You’ve been in your job for a little (or a long while) while, and it started out pretty well. You were accomplishing things left and right, learning the ropes. All was well. Then, maybe, there was a new process introduced, or you were given more, somewhat ambiguous responsibilities. Because you were doing so well before, you didn’t even think twice about it… until it became too late to ask someone, “What am I supposed to be doing, again?” Or until things started to go wrong. By then, the panic sets in. What am I supposed to do now? I have no idea what I’m doing.
Feeling like you have no idea what you’re doing, or that you’re irrevocably screwing up, is not an uncommon one. Everyone has had a moment—or a period of time—where they feel like they’re in over their heads. Anyone who claims they haven’t had that is either fibbing, or long overdue for a wakeup call. But just because everyone feels overwhelmed by tasks sometimes doesn’t mean you have to endure it or let things spiral out of control.
Am I An Impostor?
“Impostor syndrome” is the nagging feeling that although you have made it to a certain point, you’re not competent or smart enough to have made it to that point—that you stumbled into your job and your achievements accidentally. This kind of self-doubt is fairly common, especially at work. When things start to feel overwhelming, it can be natural to look for someone to blame—and who’s more accessible than yourself? That self doubt can lead to anxiety about being “found out” by others, who are every bit as competent and smooth as they appear to be.
For more on impostor syndrome:
So how do you cope when these feelings set in? Let’s look at some strategies for what you can do if it’s happening to you at work.
1. Understand that you’re not alone.
If you’ve messed up on a project or feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, it can feel like the spotlight is trained right on you and your comedy of errors. This will not be helped by the coworker who happens to be killing it right now—getting everything right, pulling down praise, and making it all look so easy. What you need to remember is that at one point, you were that coworker getting things right. And you will be again, too. Plus, Mr. Overachiever will have his bad days as well.
Nobody has every part of their job nailed down all the time—if you do, then that might actually be a bad sign, professionally. Everyone’s too busy worrying about their own stuff to judge you. And think about it this way: as hard as you work to keep your uncertainty and feelings of failure from others, you can assume they’re doing the same.
2. Don’t panic.
The realization that you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, or how to fix that, is a scary one. Don’t let it panic you, because panic leads to chronic second-guessing yourself, which distracts you from what actually needs to be done. It can also scare you away from finding logical solutions to your situation and make things even worse.
When you feel the downward confidence spiral start, it’s important to recognize that you feel helpless. Once you acknowledge that, you can try to take a step away and work out how to resolve the problem. If you let it go unchecked, you could keep piling mistakes upon mistakes (possibly endangering your job), or get so frustrated that you quit before you know whether you could have fixed things. Neither of these is a combination that leads to professional success or satisfaction. So acknowledging that overwhelming feeling is the most important step, because it can help stop the negative spiral.
3. See it as a challenge, not a dealbreaker.
While you’re stuck in “I have no idea what I’m doing” misery, it can be easy to forget that this is an obstacle, not the end of your career. An obstacle is something you can get around. And unless you’re a brain surgeon who finds herself in the operating room after having skipped all of the relevant classes on how to operate, no one will die because you are unsure of what you’re supposed to be doing.
4. Fake it ‘til you make it.
Mind you, this is not a long-term solution—if you don’t understand what’s going on and don’t do anything to resolve that, eventually someone else will catch on, fulfilling your impostor syndrome doomsday scenario. But if you’re feeling unsure of what you need to do or how to do it, or you know you’ll need more time to figure things out, it’s okay to stall a little. Negotiate a deadline. Use a vague, “I’m on it”-type confirmation. You don’t need to announce to everyone that you don’t have the first clue what you should do next; you can buy yourself some time to work out your next steps.
5. Admit it: “I don’t know.”
If everyone could do everything without guidance, no one would have a manager. Part of your boss’s job is to make sure that you have everything you need to do your own job. While you may be afraid to acknowledge that you don’t know what you’re doing, thinking that your boss will lose confidence in you or worse, it’s important to see your boss as a resource.
True, saying, “I have no idea what I’m doing” will not breed confidence, but you can frame it differently. Try, “I’m working on X, but I just need some clarification about the best approach. Can we talk through this?” More likely than not, your boss will appreciate your openness and your desire to work through a situation that’s challenging to you. He or she will also appreciate that you’re taking proactive steps to do things better. This isn’t a “gotcha” game; your boss is invested in you doing a good job.
6. Find an ally.
If you don’t feel comfortable taking your concerns to your boss or feel like it’s too late to play the “I just don’t know” card, try finding someone else who can help. Is your colleague a whiz at Excel who can teach you some tricks to get the info you need? Ask her. Is the person working next to you familiar with how to process orders? Pick his brain. Not only is your buddy’s information likely to help you fill in any gaps, but just talking it out can be useful. You may very well know more than you think you do, and a conversation on the topic might help you make connections that you didn’t realize were there. Plus, it helps with the “hey, maybe I’m not in this alone” factor.
There are some caveats here, though. You don’t want your chosen buddy to feel like they’re doing your job for you. Make sure they’re not busy with their own tasks when you want to talk. Also, don’t ping them constantly with questions, emails, or sit-down conversations. If you are really lost, try to limit your queries to one or two big ones per day, and try to do whatever you can to follow up and track down additional information on your own.
7. Ask specific questions.
Try to avoid a panicky, “What do I do?” Make sure your questions are specific enough to help you get to an answer. (“Why me?” is never going to be helpful either, trust me. I’ve tried it.) You want your asks to be constructive. Make sure you’ve identified the task or the goal, and what you think are the steps to get there—or at least the next steps. It’s okay to be wrong… that’s why you’re asking questions! But it’s important to have a base of what you think should be happening, if only so that you can correct those assumptions and replace them with correct information as you find it.
Here are some examples of specific questions:
- Is this urgent?
- What is the timeline?
- What do I need to achieve as an end result?
- What step do I think I need to take next?
These questions can help you figure out how much space you have to figure things out on your own—or if it’s urgent, whether you need to swallow your pride and get someone for emergency help. You’re likely to get better responses from people if you say, “Here’s what I believe needs to happen here—can you confirm?” as opposed to, “Tell me everything I need to do.”
8. Check in with others.
If you’ve gotten to the point where you feel like you have no clue what’s going on or what you’re supposed to do next, there was a miscommunication somewhere along the line. Either things weren’t communicated fully to you, or you didn’t make it clear that you didn’t understand everything that needed to happen. Either way, there’s no point in dwelling on mistakes or bad communication. All you can do is make sure that moving forward, everyone’s on the same page.
This might mean having brief meetings with everyone else involved in a project to make sure that you know what they’re doing, they know what you’re doing, and everyone understands The Plan. It might also just be a regular 10-minute chat with your boss (say, daily or weekly, depending on the timeline and urgency) to say, “Hey, here’s what I’ve done, here’s how I plan to handle it moving forward, am I heading in the right direction?” This regular, outside feedback can prevent you from feeling totally lost and adrift on your own.
These strategies can help you get through that panic moment, breathe again, and figure out how to fill in your knowledge gaps. And once you’ve stopped feeling like an impostor and worked out your battle plan for understanding what you need to do and then accomplishing it, you’ve overcome a challenge that can become a source of pride in your next job interview.
However, if you find that you’re often in the position of not knowing what to do or how to do your job, it may be time to consider that you’re not in the right job. This is not to say that you definitely can’t do the job, but rather that the skills and demands are a little too far outside your comfort zone and interest level. You want your job to be challenging, sure, but if it’s all challenges and stress, is this really something you want to be doing for the next year? Five years? Ten years? Constantly feeling confused and overwhelmed might be a big sign that you should find something that fits your skills better.
Your career should be about overcoming challenges, and not letting setbacks blow your confidence in your abilities. Even when things seem bleak, you’ve got the tools to work it out. You’re not an impostor, and you’ve got this!