or technical issues are they? Are they "similar" (ie take the same time)? – guest Aug 18 at 17:03
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Let's assume that your peers cannot assign you a task that will take 6 months of exclusive work while you ignore everything else you are currently supposed to do. It seems like it would be useful for you to "bucket" these "look into" tasks as one of:

  • half an hour to an hour to see if such a thing is even remotely possible. You're going to do like 3 googles and maybe a search on SO. You know now whether there is time for it today. If there is, say "I'll get to it after this, and talk to you in an hour or two ok?" Fully booked? Can you do it tomorrow? Tell them "some time this week" or "by the end of tomorrow" and then stick to that.
  • half a day to a day. You're going to maybe try installing and running something, or using something, or watch a tutorial and then try it yourself. Presumably your peers can come to you for this because you have that kind of room in your schedule, but you may not have it today or even this week. Think a minute about when you will, and then tell them "in the next week or two unless you can get [whoever] to accept a one-day slip on [your current top priority] in which case I could do it tomorrow."
  • days and days, no idea, it could be weeks or months. You need a week just to make the plan, and you won't know how long the pieces of the plan are for another few weeks after that. This should be a project with a plan and with internal deadlines and milestones. Your peers shouldn't be asking you to take on so much. Wait, rewind, what if they aren't? What if they just want you to do something smaller like see if it's even feasible or try one tutorial to see if it's worth spending the weeks or months? Yeah, that must be it, so rephrase the request to something you can fit in one of the previous two buckets, give the corresponding answer, and then add "after which we could start making a plan for the whole sort of project to actually implement that for real. That's probably several months' work."

You can also timebox the work. That is, if they need it Friday, you'll only be able to put in 4 hours on it. Will that be useful? Ask them.

Two very important skills for any worker are to guess (with some accuracy) how much work something is and to manage their outstanding tasks. Your peers are asking you to do this and expressing disappointment that you can't. Now would be a good time to get better at this. At first you'll literally just be making things up. That's fine. Say you think it's 3 googles and so you say "in an hour" and 90 minutes later you're down a rabbit hole completely lost and your coworker is at your desk asking for your conclusion. LEARN. Next time either don't underestimate it or don't get dragged into details or don't start installing things when what you planned was a quick google. You will get better with practice.

Another way many people improve is with rather obsessive note taking. How long did you think a thing would take, how long did it take, what was the long part? (Eg 3 Googles took 3 minutes but drawing the diagram to explain what you learned took 2 hours.) At any moment, do you know all the promises you have outstanding and when they're due? Are you able to see whether your rough guesses are any good or not? Get better at both guessing and at meeting your guess (by stopping when time is up) as time goes by.

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  • About note taking.. in my case I did not even need my original estimates. After I looked at a spreadsheet of time spent on maybe 2-3 projects of a given type I could then accurately predict the time required on future similar projects. – HenryM Aug 18 at 18:58
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Whoever asks you to give a deadline for work you need to do doesn't understand the meaning of the word "deadline". I can give an estimate. I can give an estimate that is my best estimate, or an estimate that is padded enough to almost certainly guarantee delivery at that time. I can set targets (goals I would want to achieve). Which is different from estimates.

But I can't give a deadline. A "deadline" is a point in time where I must be finished, or there will be bad consequences. As an example, if you want me to order Christmas cards, a can do that tomorrow. I'll give you an estimate of "tomorrow". But the deadline is about Dec. 20th when we need the cards or they are not sent out in time. So the deadline MUST come from the outside.

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My group handles this all the time.

We say this:

We need to put this through an analysis stage, after which we will provide you with a deadline which will be broken out by time dedicated to that analysis, as well as development and testing. Prior to that, we can provide no realistic deadline without knowing the exact scope of the project.

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How can I avoid providing a deadline to others who insist on it?

Ask them to provide you with a deadline.

Unfortunately, if you truly have no clue ( and not even an educated guess ) about when you may be completing tasks or projects then you have no way to evaluate if they have given you a reasonable deadline. That being the case, you simply reply to whatever deadline with something like:

I will start working on it right away.

After that it is up to you to start working on them and provide them with updates when you see that the deadline may not be met. Don't wait until just before the deadline to let them know that you are nowhere near completion.

Also, from now on you should document how long all of your projects and tasks are actually taking you to complete. This way, in the future you have a better idea of how long something will take and you can actually give estimates for a deadline rather than trying to avoid the situation.

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Others have suggested good approaches. The only thing I would add is that a proposal writing approach can help in this instance. When starting a new piece of work, this is a good practice in any circumstance.

Write 1-2 pages covering the following: the background (or the problem), possible solutions with pros / cons e.g. long term vs short term solutions, your recommendation.

This helps establish investigating as a real piece of work. There's a write up to show for it. You can then circulate for comments from technical colleagues and there is a record of decision making if you choose a hackier / short term solution.

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  • That really depends on the nature of the task. For something small, writing the proposal could take longer than just solving the issue directly. – Llewellyn Aug 18 at 20:16
  • True but it sounds like in this situation the size of the task is not known in advance. Plus sometimes it is 2-3 days thinking about the problem 10 seconds to change the relevant 1 line of code. So the "proposal" is really about the 2-3 day investigation rather than for the code change. If the problem gets solved really quickly and the thing is trivial work then can always skip the write up – plagiarisedwords Aug 18 at 21:23
  • To me, it sounds like the OP is being asked for the information you outline before it is available. – Extrarius Aug 19 at 19:17
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If you haven't been given a chance to assess the problem, then base you answer on a speculative timeframe and say that. So you would say something like. I haven't had a chance to look into the issue, but it sounds like I could complete it in a couple of hours, when I start the task I will let you know if I can get it done in that amount of time. Of course don't forget to follow up when you do start it

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