What do you do when there really is no more time?
November 27, 2012 8:07 AM   Subscribe

How do you bounce back from a serious failure? Please help me get through this awful time.

I've always had problems with deadlines, but I've really done it this time. Now I'm stuck in a hole that I've dug myself and I don't know how to get out.

I'm about to blow a major deadline. (I won't go into details for privacy reasons, but please don't suggest that it can be fixed or is probably a bigger deal than I think it is. Trust me, I'm not talking about my math homework here).

I realized I was screwed about a week ago. Since then, I've been working around the clock. I've probably slept 4 hours since Friday. I'm barely able to eat and when I do I can't keep it down. I've lost 5 lbs.

I've been lying to important people about having it done. Tonight it really sunk in that, actually, it won't be done. The human body has limits, and I've hit mine.

I can't ask for help because it's too late. I probably will go as long as I possibly can without breaking the news, which will probably be early next week. But realistically, I'm a wreck and I can hardly concentrate. After I write this question, I'm going to sleep for 2 hours. But I really wish I could sleep for 20.

This is the lowest point in my life. I apologize for the melodrama, but I can hardly face myself for what I've done. How do I deal with this? What do I say? How do I come back from it? How do I apologize to the people I've fucked over? How do I maintain any professional credibility? Please, please help.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (33 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I probably will go as long as I possibly can without breaking the news, which will probably be early next week.

What is the benefit of waiting until next week? Break the news now. The worst of it will be over, and you won't have another week about being stressed about the reaction you'll get.
posted by amarynth at 8:13 AM on November 27, 2012 [38 favorites]

I probably will go as long as I possibly can without breaking the news,

Do not do this. Take full responsibility and do so immediately. I can't think of a single situation where it does not screw the other party over more to find out later rather than sooner--the only person this benefits is you so it is not a grown up thing to do and it is certainly not an expression of sincere regret and a desire to make amends. If you're going to explain what happened, most professional apologies also involve the phrase, "This is no excuse, but...."
To save yourself professionally, know that people want to be able to reassure themselves that it won't happen again with you--not because you "feel terrible" but because you recognize the error, your shortcomings, the consequences, and will hopefully have a better sense of how to avoid the same scenario again.

Also, don't make your distress (lost sleep, weight, etc.) their problem. Keep the focus on the client.
posted by availablelight at 8:13 AM on November 27, 2012 [16 favorites]

I will leave it to others to cope with the rest; but as for this:

I probably will go as long as I possibly can without breaking the news, which will probably be early next week.

I would re-think that, if you already know that you ain't gonna make it. It's gonna suck for your superiors no matter what, but I suspect they'd be even more angry if you knew ahead of time that you weren't gonna make it and didn't tell them, so they had no time to prepare for it themselves. I would tell them now what the state of affairs is, and add that you are still going to keep working on it. This way they'll have time to adjust themselves.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:15 AM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

I apologize for the melodrama, but I can hardly face myself for what I've done.

I just want to say that I believe you about how major it is, but while the facts won't change, your perspective and feelings about it can and probably will change. Right now you are extremely sleep deprived and stressed out. I am certain that is adding to how freaked out you are about this. Not that you wouldn't be freaked out about it anyway but it is *adding.* Six months from now I doubt you will still be feeling that you are at the lowest point in your life. I am really sorry that you are in this situation, but regardless of what happens it will not last forever, and eventually you will never have to deal with it again. When you are going through hell, keep going.
posted by cairdeas at 8:15 AM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

The first thing you do is get honest with your client immediately. "I have bad news, the project will be X days late, I'm ready to continue working on it but if you have another direction please let me know ASAP." This will be a horrible discussion but a professional one. This gives them more time to deal with the blown deliverable.

Then you stop lying to yourself about your capabilities, and stop lying to your clients, and stop thinking you're superman.

This happens to everyone, really it does, and while you might lose your job (if your clients are vindictive), if your skills are sound you may wind up finding another job but it won't be a career ender. Talent doesn't grow on trees and if you're really good at whatever it is you do, you'll bounce back. Just stop with the deceit!

Second thing to do is get some rest so you can think clearly.
But only after you tell your clients.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:16 AM on November 27, 2012 [23 favorites]

Breaking the news earlier will, for better or worse, relieve a lot of the pressure you're putting on yourself. It'll also prevent anyone who's depending on you meeting this deadline from being strung along; getting the news earlier will at least allow them to get ready for the fallout, whatever that's going to be.

We all make mistakes. It's hard to time a long-term project, and it's very easy to bite off more than you can chew. Take the lumps, take them on, and accept that most people, somewhere in their working careers, have a major failure of some kind.

Is anyone going to die or go to prison because of this? If the answer to that is "no" then it can be cleaned up, albeit not without serious costs.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:16 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

2 hours of sleep isn't going to cut it. Get a proper amount of sleep and then call the people you need to call. There's nothing really to consider or plan. Just get on the blower and tell them what the status is. You can't make it better by being more afraid or by avoiding it further.
posted by facetious at 8:17 AM on November 27, 2012 [12 favorites]

Come clean clearly and honestly as soon as possible. People are more understanding than you anticipate and almost everything can be fixed but you have to stop misleading people immediately.
posted by srboisvert at 8:17 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

First things first: sleep deprivation is making this worse. If you're going to blow the deadline, you're going to blow the deadline. You are going to be better equipped to deal with that reality and with the fallout if you get some sleep.

Second of all, DO NOT wait until next Monday to tell people you've fucked up. That is the worst choice. It's going to be hard to steel yourself next week, but it will not be harder than it's going to be to steel yourself this week. Letting people know now allows them the time they need to deal with the deadline that will fail. It is VITAL for your professional credibility that you do this. Professionals fail to meet deadlines every day; what is childish and not credible is hiding that truth.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:17 AM on November 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

Come clean now. If you wait until next week, the first question they will ask is "Why didn't you tell us earlier?"...and no one has a good answer to that.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 8:19 AM on November 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

Tell the people who need to know immediately.

1. Telling your colleagues sooner will give them the opportunity to mobilize other resources sooner so that the deadline can be met (or missed by a smaller factor)

2. Waiting until the very last minute to tell your colleagues is lose-lose; you missed the deadline AND you didn't do anything to let them know.

3. When explaining the situation, don't offer excuses or explanations: The first priority is to get the project complete. There will be time to sort out what happened after the fact.

4. Have a clear summary ready: What's done? What's not? How much work is left to do? If you need help, what specific help do you need? Your colleagues will be more receptive to the situation if you appear to have a clear handle on the state of the project. don't just throw up your hands and yell "help".

Good luck.
posted by DWRoelands at 8:20 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Write this out and tape this to your workspace:

"Do not let perfect be the enemy of good."

I'm a terrible procrastinator, and it's mostly because I am a strident perfectionist. Nine times out of ten, my client isn't looking for my own sick level of perfect, which I can't ever achieve, even if given weeks and months to do it. And I lose sleep, and I get all anxious, and it's awful. But remember: They are looking for an normal, acceptable level of GOOD. Just good. You can do this.

Get a cup of tea, sit down, and think about what you can actually get done by the deadline and prioritize accordingly. Map it out step by step in little bites. If there will be full components missing, send a note to the parties in the form of a proactive status update and focus on what you can actually get done. Email subject: "Checking in." Email text: "Hey there, [Names], just a quick note to confirm project status as we slide into mid week. As agreed, I'll have A, B, and C ready for you on X date. I'm still working on Y/Z, and I hope to have the [name of practical, completable stage] ready for you then."

No excuses, no hedging. Tell them what to expect, be friendly and professional. So many of us have been there. This will pass. Just do good for now.
posted by mochapickle at 8:25 AM on November 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

Now I'm stuck in a hole that I've dug myself and I don't know how to get out.

I recommend the stop digging option.

Come clean ASAP.
posted by flabdablet at 8:29 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I agree with other commenters, just dropped in to say that lack of sleep will be doing horrible things to your mind right now, and not helping you stay sane in this tough time one bit.

Here is your plan:

1. Tell people that you're not going to meet the deadline, ASAP.
3. Begin the clean-up, make a plan to make the best of the situation, make sure there is as little as possible collateral damage, to your project, your colleagues and yourself
4. Figure out how not to let this happen again.
posted by greenish at 8:30 AM on November 27, 2012

Act with integrity. Sooner, rather than later. That means letting people know, now, the condition of your project. You do this because it is the right thing to do, and because it will afford the people who are counting on you more time to adjust their expectations.

It will also have the benefit of releasing a lot of the tension that is occupying your mind. If they fire you, they fire you. That's inevitable. Putting it off is only adding to your inability to execute, because the possibility of how they will respond is bigger in your mind than the actual response will ever be. Even if they fire you. That will be a smaller problem than what you've got going on right now.

You are procrastinating on the consequences of your procrastination. You will only start today if you start today, so to speak.

So start today.
posted by gauche at 8:33 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

As someone who deals with high-level bosses all the time, and who organizes meetings at which other high level executives are called on the mat to answer for blown deliverables, let me offer you the best possible approach gleaned from watching high paid people squirm. If this is genuinely and totally on you, then it is also on you to figure out a plan B strategy to offer the client.

Admit to the blown deliverable, but DO NOT hang your head and beg forgiveness, or sit back and wait for the client to provide direction. You say, "we weren't able to meet this deadline due to constraints (or whatever the reason was). I believe our next best approach is to do X, for reasons Y and Z. We propose steps A, B and C towards X. While we won't make this deadline, this new approach will benefit us in ways D, E and F." This shows you're on the ball, you're professional and that you're working towards your client's best interest.

You should be letting the client know as soon as possible though.
posted by LN at 8:49 AM on November 27, 2012 [73 favorites]

I work in professional services, and this is a thing that happens sometimes no matter how many gates and project managers are in place to keep it from happening.

You have to have an emergency status meeting ASAP. If you have internal colleagues (I can't tell if you are the sole participant or not), you need to get with them first. Figure out where you are, what needs to be done, how long is realistically is going to take to get done, and decide on what kind of wording and information you're going to use/provide to the client. Then organize the conversation with the client.

The part of this that isn't as horrible as you think it's going to be: you can take full responsibility for the issue, and that's really kind of the end of that particular conversation. When you tell the customer "I underestimated the effort, and I didn't stop and regroup when I should have and I let it get out of hand," there's not much else to say. You've already said it was your fault. Now you can IMMEDIATELY move on to what's going to happen next, which is something you need to have a plan for.

Worst thing they can do is fire you. Then you move on, with a lesson learned that everyone is familiar with.

The absolute worst thing you can do is wait. The response you get today, I guarantee you, will be 50% less bad than the one you'll get next week.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:53 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've been managing teams, consultants, and contractors for a very long time. This happens.

I promise you, if you work for me and you come to me the day something really big is due and tell me it's not done, and you've known for a while it wouldn't be done on time, you will see a level of anger you've never seen from me before.

If you are responsible for something, and you know it's not going to get done on time, and you tell me as far in advance as possible, even if it's just a week away, that is a totally different conversation. That lets me get a plan in place with you to get it done. That lets me talk to everyone I'm responsible to and let them know what's going on. It lets me reset expectations with everyone else who is watching this project. It lets me protect you from them, which is one of the things I take very seriously as a manager.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:00 AM on November 27, 2012 [13 favorites]

People are giving good advice above.

Here is how a practical pessimist (me) would look at it:
You are screwed no matter when you come clean. At some point it is going to be clear that the work is not finished.
Next week or this week, you didn't get it done and that sucks and they aren't going to be happy about it.

They are screwed more the later they know. Maybe they have someone in reserve who can take it from you or can postpone the thing or whatever. But they can only hope to fix it if they have some time.

So get the admission over with and minimize how much you screw them, if you want to do the right thing by the client/boss.
posted by rmless at 9:03 AM on November 27, 2012

Hey. I've missed contracted deadlines on my books TWICE before. Both times, I've given my editor no heads-up, because I was petrified -- and in denial -- right up until the very last moment. I felt sure that my career was over because of it. And you know what?

Both times, I was wrong.

Both times, my editor received the news with calm aplomb, and then asked me when I thought I could get it done by. And then shot down my first estimate and said, "No, give yourself a little more time. I want you to get this done with your sanity intact!"

Both times, I also went on to land new contracts. (Knock on wood that this luck continues!)

All this to say, I have been where you are, and the worst case scenario I was concocting in my head was SO MUCH WORSE than what really happened that I felt very foolish, in retrospect, for all the panic I'd experienced.

And you know what? Even if I HADN'T gotten another contract, my panic STILL would have looked foolish in retrospect -- because no job is worth your mental health.

Let your editor/client/boss/whoever know that the project will be late. Apologize, but stay calm. And then GET SOME SLEEP, because everything looks more manageable when you're well-rested.
posted by artemisia at 9:24 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Blown deadlines happen and most people will be okay with it. Lying and covering up until the situation is completely unfixable, however, they will not be okay with, because that's 10 million times worse than blowing a deadline.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:39 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

nthing fess up NOW! You'll sleep better and the stress will stop.

You may lose your job, place in your PhD program or whateverthefuck it is that you've hosed up, but so what?

People blow it all the time. It happens. It's how you bounce back from it that counts. You really need to understand what it was about this thingy that caused you to miss the deadline.

1. Did you screw around until the last minute?
2. Did you not get what you needed on time from someone?
3. Did you underestimate the work involved to complete it?
4. Was it ALWAYS too big a job and you couldn't cop to it?

It will help so much when you tell the client/commiteee/manager that you're missing the deadline if you can identify why, and explain what you plan on doing to correct the issue in the future.

"I'm calling to tell you that the X project is giving me more problems than I anticipated and that I won't be able to deliver it on the agreed upon time. I really underestimated the amount of time I'd need to complete the Frammistannie charts. Right now, I'm about 75% where I need to be. At this point, what do you need me to do? I can continue working on this and we can anticipate a delivery of Christmas, or I can give you what I have and you can see it you can reassign it to someone with more expertise in this area. I realize now I should have sent a flair up two weeks ago."

That is as much as you can do. LEARN from this, and don't repeat it. It's all anyone expects.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:42 AM on November 27, 2012

Tear the bandaid off. "Guys, I've got some bad news. The deadline is going to have to slip, Monday being the earliest I can commit to finish." Leave it at that and let them respond.
posted by rhizome at 9:50 AM on November 27, 2012

I think that you need to concentrate on the client rather than yourself. Instead of trying to figure out how you're going to bounce back, you need to tell them the truth and figure out a way to mitigate their stress and disaster. Worrying about how you're going to come off should be the bottom of the list. Make a plan for how to finish this, (more people? More time? More resources) and present it to the client. Yes, apologize, but groveling and throwing yourself on their mercy isn't professional.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:13 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been in your position. I nth the above plans, especially:

sit down for 5 minutes and think about what's left to be done in a cold, clinical way. Yes, it's not done. No, being histronic won't help. If it were a friend coming to you, what pieces of information would you want to know about the project and the incomplete portions? Write them down.

Come up with a quick plan of action. What needs to happen to complete the project? What are the options? Come up with 3 options that seem reasonable. Write them down.

Pick the best option. Put a star next to it.

Call an emergency meeting with your boss. This will suck, there's no getting around how much this will suck. It's ok. We're grownups and sometimes we have to do things that are really painful. This is one of them. Say, "Look, I just realized I can't get the project done by the deadline. I thought I could, but I can't. Here are our options. Here's what I think is the best option." And then let your boss think about it. If s/he is a decent boss, s/he's had something similar, either directly or on the team. There may be some ideas you haven't thought of, simply because you're exhausted. Or there may be team members who can help, who can minimize some of the damage.

But the key is, you really, really, really need to say something now.
posted by RogueTech at 10:13 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I forgot to add: The project I was working on was a multi million dollar project. I delivered a month late, and it required several coworkers to help me meet even that deadline. I wasn't fired, but I did end up leaving about 4 months later for another position, as it had permanently scarred my relationship with my team. It wasn't fun, but I did manage to recover and have used the lessons I learned from that failure many times. I'm usually on time or even a few days early with every project now. So you can - and will! - recover from this in the long term. You'll feel a lot better about yourself if you do the best you can to follow all the advice given above.
posted by RogueTech at 10:17 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

And, because nobody has mentioned it yet, absolutely get therapy for your procrastination. Make that appointment now. Procrastination is one way that you defeat yourself, and you indicate that you're not stopping procrastinating on your own. So get help stopping. This is a thing you can change about yourself, and therapy is a good way to change it.
posted by gauche at 10:19 AM on November 27, 2012

Blown deadlines happen. They are unprofessional.

Lying to clients, though, is more unprofessional by orders of magnitude.

Come clean. Maybe you'll get fired (it has happened to me, and I've also fired people for blowing deadlines) but I guarantee you that coming clean now will be better for your client than your sandbagging them at the delivery date.

One of the people who fired me for blowing a deadline has remained a valued professional contact who has steered other work my way. I doubt that would have happened if, instead of coming to her and saying, "I've been ill and I'm not going to make next month's deadline," I had lied to her and not given her the opportunity to bring other people in to salvage the project in a relatively timely way.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:03 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a project manager who has had deadlines blown on me, and had to blow a few of my own, over the years. The absolute worst is when I find out about it at the deadline itself. Barring some sort of accident or really unforeseen happening (like the client changing something at the last minute), anyone who's a pro knows how their work progress is going as they go along. So to come up at the very end short of the goal is really amateur-hour and unforgivable. You have to let them know as soon as possible, but given that you basically are running on less than fumes, I might take a couple of hours to get some sleep then first thing when you wake up evaluate the situation, provide notice of your upcoming deadline-meeting-failure and draft alternate plans/possible solutions/new course of action to offer.

1. Sleep. Whatever you say now will be done through a terrible haze and will make the situation worse.

2. Evaluate clearly and coldly; plan alternatives you can REASONABLY OFFER.

3. Notify your clients.

All of that should stil be done before the end of the day though.
posted by marylynn at 11:17 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Break the news now.

I recently had to ask for an extension on my first deadline as a contracted writer. I was in the same place of panic and stress that you are now. The minute I got over my anxiety and said something the stress began to lift--and I realized that the other professionals around me are on my side and want to help me create solid work in a timely manner. Really, they do not want to make things worse for you; they want the work done, too. Putting it off does no one any favors, least of all you.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:25 AM on November 27, 2012

Just chiming in as an editor, who has dealt with blown deadlines (from writers, designers, etc.) many times. The thing is, it happens; it's just one of the hazards of being in a project-driven profession. But sooner is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS better to know -- because it gives your colleagues/manager/editor/whomever more time to come up with contingency plans. The later you tell, the more likely it is that you've essentially limited their options without their consent, which is the part that always feels the most inconsiderate/unprofessional to me.

In other words: a blown deadline with adequate notice is generally much less of a big deal than the exact same blown deadline with inadequate notice. Get some sleep (if you haven't already) and let them know ASAP after that, with a realistic time frame for finishing. You'll immediately feel better and you can all get on board with figuring out a solution.
posted by scody at 2:24 PM on November 27, 2012

I imagine that the thing you feel worst about is not the blown deadline, but the fact you have been lying to important people about having it done already, and they are going to find out you lied.

That sucks.

I had to come clean about exactly that once, to someone who I really really respected, and who didn't know me well, but was an important possible contact for my future career. And then the one interaction we had was me admitting I hadn't been truthful about where I had been up to in the task I was completing for him.

It felt AWFUL. I sat on the couch and cried and cried when I realised I was going to have to tell him. Like you, I planned to put it off for a few more days until I couldn't put it off anymore. My husband told me not to. He said that if I told him now, I would feel the worst about the situation right now, and start feeling better about it from now on. If I postponed it, I would feel this bad until I told him, and only then start to feel better. And he was right.

But I still couldn't do it. My husband opened my email program for me, and put my hands on the keyboard, and dictated an email, which I typed and sent. And I did feel a little better right away.

And now? Several years later? I still remember how bad it felt, and I never did get to work with that guy again, and he probably still thinks badly of me. But I don't FEEL those bad feelings directly anymore. And since that guy was super important and I am not, he probably doesn't think of me often, if at all.

So that's my dealing-with-the-lying part of the story. Take from it what you will.

As for the deadline, the worst scenario I can imagine is that it is an external deadline, like for a grant funding body or government organisation, so it's all or nothing with regard to being on time. And again, the worst scenario I can imagine is that other people's careers hinge on you getting this thing in, so you are screwing over your colleagues and friends by not doing so. Hopefully this is NOT the situation, but if it is, then yeah, that is horrible.

The thing is, those of us who are used to having our careers in other people's hands assume we will be screwed over now and again. (I'm coming at this from an academic career where my continued employment is contigent on my superiors securing funding, putting in applications by deadlines, writing recommendation letters by deadlines, hell, just signing the right pieces of paper now and again.) I expect that people will miss these deadlines from time to time (even more often than not), and I usually try to have a back-up plan. When a professor claims he can secure a position for me through some funding agreement, I assume that he has either misunderstood the rules, or will screw me over in favour of someone else before signing the paperwork, or that he will forget to sign the papers entirely and the money will disappear. Because all of these things have happened. Yes, I get mad about it, but it's common enough that I don't go on a rampage or anything when I hear it happened. I just sigh and keep on with my own other strategies for finding work.

From the point of view of your higher-ups, this is not such a big deal for them. Because they can blame YOU. That should actually be reassuring. (Really). It is not going to hurt them all that much, because there are mechanisms in place for transferring blame, up to and including firing you. Which sucks, obviously. But people do find new jobs. The point is, the people below you who are affected by this will probably not (all) be surprised or totally screwed. And the people above you might be surprised, but they will be even less screwed.

Everything will be okay. Now sleep.
posted by lollusc at 4:59 PM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Absolutely don't wait to tell people. That's one way of upholding some credibility. It does happen, don't be so hard on yourself. The earlier you try to remedy something going bad, the better for everyone involved. To help credibility it the future, get some help now of finding a plan that works for you to absolutely not procrastinate on important projects (this experience could be the trigger you need). Keeping your credibility will be not letting it happen again. Find some books to help you, a therapist perhaps, or really make a serious consequence happen for yourself if you do end up putting off a deadline (this experience should be enough to scare you into really working on it). Figure out why though you would almost purposefully walk yourself to the guillotine. You knew the consequences would be bad, but yet you made them happen. Did you want them to happen? A fear of incapability that would be finally confirmed? Find out what's motivating you to set yourself up for things you don't want to have happen, there you can find out how to really change.
posted by readygo at 12:35 PM on November 28, 2012

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