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How to tackle ambiguous work tasks when you do not know where to start (2023)

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Do you ever feel overwhelmed at work to the point where you stop working altogether?

Or so stuck that you know you need help, but are afraid to ask for fear of looking like you are not qualified to be doing the work you are doing?

You are not alone.

83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress, with 25% saying their job is the number one stressor in their lives.

Facing ambiguous work tasks can often leave us feeling stuck and unsure of where to begin. The challenge lies in the uncertainty surrounding the end product, making it difficult to take that crucial first step.

This article will outline specific strategies you can use when approaching an ambiguous task at work.

What if the instructions provided are unclear or vague?

In such cases, it's perfectly acceptable to seek clarity. Approach your manager or a trusted colleague after making an effort to understand the task and test out a few ideas.

Pose your questions in a way that demonstrates your comprehension of some aspects while highlighting your uncertainty about specific details.

Instead of asking for the answer outright, inquire about guidance on how to navigate the situation.

For example, you might ask, "Should I pursue 'option 1' or 'option 2,' or I'm considering 'option 1,' but I'm not confident it will lead to a solution. What's your perspective?"

This approach will show your manager or colleague you have done the hard work of considering different options and would like their input, rather than expecting them to do the hard work of thinking through the process.

This approach can also improve your relationship with your manager and colleagues by showing them you value their input. This is known as "managing up" and is a method used by skilled and successful employees.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed at work?

  • Yes

  • No

How do I handle questions about future steps in the project?

One common hurdle is the nagging feeling that we must have answers to hypothetical questions that may arise in the future before we can start.

This self-imposed pressure can become paralyzing, preventing us from even taking the first step. The key here is to acknowledge these concerns but not allow them to derail our progress.

Put a pin in those questions, and if they do come up, deal with them at that point. You don't need all the answers from the start.

We suggest writing down these questions in one place, such as a Google Doc or Apple Note so that you can return to them after taking action on the project to evaluate if the questions still linger.

What if I do not know how to start?

Sometimes, the challenge lies in not knowing how to start at all. In these instances, breaking the task down into manageable chunks is a helpful approach.

Create a visual outline, dissecting the project into smaller, more digestible components. If you still find yourself unsure of where to begin, zoom in on the smallest step within your outline and break it down even further.

Whether it's composing an email, crafting the opening sentence, making a phone call, or outlining a spreadsheet, the initial step should be straightforward and manageable.

If you're still hesitant, set a timer for 30 minutes and dive into that first step. This timed approach provides a sense of how well you've dissected the task.

If you find yourself moving in the right direction after 30 minutes, you're on track.

If not, it's time to seek guidance from your manager or a colleague. Remember to share what you've already attempted; this demonstrates your proactive problem-solving efforts and ensures you don't revisit ideas you've already explored.

What if I feel too overwhelmed to start?

Feeling overwhelmed to the point of being unable to start is a common struggle. In such moments, employing positive self-talk can be a game-changer.

Remind yourself of past instances where you successfully tackled challenges and solved problems.

This is a common issue and many other people are dealing with it. According to Zippia:

About one million Americans miss work each day because of stress.

Additionally, practice mindful breathing techniques like the one used by Navy SEALs known as box breathing. This quick and effective method can help you stay calm and centered in the face of overwhelming tasks.


These techniques will allow you to confidently approach ambiguous work tasks. Collaborate with others, gather necessary resources, and break the project into manageable chunks.

Embrace the idea that sometimes, decisions must be made even without complete clarity. Each obstacle encountered presents an opportunity for learning and growth.

So, take that swing at it, and remember that the journey of problem-solving is just as important as the destination.

Stay engaged

About the author

Eric Kaufmann, M.Ed is a Professional Educational Therapist and Certified Executive Function Coach. He is the co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, an online adult executive function coaching company designed to guide adults in overcoming disorganization, procrastination, and productivity roadblocks so they can unlock their potential. Eric is also the founder of Elevate Learning Solutions, an Educational Therapy practice located in San Clemente, CA, that guides students with neurological differences toward becoming independent and confident students and self-leaders.

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Upskill Specialists was founded when two former special education teachers turned executive function coaches decided that adults need tools and coaching to improve their workplace skills and feel confident and empowered. Our mission is to ensure every adult with EF challenges has access to high-quality coaching services. 

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