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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How to Tackle Something You Have No Idea How to Do


My career has been filled with daunting tasks.

I graduated with a degree in the all-too-general category of business, which didn’t exactly prepare me for any one specific industry. So, when I settled into a career with a healthcare technology company—knowing absolutely nothing about healthcare or technology—I was faced with a tough gig.

My boss would pull me into her office and rush through my next assignment: “Listen, I need you to reconcile our 10 biggest clients’ lists of providers with their billing before we switch to the new accounting software.”

I’d nod and take notes, but inside, my stomach was turning over with a mixture of fear and frustration. I don’t even know where to start, I’d scowl. How does she expect me to do this?

But the thing is, regardless of whether you know how to do something or not, it’s part of your job to make sure it gets done. You won’t always be able to get formal company training, and often, your boss won’t be able to guide you through the task step-by-step; it’s up to you to figure out how to see it through.

After a good deal of frustration, I eventually learned how to take that completely overwhelmed feeling and turn it into something productive. Here’s how.

1. Get Rid of Your Negative Outlook

When you’re tasked with something new and difficult, your first thought is likely, “I can’t do this.” I’ve been there. I’ve sat at my desk with my head in my hands, going through all the stages of an impossible project, from bewilderment (“There’s no way my boss really expects me to do this”) to denial (“This must have been a mistake—I don’t really have to do this”) to all-out refusal (“I’ll just tell my boss to give this project to someone else”).

Eventually, though, you realize that you do, in fact, have to do it—and the sooner you get started, the better. So, kick the negativity, and try to approach the project with the attitude that you’re going to use the task to gain skills, make new connections, and prove to your boss that you’re up for anything.

2. Start With a Small Step

I’ve learned that the best first step for tackling a seemingly impossible project is to tackle a small portion of the task (and I mean a very, very, ridiculously minute detail).

For example, when I was tasked with the provider reconciliation project, my first step was simply hitting the send button on a conference call invite to one of my remote teammates to discuss the task. It wasn’t a critical meeting with any of the big players on the project, but it was locked in on my calendar, and it gave me a starting point.

Whether it’s creating the bare bones of a spreadsheet you’ll use or looking up the phone number of a contact you need to get in touch with, just start. It may seem insignificant at first, but by the end of the day, you’ll be further along than you’d be if you’d just kept telling yourself that you couldn’t do it.

3. Gather Information and Resources

Now that you’re committed, it’s time to dig in and face the reality of the situation: You may not have all the tools or knowledge you need to actually complete the project. But that’s OK—you just have to track them down.

Sometimes it’s as easy as finding a knowledgeable colleague and asking if he can help you with the task or if you can pick her brain to learn how to do it yourself. Other times, you’ll need to recruit an employee to contribute directly to the project or ask for an introduction to, say, someone in the accounting department to get insight into the billing system or a business analyst who can help you develop a report that will give you the information you need.

Whatever or whoever it is, reach out and start asking for what you need. Once you take the initiative, you’ll typically find that people are willing to help and resources are available. And leaning on that knowledge is a much better alternative than trying to do it all on your own.

4. Take a Whack at It

Soon, you’ll come to a point where there’s no more preparation (or procrastination) that you can do; you’ve tracked down resources, scheduled introductory meetings, and prepped your materials.

You may still feel insecure about leaping into an unfamiliar task, but while the threat of failure is looming, there’s nothing you can do except to go for it.

Really, there are only two things that can happen: Either everything will go as planned and you’ll have an accomplishment under your belt, or you won’t quite get it on the first try and can move on to step five.

5. Assess and Repeat

After you’ve made a first attempt, you have an even more valuable tool available to you: feedback from your boss and colleagues.

Once you’ve done something—anything—your teammates will be able to take a look at your progress so far and may be able to pinpoint where you went wrong or where you could approach the project or task differently.

Even if you stump the rest of the team and have to approach your boss with your less-than-stellar attempt, bringing something to your boss will show more initiative and drive to succeed than if you’d simply protested the project from the beginning. And likely, he or she will be able to point you in a new direction.

Being tasked with an unfamiliar project can be incredibly daunting, but when you approach it with a positive attitude and a well thought out strategy, it’s much more doable than you think. Take it from me.