Some professional duties are straightforward. We know what needs to be done, who needs to do it, and when:

  • deliver a status update at next week’s board meeting
  • plan a gala for October
  • teach three sections of Accounting 101 next semester
  • give a presentation at an annual conference

Tasks and projects like this make up the bulk of our work. They may not be easy to complete, but at least we’re more or less clear on what we need to be doing.

But some work tasks—especially those handed down from the boss—are all kinds of vague, and this can cause problems.

  • “Think about ways we could meet our clients’ needs better.”
  • “Streamline our department’s process for dealing with vendors.”
  • “Get back to me with recommendations for improving our internal processes.”

Requests like these are notoriously hard to fulfill. We’re not sure exactly what we’re supposed to be doing or when it needs to be done, so we tend to sit on these tasks for days, weeks, and months, feeling guilty and unproductive.

For the times when you’ve got vague, amorphous projects clogging up your to-do list, I offer three tips!

1. Make sure it needs to be done in the first place.

Often, vague long-term projects don’t really need to be done at all—that’s why they’re vague and long-term.

Now, if your boss told you to do it, well, you probably have no choice (though it may be appropriate to delegate). But maybe your boss mentioned the project casually a few weeks ago and you’re not sure she still needs the information. Or what if it’s a self-directed work project that’s been sitting on your to-do list for months or years?

Make sure things haven’t changed and that this project still needs to be done. Uncertainty on this point is a major point of work procrastination.

Assuming the project is still on your plate, there’s something you’ve got to decide before you go any further.

2. Decide what “done” looks like

If the project needs to be done, the next step is to figure out what done looks like.

It is amazing how many people skip this step, which creates much more work later. It’s worth taking the time at the beginning of a project to ask ourselves “What exactly am I trying to do here?”

Picture the end result in great detail. Are you trying to produce a document? What questions does it need to address? Roughly how long will it be? Or do you need to gather and interpret data, sharing your findings in a short presentation? Maybe all that’s needed is a well-crafted email explaining the pros and cons of various courses of action.

Whatever’s the situation, take a few minutes to do some focused thinking about what “done” looks like. From there, you can break the project down into manageable bites.

Now, all that’s left is to make sure you actually do it.

3. Commit to a due date

Never underestimate the power of due dates. If a project has no deadline, it is much less likely to get done. It’s that simple.

You’ve seen Law and Order, right? When someone’s arrested and read their rights, they’re always told, “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” Treat due dates like this. If a project doesn’t have a real deadline, you’ll need to provide one. And this is easy to do: just choose a reasonable due date and tell your boss you’ll have it finished by that date.

“But what if I can’t make that deadline?” No worries—if something critically important comes up, you can always let your boss know you’ll need a couple more days/weeks on this project. Rather than think you’re a flake, he’ll appreciate your commitment to the work he’s given you.

Keeping these three tips in mind will help you maintain forward momentum in your work life as you dispatch vague projects with ease!