You just left your meeting with your boss, and your head is spinning. She assigned you to a new project and you feel super unclear about several aspects of it.
I’ve been here before—a lot. It’s not very fun. And while it’s ideal for supervisors to present their employees with all the necessary details from the start, it doesn’t always happen.
So because I hate feeling destined for failure, I’ve outlined four questions I always ask when I’m given a task with little to no instruction. Not only is it a great way to show initiative, but it makes the whole project a lot less painful.
There’s a very big difference between something due by the end of today and a deadline of “next month” or “by next year at this time.”
When I started my current gig, my director told me all the goals she had for our team and my position. I walked the five yards back to my office, looked at my list, and immediately put the pressure on myself to finish everything right now, ASAP, by the end of the day, or else!
When I finally expressed how overwhelmed I was to her, she clarified that, no, she didn’t expect me to be a miracle worker. Because while some things, like the “Safe Spring Break” event, needed to be completed by a certain date (like, um, before spring break), others had much more lenient timelines—or none at all.
You don’t want to assume it has to be done right this very moment and drop everything else to tackle it, nor do you want to operate under the assumption that it’s not urgent (because if it is—and you don’t finish it on time—well, that’s a problem. And awkward).
There very well could be people who’ve worked on this exact assignment before. You’ll want to know if there’s a certain place you should pick up, if there are methods they tried that didn’t work, or if they have any other helpful tips for you.
Furthermore, there may be individuals who you should be collaborating and splitting the workload with. You don’t need to take on every single assignment completely solo. (Because you don’t need to be a miracle worker, either!)
Lastly, it’ll help ensure you gain any approval needed. For example, if I’m told to provide a statement to the university paper about something in our office, I need to run it by the communications director before I make any sort of peep.
I know, I know—this seems snarky at first. But in no way do I intend for you to lace this question with sass. What I do intend is for you to ask your boss for the purpose of what she assigned you.
Not only do I think this can help you tie more value to the work you’re doing, but it can also provide important context that’ll help you decide which direction to steer in.
For instance, if I’m asked to plan a stress-management tips workshop and leave the room without asking the question, I’ll risk going about it the wrong way. Because if the targeted audience is undergraduate students, I’m most likely going to choose an evening time slot when most don’t have class. It’ll reference the typical stressors students face—balancing schedules for class, organizations, studying for finals, and so forth.
If it’s for the staff, though, I’ll schedule it during the typical of 9-to-5 workday and address topics such as dealing with an impossible coworker, work-life balance, taking care of the kids or an aging family member, etc.
If I don’t know who the program is for, it’s hard to make it relatable.
At the beginning of the fall semester, my manager asked me to assist with a student organization fair. I ensured some of our students signed up to work at the table and gathered all the materials.
And then, the day before, I had a slight freak out. Oh crap, I thought. I completely forgot to book the actual table for this event, and the scheduling system usually takes at least three days to confirm!
A few hours later, I learned my supervisor had already done that part. Phew! But if I’d known from the beginning which items were on her to-do list and which ones were on mine, I could have skipped the two hours of trying to bring down an extremely elevated heart rate.
Yes, as I mentioned before, it’s nice when your manager lays out everything for you from the get go. But here’s the thing: You may not have a great boss. And, even if you do, he’s probably not perfect, and he probably has a lot going on. It’s also part of your responsibility to be asking the right questions and to get as much information as possible. Setting yourself up for success is fun—I promise!—and these four questions will help you do so.