What to do when you’re given a complex task… And then you PANIC

Estimated reading time: 4 mins

Your boss asks you to do something big and complex. You stare back like a rabbit caught in headlights. Your brain is whirring… But not taking anything in. Your heart rate increases. You feel a sense of anxiety and panic.

If this happens to you, don’t worry. It happens to many people, including myself. This could be due to my psychological makeup or a hang up from a past event. There are many possible explanations of why this happens to us, from tiredness to Asperger’s Syndrome, and it is very real for us when it happens.

What is happening? The anxiety sets in when we begin to perceive that our understanding of what is being asked of us is poor. It may be that we can’t visualize the problem, or a solution. It may be because we immediately believe we can’t do what is being asked of us, which will expose us. We escalate to panic when we begin to believe that we won’t remember the brief we are being given or know where to start. We very quickly jump to a vulnerable state of mind, and try and avoid or abdicate the problem altogether to somebody else. (Which has the consequential effect of us then feeling useless – further exacerbating any anxiety problems.)

We can quickly descend into a state of complete disorientation and inactivity, and we look for an escape route.

Is there a way through the panic?

Yes. For years,I thought the answer was No. In my early career, I thought that I must be stupid or scared to respond like this. I considered myself incapable of taking on complex tasks and big jobs. Even when my career was escalating beyond my peer group (which I attributed to luck rather than my effort). I would beat myself up endlessly, and I had long, sleepless nights and, sometimes, bouts of depression.

It took a long while for me to understand and accept that this reaction was something I could overcome, and was a temporary effect. I didn’t have a mentor that could see through this problem for me, so I had to work it out for myself.

Over the years, I have learned a coping mechanism that has meant that these situations have a much lesser impact:

  1. First and foremost is to recognize this is happening and that this is a natural response for me.
  2. Then I record what is being asked of me by writing it down. This helps me stop worrying that I will forget everything I am being asked to do. If the brief is being rattled off by my boss, I ask for time to understand and explain that I want to ensure I have received it properly.
  3. After that, I will ask my boss what the output is, i.e. what does success look like? This might be a report, or a decision, or simply a conversation. This helps me work back from the output to identify what I will need to do to get there. If I am not clear on something, I ask, even if my questions would sound dumb (which, by the way, they never actually do)
  4. Before work begins, I will suggest a checkpoint with my boss. This is so that I can get validation that I am going in the right thing direction and allow for a course correction.
  5. Then I go off and start work on the task, checking back at the agreed point.

I use this mechanism no matter what the job is, whatever my role is. I feel that no job is too big, no boss is too busy or impatient and no ego is worth preserving, in favor of coping with the anxiety. This is what I have learned to do.

However, this isn’t a magic formula for everyone. For severe anxiety and panic attacks, this will not work, and I recommend taking professional help. Anxiety disorders are serious, but not always recognized. There are therapies available to address these disorders, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I am not an expert, or even an amateur, in this field so I advise seeking appropriate support.

Here are a few links that could give you a starting point:




Do you panic when you’re given a big and complex task? Do you beat yourself up and tell yourself you can’t do it, even before you have really looked at what you’re being asked to do? Give my coping mechanism a go. And don’t, whatever you do, feel that you’re stupid, useless or inadequate. Ask for help, ask for guidance and accept that anxiety and panic are natural responses for you, and that this feeling is temporary.

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