“When do you need this by?” It is a simple, powerful question. Yet, many employees fail to ask their manager for clarification when receiving a new work assignment. Over the years, I have found asking this simple question has saved me stress and helped improve my productivity. More importantly though, it has helped save my sanity on multiple occasions. Here are the incredibly powerful benefits of asking this simple question.

Manage your energy

Throughout my career, I have found that I am better equipped to tackle different types of work at different times of the day. For analytical work, I am at my best in the first few hours of the day. For more creative solutions and ideas, later in the day is better for me. And for handling confrontational or frustrating meetings and/or coworkers, I better do it earlier in the day before all my self-control and patience has been depleted.

As a result, if my boss asks me to update a financial model at 6PM, I’m going to ask “when do you need this by”. If their answer is something like 9AM the next day, then I’m going to choose to get up early the next day to complete the work rather than try and finish the work that evening. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was a strategy consultant. I distinctly remember being asked to redo a model at 5PM for the next day and when I checked my work the next morning, I got a complete different answer. This panicked me enough into realizing that I needed to do whatever I could to avoid redoing models in the late evening. Author Daniel Pink in his book “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” talks about this exact concept. He notes that the best time to complete different tasks differs based on whether you are a lark, night-owl, or “third bird”. As a result, in order to increase control over when to complete your work, asking the clarifying question, “when do you need this by?”. 

At the very least, asking this clarifying question could save you unneeded stress. For example, there were equally as many times when I was expecting to have to do a quick turn around on a work assignment and then when I actually asked the question, my boss answered that I actually had until the end of week. That is a massive difference in stress level. In my head I was dreading having to stay late to complete the work and in reality I had an extra 2 or 3 days to get it done. Why rush to finish something when you could take your time?

Clarify priorities

Another benefit of asking this clarifying question is it can lead to a discussion on priorities. If you are given a due date for a new assignment that will create some challenges or conflicts with your current workload, you now have an opening to have a conversation about priorities. These days, work priorities change rapidly. As a result, it is quite possible that the project you were asked to start last week, or even yesterday, is no longer a priority given new information. This means when your boss says he needs the new assignment by mid-day tomorrow, but you were working on another project you can now say something like, “Absolutely and I just want to confirm that this should take precedent over Project B as I was prioritizing completing that by tomorrow.” Now you have created an opportunity for your boss to reconfirm (or even think about for the first time) the priority of your assignments. This will ensure you don’t waste time or effort on projects that are no longer relevant. It can also result in sometimes re-scoping work if it turns out there is a larger change needed.

Here’s an example of how this conversation can go:

    BOSS: I need you to provide me with the new budget numbers.

    YOU: Sure, when do you need this by?

    BOSS: Can you get me something by EOD tomorrow?

    YOU: No problem. I just want to confirm that this should take priority over the new marketing proposal we talked about earlier this week. I was going to finish working on that tomorrow.

    BOSS: Well I need the budget numbers updated for tomorrow because we are reviewing them the next day with all the department heads, so yeah the marketing proposal can wait until you are done with this.

Now you have more clarity on which project is most important and approval from you boss to let the other project wait. Rather than trying to get both done on the same timeline, you can now focus your attention on one, and then the other and in the proper order. 

Keep your manager informed

I’m going to let you in on a secret that most managers won’t tell you…we sometimes lose track and don’t remember all the work we’ve given you. Don’t get me wrong, we still remember we assigned you that one important project we keep asking about (and we are counting the minutes until we can review it). However, we can sometimes lose sight of how much work we have given you. Furthermore, many managers don’t have a great understanding of each team member’s limits. A good manager doesn’t want to overload or overwhelm their employees, but if we don’t hear otherwise we assume you are doing fine with your workload. Unfortunately, the reality is that most employees are afraid of telling their managers they are overloaded with work for fear of looking incapable or like they aren’t a team player.  This results in overworked employees and clueless bosses.

By asking for clarification on deadlines and sharing what your other priorities are, it gives additional visibility to your manager on where you are spending your time. For good managers who may have lost sight of how much work has been assigned to you, it creates an opportunity for them to re-engage and help you figure out where to spend your time. This is also particularly helpful for handling micromanaging bosses as their constant concern is that they don’t know what their employees are doing. This becomes another way to proactively share and remind your boss what is on your plate, which saves you from receiving another follow-up Slack message from them.

Put it into action

Working with your manager doesn’t have to be a one-sided conversation. By asking a simple and powerful question, you can open a dialogue with your manager. The benefits are numerous from decreasing your stress working towards self-imposed deadlines, to gaining clarity on priorities, and keeping your manager abreast of your workload. Go ahead and try it!