Learn faster! When and how to ask for help

When you’re just getting started on a new team, a new project, or a new job, you’re going to need to get up to speed quickly. Asking for help is one way to do it, but you might worry of bothering your coworkers too much. Plus, shouldn’t you be able to learn on your own?

Choosing the right balance and knowing when and how for help is a skill, and a skill you can learn. Once you’ve mastered this skill you will be able ask questions at the right time, and in the right way. In this post I’ll cover:

  • Some ways you shouldn’t ask for help.
  • When to ask for help, so that it’s neither too soon nor too late, by planning your task in advance.
  • How to ask for help in a way that will maximize your learning.

The wrong way to ask for help

There are two main failures when asking for help, asking too much and asking too little.

“Help help help”: You will of course have many questions when you’re learning a new codebase or a new technology. But if you’re asking your lead developer a question every 10 minutes, eventually you’re going to annoy them, since you’re impeding their ability to work. Plus, you’re probably not spending enough time learning on your own.

Instead of asking your questions one by one as they occur, write them all down. Then, when your local expert seems to have a free moment, or if it’s been a few hours since you last asked a question, go and ask them all your questions at once. This will be less intrusive, and chances are you will have figured out some of the answers on your own in the interim.

“I don’t want to ask for help!”: Asking for help can be embarrassing, it’s true. And trying to figure stuff out on your own can help you learn. But if you wait too long, or never ask for help, you’ll both learn less and end up spinning your wheels and wasting time.

So when exactly should you ask for help? We’ll cover that next.

Knowing when to ask for help with timeboxing

In order to know when to ask for help you need to do some advance planning. By knowing how long you have to spend on the task, and then setting a timebox, a limited amount of time to work on it on your own, you can have an alert (metaphorical or real) telling you “it’s been too long, time to ask for help.”

Here’s how the process works:

  1. Whenever you start on a new task, ask when it’s due. Your manager might say something like “we need that ready in a couple of days.”
  2. Now that you know your deadline, set a timebox, a limited amount of time that is less than your deadline. If your deadline is a day, you might set it to three hours.
  3. Now start your task. After you hit your timebox (e.g. three hours), see where you’re at: are you making good progress? Great, set another timebox and keep working. Not making progress? It’s time to ask for help.

If your deadline is one day, and you ask for help after three hours, you’ve not asked too late: there’s still time to finish the task. And you haven’t asked too soon, either, you’ve at least tried on your own.

Learning more when you’re asking for help

You’ve hit your timebox, and you’re asking for help: how do you get the most value out of your questions?

Always present a potential answer the question.

It doesn’t have to be the best answer, or the correct answer (if it were, you probably wouldn’t be asking for help, after all). But you should always say something like “my best guess is this works like this, because of X and Y, but I’m still a little confused - could you explain this?”

Providing an answer serves multiple purposes:

  1. It forces you to try to come up with an answer and learn more. Sometimes you’ll figure it out on your own!
  2. It helps your manager understand what you know and what you don’t, which means they’ll have an easier time helping you.
  3. As a nice side-effect, it demonstrates to your manager that you made an effort, making you look good.

Ask open-ended questions, not yes/no questions

Don’t ask questions like “Is this the right answer?” If your lead developer answers with “yes” or “no”, you’re only gaining 1 bit of information, the smallest amount of information possible. Instead, ask open ended questions where the answer involves some discussion:

  • “What would a good result look like?”
  • “Can you walk me through how this works?”
  • “Why is this solution not sufficient?”

This will allow you to get more information, and learn more faster.

How to ask for help: a recap

Here’s the short version:

  1. Do ask for help.
  2. Batch up your questions.
  3. Set a timebox on tasks, and ask for help if you hit the timebox and you’re still stuck.
  4. Always provide a potential answer.
  5. Ask open-ended questions.

Next time your manager gives you a task, apply these guidelines: you’ll learn more, and learn faster.

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