Different people and tasks may demand your attention in the workplace, at the same moment. Just imagine it: You are working on an important analysis, at the same time your phone rings, ten new emails have arrived to your inbox in the last twenty minutes (you’ve heard the notifications), and a manager comes to your desk, announcing an emergency team meeting. Your head spins and you do not know what you should do first, second, third, last…. Welcome to the life of a typical corporate white-collar.
Hiring managers may ask you about multitasking, prioritizing work, but they may also inquire about a situation when you actually didn’t finish the task. What do they want to hear from you in this case? And should you elaborate on the explanation of the situation? We will try to find the answers on the following lines.
Let’s start with 7 sample answers to the question. You will find on my list both examples from work and from outside of work, answers fitting for college graduates and answers more apt for seasoned professionals, and I tried to point out various situations from different workplaces. Pick one that resonates with the message you try to convey in the interviews, and adjust it to your own working experience. Once done with the answers, do not forget to read also my notes at the end of the article, to understand a few points you should keep on your mind while dealing with this one.
7 sample answers to “Tell me about a time when you had to leave a task unfinished” interview question
- I recall such a situation from my last corporate job. Working on an important report for the management, I got into the grove, focused on my task, limiting all distractions. But then my superior entered the office and called me for an emergency team meeting. Needless to say, I would love to finish the work on the report. It was an important one, and I was doing great. At the same time, however, emergency is an emergency, and I am a team player. I went to the meeting, it lasted more than an hour, but I tried to focus on it, not thinking about the unfinished report, and provided a couple of good insights. When the meeting was over I returned to the report and eventually finished it, staying overtime for two hours on the given day.
- There is one such task I regret to this day, exaggerating a little. Working is sales, I was trying to “bag an elephant” as they say, working on closing a deal with a big client. It was tough to even get a call with them, let alone a meeting, but I was persistent in my efforts, and invested a lot of time into making some connection and getting my foot in the door. Eventually I got the meeting with the big guy, but they had another supplier, and I could not convince them to replace them with us. Though I wanted badly to make that deal, I could not. I eventually had to let it go, because I had quarterly sales goals and could not spent any more time with that client. Sure enough, I wanted to get back to them later. But they say for a reason that you should strike the iron when it’s hot. The lead got colder without a regular contact, and eventually I lost it completely. I am not sure if I would do it differently if I had a another chance, because my first priority was to meet my quarterly goals…
- This is my first job application, but I can definitely recall such a situation from college, early years… I dreamed of getting to med school. Really devoted a lot of my time to pursue this dream, and worked hard to get some interviews. But I had one problem–pretty average GPA. I thought I would overcome it, for example with an excellent essay or great interviews. But I was wrong. At med schools, GPA plays a huge role, and unless you meet a certain threshold, you do not really have a chance. They may invite you for the interviews, but it is a mere formality. They will eventually reject you, and someone else will get in. It took me some time until I realized it, but I eventually did, and made an abrupt end to my vain attempts. I left this task unfinished, my dream unfulfilled. But I prefer not to think about it much anymore. I am here today, trying to get a great job with your corporation, and that’s the only thing that matters.
- The only job I had so far was a part time job with KFC, doing evening shifts and weekends, focusing primarily on my college studies during the day. In KFC you could not afford to leave a task unfinished. They have a process in place for everything, and each employee is supposed to follow these processes to the point. Only one time it happened. I was frying something, customers waiting. Then I spotted, in the corner of my vision, that one of my colleagues faded, falling to the ground in the middle of the shift. I immediately turned the gas off and left the cooker, rushing to help them. She came back to her senses quickly, but it turned out she was severely dehydrated, and we had to call an ambulance. Needless to say, human health should always have the first priority, and is a good enough reason to abandon any task.
- Perhaps the most fitting situation is from my personal life. I fell in love with one girl, and I wanted badly to have something with her. Trying all I could think of, I was pursuing the relationship with her. Many phone calls, messages, sending her roses to her job. But nothing seemed to work. She had another boyfriend and wasn’t interested. And then I simply decided to let it go. I realized that I gave it my best shot, did what I could. It did not work, and that was it. I accepted it and moved on. Currently I have another relationship, and I am actually happy that I left that one “task” unfinished.
- I was leading a small team of programmers and designers in my last job. We were working on a project of an innovative mobile app, one which should help with diagnosis of mental health issues. I really thought we were working on the next big thing, and I was incredibly excited. However, the project took longer than expected, and the budget extended considerably. One day the CEO called me to their office, and announced that they were stopping the project. Of course I protested. I did my best to persuade them, explaining that we’ve already spent a lot of resources on that app, the potential it had, and everything. But they’ve already made their mind, and I could not convince them. Hence I had to leave the task unfinished, and I eventually left the company. Sure enough, I still feel a bit of regret, because several people devoted nine months of their lives to the project. But we have to look forwards, not backwards. I cannot turn back the clock, and prefer to focus on new projects and challenges.
- This has never happened to me. Planning and time management is my greatest strength. And I got a free hand to organize my time at work. I always planned everything properly, had a to-do list for each day at work, with priorities assigned to each task on the list. Working according to it, I always finished the task before moving to a next one. And I believe it is the most efficient way of work, and would like to stick to it in my new job.
Look forward, focus on the future
Every one of us has left something unfinished in their life–be it a project, a relationship, a dream. But we cannot turn back the clock, and the last thing an employer wants from you is to always carry this thought in your had–what would be, if…
Regardless of the task you left unfinished, and the situation you narrate in your interview, ensure the hiring managers it is behind you now. You left the task unfinished, maybe you would do it differently another time, and you learned your lesson. But you do not want to dwell on the past. Looking forward to your job in their company, you focus on what’s ahead.
* Special Tip: This isn’t the only difficult question you will face while interviewing for any decent job. You will face questions about prioritization, dealing with pressure, using logic, and other tricky scenarios that happen in the workplace. If you want to make sure that you stand out with your answers and outclass your competitors, have a look at our Interview Success Package. Up to 10 premium answers to 31 tricky scenario based questions (+ more) will make your life much easier in the interviews. Thank you for checking it out!
Opportunity to demonstrate excellent time management skills
Many times it happens in an interview that you talk about one thing, and at a same time demonstrate certain skill or ability. This question is another opportunity to do so.
Talking about a task you left unfinished, you can explain your planning and prioritization (and why it failed, if it was your mistake). In some cases you can even risk saying it has never happened to you (check the last sample answer on my list), simply because you are an excellent planner and manager and don’t leave any tasks unfinished.
Do not be afraid to talk about your personal life
A situation from your personal life can sometimes demonstrates the point you try to demonstrate better than a situation from the workplace. What’s more, it is often easier for the hiring managers to identify with your message, and to envision the situation.
People sitting in the interviewing panel are men and women, just like me and you. They also have their personal lives, experience problems in relationships, and you can actually connect with them on a personal level while narrating such a situation in your interview. Do not be afraid to use such an example, especially if this is your first job application, or if you cannot recall any better example from the workplace…
Ready to answer this one? I hope so! Do not forget to check 7 sample answers to other tricky scenario-based questions you may face in your interview:
- Tell me about a time when you with you’d handled a situation differently with a colleague.
- Describe a situation when you missed a deadline.
- Give me an example of a time when you had to make a split-second decision.