What To Do When You Have No Idea How To Tackle A New Assignment

Your manager calls you into her office to discuss a new initiative—and its importance to the company. While she goes over the details, you smile and nod at the appropriate beats, but the whole time you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with me?” And then it hits you: Oh, no. She’s giving me the assignment?

Thing is, you have no idea how to tackle the project. None. This one is so far outside your wheelhouse, you’re not even sure you can bunt it, much less hit a home run.

new project

But You Can

Follow the steps below and you’ll be able to tackle any new task even if you begin with no idea how. Start with step one, and work your way up to six. When you’re done, start over, and over, and over… If you bring your skills, intelligence, and determination to every stage of the process, you won’t just succeed—you’ll develop as a professional and gain valuable expertise.

Step 1. Don’t Panic

When you panic, your heart rate increases and your adrenaline spikes, drowning your senses in an unappeasable urgency. Feeling rushed, you lose focus and become even more stressed. These feelings will prompt you to multitask in a bid to ease that sense of impending crisis. This, of course, does the opposite, leading to further panic, additional stress, and more fruitless multitasking.

So don’t panic.

Take a deep breath, go for a quick walk to shake off the jitters, and remind yourself that you will succeed.

Step 2. Start With Something Small

The project is impossibly large when you look at it as a whole, and you’re tempted to freeze. Prevent stalling by starting small and easy—send out an email, set up a meeting, or outline the broad strokes and ignore the detail work. Whatever you need to do to prevent procrastination and gather momentum, do it. 

Later on in the assignment, you’ll come across daunting components. Make them more manageable by breaking them into smaller steps and tackling them one at a time.

Step 3. Do Your Research

The chances are good someone, somewhere has tackled a similar task, so do your research and learn what you can. Ask around the office. Gather experience from former coworkers. Search for articles on the Internet or go to the library and find a book on the process.  

Even if the information you discover doesn’t relate to the exact same work, you’ll likely be able to connect what you’ve found to your own knowledge and devise a preliminary path forward.

Step 4. Try Something

Once you’ve done your research, try something. Anything. The point is to put your research to use, and just start. And if you just start, you’ll begin making headway. Will you fail? Maybe. Will you succeed? Maybe. Either way, you’ll be making progress thanks to the next step.

Step 5. Assess Your Work

Once you’ve tried something, stop and assess your work. Does it fit within the assignment’s objective? Does it meet that objective? Is it up to your standards? What did you do correctly? What could be improved?

This is a good time to gather feedback. An outsider’s perspective will unveil qualities in your work—both negative and positive—that you’re too close to see. Taking criticism—even constructive, helpful criticism—can be difficult, but don’t take it personally. Use it to improve.

Depending on what your assessment reveals, you’ll want to do one of the following.

Step 6a. Did You Fail? Try, Try Again

Don’t look at failure as, well, failure. Remember, you had no idea what you were doing at first. To even have work to assess shows incredible progress. The knowledge you’ve gained and the lessons you’ve learned qualify as successes you can build on. Jump back to step one and try again.

Step 6b. Did You Succeed? Celebrate!

Congratulations! Whether large or small, success builds on success. The more successes you earn, the more comfortable you’ll feel, and the more likely you are to succeed again. Acknowledge your achievement, pick a new part of the assignment, and jump back to step one.

Once you’ve completed the assignment, treat yourself. Grab a cup of coffee or an after-work drink, and take a moment to consider what you’ve accomplished. Is it perfect? Nope. But you had no idea what you were doing, and you managed to tackle the project despite your lack of expertise. And next time, you’ll be able to take this experience and these steps and triumph once again!

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