There are lots of reasons you might want to postpone deadlines or puff up your work so it looks bigger than it may be. Maybe you don’t need the pressure. Maybe your boss constantly underestimates the actual work everything requires. Either way, if you’re willing to play the game, you can take control of your workload and not let it control you.
Remember the “Scotty Principle”
If you’re not a Star Trek fan, you may not be familiar with the Scotty Principle, but it’s fairly simple. When asked how long a job will take, estimate the time required to complete the job, add about 25-50 per cent onto that estimate, and commit to the longer estimate. Then, when you deliver ahead of schedule (or something else happens that throws you off, and you’re forced to deliver on schedule instead of ahead), you’re a miracle worker who really knows how to get the job done.
The goal here isn’t to be sinister or to get time to slack off (although, I suppose you could use it to make your workdays easier), it’s to give you the power to control of your own workload. Once you have control, and you’re not completely subservient to your boss’s expectations and demands, you can prioritise your to-dos properly. It doesn’t matter where you work or what you do, eventually you’ll run up against a deadline that you’re just not ready for, either because something else was on fire and you didn’t have time to switch tasks or because the job at hand was massively underestimated.
Deal In Deliverables, Not Deadlines
When I was a project manager, clients would come to me with a drop-dead date when they needed “the project” completed. My first question was almost always “OK, what exactly needs to be ready by then?” After all, projects are broken down into specific to-dos and deliverables. For example, someone may want their entire platform up and running by X date, but what they really mean is that they want to be able to do some testing by X date. Their customer will test on Y date, and the floodgates will open to everyone on Z date. Trying to get to the Z milestone by X date is a recipe for disaster, but you’d never know it if you just said ok and started working.
The best way to buy yourself some time — or make a massive job manageable — is to drill down to exactly what needs to be ready by the deadline, and what can come later. The more you deal in big, sweeping jobs, the worse off you’ll be. Always negotiate, and ask your boss, supervisor, customer, anyone “What can I get to you by the deadline that’ll work for you?”
Keep the Details To Yourself Until Asked
This may sound a little sinister, but obfuscating the actual work required is a powerful way to make sure you have breathing room. It only works if the people you’re dealing with aren’t familiar with your work and how you do it, and a skilled manager or project manager will find ways around it (my favourite was to ask “how many hours of actual work will it take”.) Still, the goal is to play on their lack of knowledge to give yourself a little room to do the best work you can and account for things you may not be able to predict.
If you tell someone that “sure, I can install that in about 15 minutes”, because you know the installation process itself only takes 15 minutes, you’re selling yourself short. If something goes wrong, you need time to tweak settings, test after the installation is finished, or deal with something unexpected (like the version you have is incompatible and you need to get a new one), you’re boned. That said, your boss probably doesn’t want to hear all of that. Tell them it’ll take you a half hour, maybe an hour. If they don’t believe you, then you can get into the details. You’re not trying to be dishonest, you’re trying to account for reasonable possibilities.
Argue That You’re Over-Extended, but Come with Proof
Everyone says they’re busy, but no one’s going to listen to someone who whines about how busy they are unless they can actually prove it. Of course, some of that comes down to proper prioritisation, but if you have a lot on your plate and you need more time, the best thing to do is to bring it up nice and early, before the deadline is looming and someone else has made a bunch of promises on your behalf. It’s easier to negotiate a few extra days to get a job done earlier in a project than 48 hours before the job is due.
You can approach this two ways: You can appeal to your boss’s sense of fairness and let them know that you have too much on your plate and you need more time, or you can be a bit more assertive and ask them to prioritise it for you. I’m a big fan of the latter, since it gives you instant direction and lets you fall back on their authority if someone’s angry their request didn’t come first. When you do get new marching orders, go back to the people you’re working with and let them know how far back they are in the queue and when you’ll be able to get to them. Not only did you net yourself an extension, but you also gave yourself a window to renegotiate the due date entirely — and you’re not even the bad guy here.
Work Backwards to Prove You Need More Time
One of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal is to work backwards from the due date. Sometimes it’ll show you have enough time to get the job done, but often it’s an easy way to prove that you need more time. I used to use this method all the time to prove essentially that for all the things required to finish, the project would have needed to start long before the person requesting it approached me. Then I got to ask when they knew about the initiative, why they waited so long, and renegotiate deliverables.
You don’t have to be a project manager to do this. You don’t even have to work in an office. All you need is a good understanding of what it takes to do the job someone’s asking you to do, and quick enough thinking to sketch it out in your head. You’ll be able to show pretty quickly that “if everything goes right, you may be able to meet the deadline, but that’s only if nothing goes wrong and everything’s according to plan.” Then, when something inevitably goes wrong, you can push them off safely, having given them early warning. If everything goes right, or you deliver anyway, you did good work.
Use These Powers for Good
Look, no one’s going to believe you need more time if you have a reputation as a slacker. If every time someone sees you, you’re hanging out in the breakroom, outside for a smoke, or lounging by the water cooler, your credibility is shot. If you plan to use your freshly negotiated time to slack off, you had better be a master of the fine art of looking busy. Remember, the goal is to get room to breathe and manoeuvre. If you use these powers for evil and kick back while everyone around you is working hard, you’re done for.
The people for whom these methods are most effective are the ones who actually do have a lot on their plate, and need ways to get some flexibility into their high-pressure workloads. If you can use these techniques deftly, sparingly, and intelligently, you’ll get a level of control over the work you’re asked to do that you may never have thought possible — and best of all, you’ll wind up doing better work because of it.
This post is part of our Evil Week series at Lifehacker, where we look at the dark side of getting things done. Knowing evil means knowing how to beat it, so you can use your sinister powers for good. Want more? Check out our evil week tag page.