How do you answer the question "Give me an estimate on how long this will take you"?

My boss has presented a list of items he would like me to complete, 3 of which I have no idea what he's asking for. I have asked him twice to explain exactly what he wants and yet the communication is still unclear.

Can someone help me create a response?

  • 1
    softwareengineering.stackexchange.com/questions/648/… - Programming specific answer here, but it applies well across the board imo. Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 18:35
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    Could you expand on "the communication is still unclear"? Do you mean he's throwing out random buzzwords and hoping they're grammatically correct, or that there are two sensible interpretations and you want him to pick one? Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 21:18
  • Can you ask a co-worker to help you interpret the request? They may have the context you need...
    – keshlam
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 5:44

2 Answers 2


Since you're not getting clear responses to your questions, one possibility is to make an estimate based on some assumptions. Then present both your assumptions and the estimate to your boss. Keep a record of both so that you will be covered when the boss later figures out what he really wants, and questions your implementation or the time it took to complete.

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    This is a good idea. "if what you mean is THIS, then I'd estimate X, but if you actually need THAT, then it's probably closer to Y".
    – BradC
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 16:04
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    No no no no no. Your boss will remember the estimate and forget the assumptions, Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 23:27

I would send your boss an email something along the lines of:

My estimates can only be as accurate as the requirements provided. Three of the tasks you have assigned are unfamiliar to me. Could we spend some time together so that I can obtain the necessary information to provide you an accurate estimate?



The other option is to provide a SWAG ( Silly Wild A$$ Guess ) to go along with the extremely vague requirements. Usually, this will get a conversation started too.

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    I would nix the first sentence in the email, as it might come across as pedantic. It's more appropriate for a client than your boss, who should already know that.
    – Pedro
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 18:10

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