How Quickly Is Quickly?

We all have been asked to do something quickly. It sounds like a simple sentence. Alright, I’ll do it quickly. But when you stop to think about it, what does quickly actually mean. To me quickly means something from five to ten minutes. I have a feeling that to you it is something else entirely.

I asked from a few developer friends for an opinion. One of them sees quickly as a synonym to as soon as possible. Another considers quickly to be within a day. If you want him to do something within an hour, you should use “now” instead, he told me. The third wrote to me that quickly happens in the next few hours.

The way we perceive time differs quite a lot. The concept of time is not same to all of us and if you have a little time or a lot of time in your hands, it affects how we see our time. The meaning of quickly is also dependent on the situation and the one asking. So is the meaning of a lot of other common words that describe time.

I once dated a very mathematical guy and we were discussing about having children. He said that it’s not in his plans for the near future but that he does want to become a father eventually. I was baffled at first, we weren’t teenagers then. But luckily I realized to ask what does near future mean to him. His was two years. Mine was ten.

“What does quickly mean to you?”

It seems quite silly to ask, what does quickly mean. Doesn’t a child know that quick is quick. Put your pants on quickly so we can run to the bus on time. There’s no point in dragging one’s feet then.

But then we grow up and we start multitasking. We have thousand and one things to do at the same time. Others try to change our priorities with the sense of urgency. If you cannot do the task that’s been asked from you immediately, it is really important to ask what the other person means by quickly.

And if it is you that’s doing the asking, there’s a good reason to replace quickly with a bit more specific time frame. Such as within half an hour, before noon, today, by Wednesday, before weekend.

What about asap?

Of course you can stress the urgency of the task with “as soon as possible” but even then the request should contain some kind of deadline: “but at least before noon”. Otherwise it’s not possible for the other to reply, if you’re asking something impossible. If your request is simply “quickly” or “as soon as possible” we tend to say okay to that.

There will be time to do this eventually for sure. Just not necessarily quite as fast as you had wanted.

Sometimes the case is that the one making the request has no idea how big of a thing the task is. The possibility of doing something quickly is strongly related to how much time one needs to carve from the already tight schedule to perform it. If I think I’m asking you to do a five minute job “as soon as possible” I suspect to get it within few hours.

But if in fact it takes two hours to finish the task, the schedule is impossible to begin with. This will become visible only if I tell you how quickly I suspect the job to be done. If I ask you to do a two hour job in one hour you can set me straight right away.

Agile software development makes us to define the definition of done. It is just as important to define a whole bunch of common words that have a different meaning depending on the person and the situation. In addition to done and quickly we should define at least “much” and “well”.

But what else?

TL; DR Why do we need to define what does quickly mean?

  • People have different definitions for and understanding of time measures. What quickly means to me is not the same what it means to you.
  • Without a more specific deadline it is impossible to evaluate whether the task can be done as quickly as the one making the request is hoping for.
  • So ask directly: “What does quickly mean for you / in this case?”

Or what do you think?

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