One of the harder things to do is be honest. Not honest as in the opposite of lying, but rather, being honest in respect to how you feel or the real state of a situation. Sometimes being honest isn’t tactful, like telling someone they’re unattractive when they ask your opinion; resulting in the delivery of a “white lie.” But more often than not, honesty is a valid option and we simply choose to ignore it as a matter of self-preservation.
One instance where this sort of behavior immediately comes to mind is the act of estimation in business. When starting a new project, the first question asked is: “when will this be finished?” It’s a horrible question because of course nobody really knows when something will be finished. It’s an impossible question to answer truthfully because there are too many variables involved: mistakes happen, people get sick, fires need to be put out, etc., etc.
Still, we burden ourselves with answering this question because we must know when the end will come. “When am I going to die? When am I going to get a raise? When will I fall in love?” Lately, I’ve been asking the more obvious question “why?” Why does it matter when something finishes? Why does the end point matter so much? Why not just be honest and say “I don’t know?”
Realistically speaking, “the finish” generally matters because livelihoods are on the line. If something doesn’t get done, the people working on it don’t get paid, or, have the future of their livelihoods threatened. In more “professional” terms, we might call this the deadline.
Pay attention to the wording: deadline. “I’ll be dead if I don’t finish this by X date.” Of course this is just human melodrama at its finest. Unless we’re defusing a bomb or paying off a gambling debt, it’s safe to assume that most deadlines are not truly deadlines; just best wishes of the point in time at which we’ll be able to worry about the next deadline. Whee!
Despite reading deadlines the riot act here, I still believe in them. They matter, to a point. They’re helpful because they allow you to focus. They make you say “I’m going to get this done” instead of procrastinating. But at the same time, they’re a sort of poison. Some of the most stressful moments in my life can tie back to trying to meet some deadline. Some invisible “line” where something must happen. Nights spent tossing and turning, wondering “what if I don’t finish?” And for what?
The approach I’ve taken with this lately is 100% honesty. When asked when something will be completed, I simply say “I don’t know.” I offer a guess, certainly, but I back it up with a disclaimer that “anything can happen and this might change.” And when I say “might change,” I underscore that I’m near-certain that it will change. Not because of some baked in deficiency with my process or other people involved, but because things always take longer than we plan for them to. A Law of the Universe, you might say.
Something neat happens when you’re honest like this, though. People relax. The raincloud of fear, uncertainty, and doubt just sort of fades away. You get to work, hope for the best, and whatever happens: happens.
What’s nice about this is you remove that feeling of an ulcer widening in your gut. The work gets done—if even a few days or weeks late—and the world keeps on spinning. No harm, no foul. In short: relax. Be honest. Say “I don’t know” because you don’t know. Let’s all admit that we’re full of crap and just get to work.
It will be done when it’s done.